New Syndrome Defined: Grown-up Kids Who Won't Leave Home

Psychologist Prof. Haim Omer describes the world-wide phenomenon of a dependence on parents that doesn't stop.

For the past few years you’ve been dealing with a new social phenomenon, which you call “entitled dependence.” What are you referring to?

In the course of our work in the clinic, my colleague – the psychologist Dan Dolberger – and I noticed an intriguing phenomenon. It wasn’t just parents of adolescents who were coming to us, but also parents whose children are in their 20s and 30s, with problems very similar to those of adolescents.

You recognized this as a syndrome.

Yes. We started to investigate the phenomenon in depth and formulated the term “entitled dependence.” We discovered that this is a worldwide phenomenon. Instead of leaving home to embark on an independent life, young adults remain dependent on their parents, not only asking for but actually demanding benefits from them.

In many countries, the phenomenon is so widespread that new terms have developed to describe it: bamboccioni [literally, big babies] in Italy, [living at] “hotel mama” in Germany, boomerang children in Australia, parasaito shinguru [single parasite] in Japan. These young men and women don’t leave home and don’t get married, because they only want to buy brand names and enjoy themselves and to live, as an ideology, at their parents’ expense. It’s nothing less than a pandemic.

But where did all these children suddenly come from? When I was 17, my dream was to leave home as soon as I could.

It is truly a far-reaching social change. Adolescence is stretching on ever longer, because schooling and acquiring a profession with potential in a competitive market are taking a lot longer, and the children remain dependent on their parents. As long as that eventually led to independence, it was legitimate. Now, though, we are seeing a growing phenomenon in which the young adult wants to study something that is exactly appropriate for him, and then he starts to dawdle, or chooses something esoteric that has no earning potential. So you get a 28-year-old who is living at home and doesn’t know how to do the first thing for himself. It’s a very contemporary phenomenon, one we’ve never seen before. The idea that everyone has to find exactly what’s suitable for him is new.

The sanctity of self-fulfillment.

Self-fulfillment has become the essential thing. If the young person finds himself doing something he doesn’t enjoy, both he and his parents perceive this as something awful, akin to slavery. These young people who, as a result of their parents’ good intentions, just keep on getting from them but aren’t able to establish themselves, become less able to act, and feel they are less capable. Their conclusion is, “There’s no choice, they have to give me [what I want].” The parents, too, have no choice but to adopt that conclusion. They, too, feel that they have to give.

According to a survey by the financial newspaper Calcalist, 87 percent of Israeli parents support their adult children economically. How do you distinguish between healthy support and support that is problematic?

The rule is to differentiate between support and protectiveness. To support adult children means to give them help that enables them to augment their independent capabilities and to establish themselves. If I pay for my adult child’s professional studies, or help with his young children while he is working, that is good support.

Support that is not good – protectiveness – is that which I give my adult child not to help him get established and get ahead, but because he is not succeeding in maintaining and establishing himself. He is not capable of making a living, so I give him money. He is not succeeding in integrating into the labor market, so I allow him to be an eternal student.

If my child is not working and not attending school, and I give him money, my economic aid is harmful protectiveness, which seriously affects his development and ultimately will adversely affect our relations.

Describe in general terms a family that represents the phenomenon of entitled dependence.

The most common form this takes is that of a young adult who continues to live in his parents’ home. He has an impregnable bastion there – his room – in which he can do whatever he wants, and no one has the right to demand anything of him. That room becomes his shelter against life, and his parents aggravate the situation by allowing it to persist.

The young person is in the midst of a “search process,” because he hasn’t yet found what exactly suits him – or possibly he has tried one or two things but failed. The search perpetuates itself, and at some stage becomes an excuse. No one believes any longer that he is really searching. On the contrary, people implore him to search: “Maybe you could take a course of some kind?” “Maybe you could meet with this or that friend, who is looking to hire someone?” It’s a very widespread phenomenon. The shelter that the parents give the young person becomes atrophic, and the longer it is used as a haven, the greater the loss of the young person’s abilities to cope.

If someone lives outside the parental home and even has a family of his own but is economically dependent on his parents, is that also considered entitled dependence?

If he is not working for a living and is not capable of supporting himself, we also consider that a case of parental support that atrophies the children. There are cases of young people living in apartments that their parents bought for them and continuing to receive services and financial support. Living at home is not the only indicator.

What ages are we talking about?

These processes start in adolescence, when a child stops fulfilling his educational obligations – already then, he is starting to use the home as an atrophic shelter. Afterward, instead of doing army service, or after his service, he goes on living at home. He doesn’t work and doesn’t go to college – “Maybe later on,” or “I haven’t yet found what I’m looking for” – and that continues through his 20s and into his early 30s.

What’s the most serious case you’ve encountered?

The most serious cases are of young people who closet themselves in the house, turn day into night and vice versa, and don’t have contact with the parents. Or those who tried to leave, failed, returned home and just sank, for years.

And the oldest of them?

There are cases of people who are 40 or older. Very old parents can no longer cope, and then the process is not only one of dependence but of dispossession. The child, now 40-plus, not only expects support, he imposes it.

What characterizes parent-child relations in a situation of entitled dependence?

