After living on my own for more than a decade, I’m now back in the pink bedroom outfitted with the decor I picked out when I was 14. “Privacy” is no longer a thing (my mom has crashed many Well+Good meetings with “urgent emergencies,” like needing help figuring out how to turn on her computer or picking out sweaters for our pandemic puppies), and my new “roommate” insists on doing everything for me the same way she did when I lived under her roof the first time, like cooking me breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and doing my laundry. And—because I think it’s worth repeating—I am endlessly grateful. But I spent all of my 20s learning how to successfully #adult, and now that I’m back under my mom’s roof at age 30, it feels like I’ve mentally traveled back in time, and have reverted to behaving exactly like my teenaged self.
The pandemic has forced a staggering number of adults into my exact same situation. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center in July 2020 found that 52 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 29 were living at home with their parents, which is the highest number since the great depression. According to Seth Gillihan, PhD, a clinical psychologist and the head of therapy for Bloom, it makes sense that many of us are struggling to maintain our adult identities.
“You go home, and you fall back into the old patterns, habits, and ways of communicating that you had when you were a kid,” he says. “And a lot of it has to do with the cues—like being in the same house or bedroom that you grew up in—and if we’re not mindful of what we’re doing, it’s easy to be driven by a stimulus response. Subconsciously, you think, ‘I’m in this house now, well how do I behave in this setting? I expect to be fed, for other people to do the chores, I feel like a kid and I see these people as authority figures and feel like I don’t have control.’ And without conscious attention, we can end up feeling and acting like the younger versions of ourselves at the age we were when we left home.” This, I gather, could explain why my mom and I are having some of the exact same fights we had when I was 16, and why I’m suddenly okay with her folding my lacy thongs.
While visiting home even for a short period has the potential to turn you into a “Back Home Baller” (please, watch the video), living there, during a pandemic no less, makes it nearly impossible to avoid. And while getting a fresh set of towels every week is great, the realities of the situation can start to weigh on you. Everyone is home all the time, which means there’s no privacy, you can’t safely go out to take space when you need it, and you have absolutely no idea when you’re leaving, which can quickly make you feel like you have absolutely no control over your life—a theme that’s come up in every single one of my therapy sessions for the last 48 weeks.
“There’s kind of an irony here, because it’s hard to feel at home, even if you’re in your childhood house,” says Dr. Gillihan. “Whether or not it’s real, there’s a fear or perception of being scrutinized in some way. You wonder if the people in the house are judging how much you’re drinking, how much TV you’re watching, or how you’re choosing to spend your time, and that can be a constant low-grade source of stress that further sets up the parent/child dynamic.”
So how, exactly, are you supposed to feel like an adult when literally everything in your life is trying to convince you otherwise? “The best way to recapture our sense of being an adult is to act like an adult,” says Dr. Gillihan. Read on for his tips on how to do exactly that.
A psychologist’s tips for adults living at home
1. Set boundaries
If you’re an adult living at home, “boundaries” should be the most important word in your vocabulary. “The most effective way to set boundaries is collaboratively,” says Dr. Gillihan. “Start with everyone involved putting their issues out on the table and explaining what the experience has been like for them, and really listen to what the other people are saying. Then express what your boundaries are as kindly, directly, and firmly as possible with the understanding that they’re going to be respected.” You could also try things my way and shout “BOUNDARIES” at your mom every time she bursts in on me in the shower or starts talking about her sex life, but that has proven to be unsuccessful thus far.
2. Make the space you’re living in your own
Real talk: The twin bed, pink wallpaper and N*SYNC posters I loved in the early 2000s don’t quite make for an ideal living and working setup now that I’m an adult. If you’re an adult living at home for a long period of time, Dr. Gillihan recommends doing what you can to make it feel more like what the 2021 version of you would want to live in. ‘If you’re back in your childhood room, there might be a lot of the effects you had the you were a younger kid, or it’s just not setup in the way you’d want it to be and you just sort of fall into it,” he says. “If you’re going to be there for a while, make the space work for you.” This could be as simple as scenting the room with a candle that reminds you you’re a grownup (every time I light up Boy Smells’ LES, I’m instantly transported back to New York City), or going all in on a DIY home makeover (as long as your parents approve).
3. Participate in the responsibilities of the house
Nothing can quite make you feel like a pre-pubescent kid again than being asked to clean up your room or set the table, so Dr. Gillihan suggests being proactive in order to avoid that situation altogether. “Have the conversation with your family about what chores would make sense for you to be responsible for, and do those chores before you’re asked to do it,” he says. Cleaning up after yourself is literally the simplest thing you can do, but it will make a world of difference.
4. Choose your “adult” activities
When you’re living under someone else’s roof, you wind up making far fewer autonomous decisions each day than you would if you were living on your own—which you may not even realize until you’re yelling at your poor mother to please, for the love of God, let you cook your own dinner. The way around this, says Dr. Gillihan, is to integrate certain “adult” activities into your daily routine in order to give you some sense of normalcy. “Take inventory of what your day was like before you started living at home, figure out how many of the decisions you’ve had to sacrifice by moving home, and decide how many of them you can recoup,” he says. “Cooking dinner, doing your laundry, and cleaning up after yourself are all great ways to do that.”
5. Be proactive with self care
No matter where you’ve spent the pandemic, self-care should be a non-negotiable. But when you’re living at home, it serves the added benefit of allowing you to maintain some sense of self in an environment that otherwise feels largely out of your control. “Be proactive with your self-care, and find good ways to take care of yourself each day,” says Dr. Gillihan. “Eat responsibly, be careful about how much you drink, and try to spend time with people outside of your household in whatever way is safe and possible.” These moments might be the only “me time” you get all day, and it’s important to work them in whenever possible. The good news? All that time you used to spend cooking dinner or doing laundry can now be dedicated to meditating (or, if you’re me, watching trash TV) instead.
6. Remember that you’re in this situation for a reason
Whether you moved home for the sake of saving money, to take care of a parent who needs you, or because it was the safest place to hunker down, chances are there’s a good reason why you wound up living at home in the first place. Whenever things get tough, remember that. “Try to accept that feeling like a kid might actually be the adult thing to do right now,” says Dr. Gillihan.
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