Most young people aren’t ready for adulthood by 18 years of age, but your troubled teen is especially unprepared. By 18, their legal status instantly changes to “adult” and they are free to fail at life’s countless tests. Your hands are tied and you can’t keep your son or daughter safe from themselves any more.
Pace yourself for a marathon
Your job as parent is far from over. Not surprisingly, parenting an 18+ year old will feel the same as when they were 17 years 11 months old. They’ve been behind their peers for a long time–emotionally or socially or academically. You’ve done everything possible to get them ready for adulthood, but they simply aren’t! For troubled teens, the teen years last into the mid-20’s or longer. And this is really scary; suicide rates across all age groups are highest for people aged 16-24. It’s the period of greatest stress, whether the person is suicidal or not.
Many people with disorders aren’t able to take full responsibility for themselves until their early 30’s.
Over the past 16 years, I’ve asked this question of people with mental health disorders, their parents and siblings and children, and their friends: “At what age did (you, your loved one) make the conscious choice to take responsibility for themselves: treatment, income or job, living on their own, choosing to associate with healthy people. I asked dozens and dozens of people. Their answer? Every single one told me they or their loved one didn’t turn things around until they were between the ages of 29 – 34.
True story: a co-worker once shared about his bipolar disorder and his years of substance abuse and hardships. I would never had guessed this grounded stable person had a troubled past. I asked when he turned his life around; it was 30. I asked what motivated him. His answer? “I couldn’t avoid it anymore. I ran out of excuses. I hit rock bottom too many times.”
The questions to ponder are how much to sacrifice and how much to let go. There needs to be a balance.
Parents have a tendency to rescue their adult son or daughter when a crisis befalls because it’s so hard for the child to recover from set-backs. But rescuing too much makes them more dependent on the parents (or adult siblings). Pressuring a troubled teen to be an “adult” when they are not ready may lead to their dependence on others who might make their lives worse. Or they’ll cope with drugs or alcohol, or risky choices, or give up.
I know of a couple in their 70’s who’d rescued their troubled 34-year-old daughter her entire life, and faced cutting her off because they couldn’t manage anymore. They were heartbroken to let her go, painfully afraid she would become homeless or suicidal, and deeply regretful they unwittingly undermined her capacity for independence. Don’t let this happen to you.
The first challenge is deciding where they’ll live.
As with any troubled teen, they must become independent eventually. It may be a tough call for you: bear the stress if they live with you? or worry when they leave your protection, possibly forever? Ironically, your adult child must be better than ‘normal’ young people at managing life because they have so much more to worry about. Besides the usual adult responsibilities, add self-monitoring for mental and emotional stability, taking meds or obtaining therapy, and disciplining themselves to stick with dozens of choices that support their well-being (diet, exercise, healthy friendships, education or work, financial stability…).
If your troubled teen of 18 must live at home full or part-time, change your rules and expectations. Rules can include a requirement for ongoing mental health care. Your troubled teen must transition to becoming your guest who stays at your invitation and a renter who contributes to the household and follows the landlord’s rules. You’ll need discipline to step back and respect their privacy and (reasonable) choices and activities. This may not be easy to achieve–you’ll make many compromises.
In the eyes of the law, you are not responsible for them anymore.
You really aren’t. In fact, you have the right to banish your 18-year-old from your home and change the locks on the doors. The parents who do this are usually in fear for their physical and emotional safety–not because they don’t care. If this describes you, it’s understandable and forgivable if you feel forced into this step. But know this, things change. Your adult child will change; banishment is not forever.
There’s good news. Adults have more options for support.
Ironically, your troubled teen, by 18, will have more access to services than ever, and you’ll both get the support you’ve desperately needed.
- In the U.S., people with mental health problems are protected from job/housing/educational discrimination by laws that protect the disabled.
- insurers are required to provide mental health care on par with all other treatments and services.
- Mental health advocacy groups support adults by offering support groups, referrals to safe housing or appropriate job opportunities, social connections with safe accepting peers, and legal and legislative advocacy.
- Educational institutions have special departments solely for supporting students with disabilities, and that includes troubled young adults.
This is what your troubled teen needs to function after 18, listed in order of value:
- A constant, supportive family (that sets boundaries and asserts high-as-possible expectations)
- Support from peers and mentors or counselors
- A job or continuing education
- Ongoing mental health care
- A safe living situation
Adjust your expectations for how quickly they’ll progress.
Parents with ‘normal’ 18 year olds gradually revise their relationship with them, becoming a mentor and peer rather than a parent. You can’t do that yet; your challenge is to flow between the role of parent, disciplinarian, social worker, and therapist until they are ready.
You can do this. Stay patient. Keep a bridge built. They’ll eventually grow up.
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