There are two main types of relations. In one, the child is miserable, depressive, incapable and the parent says to himself, “Well, what can I do? My child is unfortunate and can’t help himself, so I will do it in his place.” A second type is vociferous, accusatory dependence. The child says to his parents, “You did this to me, and you will pay for it. I am in this situation because of you.” Those parents live in constant fear. Some of the parents who come to us are the victims of incessant threats: “You’ll never see me again,” “I will kill myself.”

Who’s to blame here – the parents or the child?

No one: There are no guilty parties in a tragedy. The parents arrived at this situation as a result of good intentions and confusion, the child because of his weakness and his difficulty – and because he received too much, to his detriment.

Where do we see the shift from the normal to the pathological?

The first prominent indicator is a falloff in the young person’s normative behavior: He is incapable of functioning in structured frameworks. The second indicator is an escalation within the home: bad relations, friction, anger. The child, and afterward the young adult, becomes remote. He lives in a completely different world from his parents and possibly switches day and night, thus avoiding all contact with his parents and with the world of reality and demands. The parents are constantly fearful that the child will lapse into a condition of anxiety or panic, that he will commit suicide. Haunted by this thought, they are more determined than ever to give the child atrophic shelter, which only aggravates the problem.

How can one convey to the child the clear message that he is expected to be independent?

Many parents say, “I can’t persuade him. I explain things to him, but he’s not persuaded.” My answer is that of course it’s impossible to persuade him. All the parents can do is declare their stance: “We have reached the conclusion that we will no longer pay for these things, because we don’t have the money, or because we think it’s not to your benefit.”

Is it always just one child in the family who is dependent in this way?

No, there are families with three children in a condition of entitled dependence. They are all atrophying alongside each other, each in his own way.

There must be a direct relation between the economic situation and the growing number of these cases.

Definitely. The cost of housing is so high that the percentage of children living at home is rising, and the likelihood of dependence is greater when the child is living at home.

These children also don’t take part in the household chores.

That’s correct. This is the “entitled” element. When we ask the parents what privileges the young person is getting, they say, “None at all.” But when we check, it’s unbelievable: innumerable services.

Such as?

Economic services, of course: money for clothes, for going out, to buy gadgets. Obviously, the young person gets a car, including gas and repairs. We had one case in which a child attacked his mother because the gas tank was empty in the morning. Domestic services, such as laundry, room cleaning, cooking, shopping – even taking care of the young person’s pet.

On top of this, the parents arrange things for the young person: matters related to the authorities and the law, bureaucracy, even job interviews and social relations. It’s essential to reduce these services, because as long as that doesn’t happen, there is no hope for the young person. This is crucial. It’s a very significant process, because it aggravates the symptoms, but parents have to learn to cope with these frictions. Even if it comes to suicidal threats.

Parents’ shrinking power

Do you feel that, as a rule, parents today are more desperate, more helpless?

Without a doubt.

Why?

To begin with, the extended family has shrunk. It was easier when the child was surrounded by grandparents and by aunts and uncles. Today’s parent is very much alone, on top of which the divorce rate is rising. There are more dangers for the child to be exposed to, especially in the city. There is also a huge difference in terms of the power wielded by parents. Parents in previous generations had far more power, and that was also the social norm. Their power today has shrunk significantly.

What about the technological revolution?

It is increasing the gap between parents and children. The parents feel very inferior in relation to their children – and rightly so, because the children are a lot more comfortable in today’s world than their parents. The dangers lie not only in exposure to the contents of the Internet, but in computer addiction. I see children who are increasingly closeted in the room with the computer, at the expense of their ability to function in the world. This is a very common problem, especially among children who have problems coping or suffer from social anxiety – they are at a higher risk level to escape from the real world.

The Internet also presents consumer temptations that are very hard to resist, and children incur major expenses because of it. There are also other temptations on the Web: problematic body images and drugs and alcohol.

What are the most common problems today that didn’t exist earlier?

Entitled dependence and computer abuse. Simultaneously, other problems that always existed – such as alcohol, drugs and bad company – have become exacerbated. For example, there have always been drugs, but today the market is flooded. Adolescents no longer have a problem finding drugs – it’s hard for them to avoid drugs.

Do the adolescents you treat today resemble those you treated, say, a decade ago?

There has been a dramatic transformation in terms of what preoccupies them. A young person who walks around with a smartphone all day is a different animal from children who used to go outside to play. He doesn’t need to go anywhere for stimulus, because the stimulus is there, just a click away. It’s a completely different world.

What are the practical consequences?

We don’t know enough yet, but it’s very clear that the children are more disconnected: The parents are with the child, but the child is not with the parents. He’s in a different world. Children were never in thrall to a device in this way before, not even those who were addicted to the television or similar things. It’s a very dramatic change, which affects all the domestic interactions. The parents feel helpless and don’t think it’s legitimate for them to intervene.

What about the aspirations and worldview of young people?

I think this is a very hedonistic generation. We see this clearly. There is a strong emphasis on consumerism and materialism. These are changes in the value system of a world that has become consumerist and capitalist, and we see this day by day, hour by hour.

Gali Eytan