Tips for Multi-generational Living


An interview with Dr. Susan Newman

I recently moved back in with my parents — with my husband and two young children. Although this is a temporary living situation for us, there’s a huge trend of multi-generational living within the United States. In fact, big building companies are designing homes with a “bonus room” specifically anticipating family members moving in together.  According to the US Census Bureau for 2009-2011 data, out of the 76 million households in the United States, 4.3 million of them were multi-generational.  The Census Bureau defines multi-generational living as those homes consisting of three or more generations.  Of those multi-generational households, over 64% of those have grandchildren.  Dr. Susan Newman, Ph.D., author of Under One Roof Again: All Grown Up and (Re)learning to Live Together Happily discusses how to successfully navigate the challenges and find joy in multi-generational living. – Erin Janda Rawlings, Mommy on the Spot, TMC Contributing Writer

Before moving back in with your parents, what kind of conversation should be had to aid in the smoothest transition as possible?

The family should discuss physical space, money (how are adult children contributing?) and who has what jobs.  If you make a list of jobs and responsibilities and put it out there for all the family members and pick what they like, it works out fairly evenly.  Some people like to cook and clean bathrooms.  That makes the circumstances less contentious.  These seem like little things, but they are the issues that create a lot of tension within the family.  It’s important to have an initial conversation to create a policy to avoid someone becoming so angry they’re bubbling over.  No one is a mind reader; say what you need or want or what has to change.  Have a family meeting on a regular basis.

It’s crucial to develop an exit plan.  Even if you don’t stick to the plan, it gives everyone in the family a point of reference. It changes dynamics and affects behavior: This isn’t forever, we are only doing this for a year, six months.  Although the adult child may not have saved enough or closed on the house by the pre-determined date, the exit plan still focuses on the finite amount of time together.

What kind of boundaries and expectations are reasonable to set for both the adult children, and their parents?

Adult children with families should not expect more from their parents as grandparents than what  they did as parents.  If your parents didn’t go to your Little League games, don’t expect them to go to your child’s games.  Also, parents should not expect more from their adult children than they did years ago.  Behaviors are not going to change that much, so look at the positives of parents or adult child.  If your mother helps you put away the groceries and you can never find the paper towels, don’t get upset.   She is trying to be helpful.

How can the grandparents and parents maintain a good marriage while the families share space?

This is a problem for a lot of people because adult children feel responsible for their parents.  Parents feel responsible for their adult children and can slip back into the role of mom and dad.

It’s critical to ask for time alone.  It’s easy to fall into a trap of doing everything together.  If you move into a new neighborhood, find a way to build your own social life.  Keep up your own social life and schedule so no one feels burdened.  Create a situation so no one feels like they have to entertain each other.

How can the parents and grandparents avoid conflict when their parenting and discipline choices are different?

For adult children, don’t take advantage of a good thing, listen to what your parents are saying about your child and admit when you’re wrong and a grandparent is correct about something pertaining to your child.  Also speak favorably about grandparents in front of your children and don’t be jealous of the time your children are spending with their grandparents.

As for grandparents, they need to remember that they had their chance to parent; it is now their child’s chance to parent.  Grandparents need to respect parents’ choices about bedtimes, food allergies, and discipline – don’t undermine the parents. Don’t try and fix the grandchildren’s problems, let their parents work them out.  But, grandparents should never underestimate their contributions – they are needed!

How heavily  or lightly should the parents rely on the grandparents to look after their grandchildren?

This is tricky because from the time we we’re little kids, our parents took care of us, so we can take their help for granted.  A good thing to do is to ask if what you’re asking is too much.  It’s easy to get into a pattern of expecting a grandparent to go to the cold and rainy soccer game.  Some grandparents might have a tough time saying “no.” Adult parents need to be vigilant and watch for signs because many grandparents will not admit if they are struggling – when grandparents go to bed  at 8:30, it may be because of too many grandparent duties.

As adult children, how do you avoid falling back into old childhood dynamics?

Adult children moving back need to know they didn’t fail.  Times are tough and jobs are hard to come by.  Giving up any guilt about moving back in will help avoid the old dynamics.

Recognize that you’re not the same person who lived there x amount of years ago and that you’re an adult.  Slipping back into mommy/daddy/child roles (which usually have negative patterns) is the biggest problem for adult children who move back home.

Refuse to engage in any conversations that make you angry (hair, weight, religion, social life).  You can say, “I’m an adult, Mom, and when you bring this topic up, I feel as if you are judging me and I can’t make my own decisions.  But that’s not true because I’m an adult now.  I know I was a difficult teenager, and I’m sorry.  This is a different time and I’m a responsible person.”

Another major point is to give the arrangement time.  Know it won’t be immediately ideal and don’t expect it to be perfect the day you move in.  After a certain period of time, see parents as people not as parents, something you can’t do when you’re growing up.  You can learn surprising things about your parents and build a bond for your children. Grandchildren can see family history, learn from their grandparents and build traditions.

What are the benefits of living in a multi-generational home?

Adult children can see their parents as people and discover similarities and differences, particularly between grandparents and grandchildren.  Perhaps there’s a musical grandparent who played the saxophone in high school and you didn’t know it, but it explains the musical talent of your child.

You also get a chance to see a link to temperament which is the kind of thing you don’t see if you only see grandparents at holidays.

Many grandparents have the luxury of time and can also teach their grandchildren a lot of things parents don’t have time to teach. Going outside for a nature walk and looking at leaves, exploring, building birdhouses and baking cookies — such activities build loving bonds, and make lasting impressions.

Susan Newman, Ph.D. is a social psychologist who is a best seller author focusing on family-centric topics such as creating strong family bonds, multi-generational living, and raising only children.  She also blogs for Psychology Today and has been featured in The Huffington Post, Babble, and Web.Md.  She also has appeared on other websites including Ladies Home Journal, The Washington Post, and the New York Times.  Her new book, Under One Roof Again: All Grown Up and (Re)learning to Live Together Happily, focuses on how to live happily in a multi-generational home.

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