Our grown-up daughter is making us miserable

Angry woman working on computeQUESTION: We need help in dealing with our 20-year-old daughter who is still very rebellious at home. She is in full-time education and we can’t afford to pay for her to live out of home. She can be disrespectful and moody and takes no part in family life (we have two younger children) and treats the house like a hotel. I think things have become particularly difficult recently as she is drinking more and is often nursing a hangover during the weekend.

When we try to tackle her on the issues, she explodes and says she is an adult and we have no right to tell her what to do. I am not sure how to respond. Many of my friends say I should just tell her to leave but it would cost us more to set her up in accommodation while she is attending college.

I feel very miserable about it and I am worrying about the effect on the younger children.

When I deliver talks about managing teenagers, many parents describe to me how they are having ongoing problems with their adult children living at home. Their now grown-up children are continuing to be disruptive or challenging, but they feel less empowered about insisting on rules in the same way as when they were younger.

These adult children are often less connected to the family (treating the home as a “hotel”, as you say) and even displaying more serious problems such as drinking, and so on, which were not present when they were younger.

Whereas many people offer the simple advice that they should insist the adult child leave, this may not be easy, particularly when the child is still dependent, financially and otherwise, on the parent.

In these situations there may be opportunities for achieving a more constructive middle ground.

You have a right to insist on rules
First, it is important to realise that you have a right and a responsibility to insist on reasonable rules once your daughter lives at home. Though she is an adult and living her own life, it is still reasonable that she is expected to be respectful, to pull her weight (for example, by doing some chores) and to participate to some degree in family life as long as she stays at home.

You have a responsibility (as does she, as an older sister) for her younger siblings not to be exposed to problem behaviours and it is certainly not okay for her to be drunk at home.

Though you can be kind and compassionate towards her, it is important to realise that the rules you are asking to be kept are reasonable and normal, and of benefit to her as well as to everyone else.

Try to understand your daughter
It is also helpful to try to understand what might be going on with your daughter. It sounds as if she might be unhappy in college or in other parts of her life.

Do you have a sense of what might be troubling her or what is on her mind? Is she struggling with her course or finding it hard to fit in? Or is something else going on?

Her drinking is a worry, both for her and because of the mood changes it can visit upon everyone else. It is helpful to start by first being empathic and understanding towards her.

Start a conversation with your daughter
Think how best you can open a constructive conversation with your daughter about all these issues. Perhaps you could try to raise issues when you are alone together, for example, going on a long journey somewhere. Or perhaps you could alert her that you need to talk and then ask her to pick a time.

Try to start by listening first: ask her how things are going for her and how she is finding things at home. Try to help her talk, and listen carefully.

Next, be clear about your concerns and what you need from her. You could say something like: “I’m worried that you seem unhappy”; or “We need you to be more respectful at home”; or, “I’m worried about your drinking, especially in front of your sisters”; or, “We need you to help out more at home.”

Finally, try to explore solutions, compromises or ways forward that might make you all happy.

Remember, it may take several conversations to make progress. You may find it helpful to seek some support either for yourself (see parentline.ie), or your daughter might seek support elsewhere (for example, through student counselling).

Be prepared to use consequences if necessary
Just like with younger teenagers it can be helpful to make some of the privileges your daughter gains by living at home dependent on her being respectful and reasonable.

For example, you could say: “We can give you your allowance for your phone only if you are respectful at home”; or “We will have a dinner ready only if you are home in time for it”; or, “We can support you getting to college only if you pull your weight at home.

You do of course have the big consequence of asking her to leave if problems persist, and I understand your reluctance to employ this, but it is something you can consider down the line.

Try to frame this choice she has positively by saying, for example, “Come on, you know you have to be polite/meet us halfway if you want to continue to live at home.”

Keep the lines of communication open
Try to reach out and improve your relationship with your daughter. Are there times when you get on better, or when you have a good chat (albeit about daily ordinary things)? Are there ways you could perhaps set more of these times up during the week?

Perhaps you could help her with something, do an activity or take her on a trip which would give you time alone to talk to each other. The better you are getting on with her, the easier it will be to tackle the big issues above.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times Newspaper, February 2015.
John writes in The Irish Times Health+ every Tuesday.