Helping your troubled teen after they turn 18

Helping your troubled teen after they turn 18

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. This list is based on long-term monitoring of 1000’s of others with mental health challenges who did well in life:

  1. Constant support from family and friends
  2. A job or continuing education
  3. Ongoing mental health care
  4. 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.



Please rate this post and comment.  Your thoughts and experiences will help others who read this article.

4 Replies to “Helping your troubled teen after they turn 18”

  1. My grandson has always been a ‘model’ child, polite a hard worker etc. but in the past 6 weeks has changed beyond belief having met a 17 year old pot smoking girl with a 2month old baby (the baby belonging to someone else). She lives on benefits and my grandsonj has just left home and moved in with her. He claims he is still going to his college but we know this to be untrue. He will be 19 in a few weeks time and the big worry is that during one of their violent rows she claimed she would go to the police and claim he raped her. She ‘claims’ she has been raped before. This e’mail would be too long were I to list all the awful things we know of this girl and this boy was a high achiever with the world at his feet, now he lives in a block of flats where all the drug takers are housed, it will all end so badly. Additionally to all this, this girl has ongoing mental health problems. My daughter and husband are at their wits end – any advice please!

    1. Hello Louise,

      Your grandson’s story sounds *exactly* like ones that three close friends experienced with their adult children. One’s son was also ensnared by a woman with mental health problems, and they moved far away to live a life of poverty. Two friends’ daughters did the same thing with a man. In each case: 1. drugs were involved; 2. the child had been directionless; 3. the new partner’s mental problem made them manipulative and controlling. All three parents did the best they could to stay in touch and keep a bridge built with their child in case they broke-up and returned to their lives.

      As of now, none of their children have returned. One mother tried to befriend the woman who ‘took’ her son, but it didn’t work out. You are definitely not alone in your confusion and hurt. The best choice is to do everything you can to stay in touch even if there’s no response–calls, emails, letters, photos, care packages. Stay faithful to this indefinitely. It may be years.

      These is my speculation: someone like your grandson craves the attention they get from the partner at first, but it is manipulative. Eventually, the partner starts abusing them emotionally–think of it as a domestic violence situation. Domestic violence victims are notorious for staying in abusive relationships, or returning repeatedly if they’ve left. Why? The abuser has many ways of controlling them: threats, begging for forgiveness, gifts, guilt trips, and hurtful remarks that undermine their self-esteem. Maybe he is afraid to leave because of her anger; maybe he’s given up and believe this is his lot. One thing is certain, substances can soften the stress of a domestic violence victim at first, but then the risk of addiction and financial ruin is high too.

      This is your greatest test of faith and commitment. Allow yourself to grieve, but also stay strong and steady in your effort to reach out, and hold out hope. You may be pushed away, but keep the faith. You might also consider volunteering for a charity that supports people in need. This can be very healing when one experiences a loss like yours.

      There were 10 anguished years when I ‘lost’ my daughter to drugs and an abusive drug relationship, but she’s back and safe now. This could be your grandson’s story.


  2. I really appreciate this article I am having a hard time dealing with my young adult male 19 years old he cannot hold a job rebellious want listen to nothing I say I can’t understand this behaviors because me, his step father, my parents, and his sister all work and maintain jobs as a matter of fact my parents have retired I am afraid for my son I don’t want to give up on him but I don’t know what to do please give further advice I don’t want to loose him to death or jail

    1. I hate that I’m just finding this, two years later, but I decided to reply for the sake of others.
      If you have a good relationship with your son, speak with him about trying to apply for SSI. This will only be helpful if your son has been seeking help from doctors and other authorities who are knowledgeable about his situation. Also, it doesn’t have to be a means to an end, but rather a safety net. Assuming he gets approved, this helps him get on his feet with a job, but provides a softer place to land when he falls. And it might take him a few years before he is able to hold down a full-time, permanent job, and that’s okay. All of us are wanting the same thing for our children: a safe, productive (as possible) future.

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You Can Handle This.

You Can Handle This.

You are not alone. It's no one's fault. Behavior disorders are disabilities! Troubled children need a very different parenting approach than 'normal' kids.

Care for yourself first, then set new goals:
1. Physical and emotional safety for all
2. Acceptance of the way things are
3. Family balance, meet the needs of all
4. One step at a time, one day at a time

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