Parents face daily challenges with a troubled child or teen, and easily overlook the future. I know I did. What’s going to happen as they grow and change? What does one plan for? It helped me to hear from parents who had already traveled this path. Based on their experiences, these are some things you can expect–and do–before your child reaches the pivotal age of 18.
Your child may not be ready for adulthood by age 18, but be OK with this. Collective experience indicates your son or daughter will continue to need your support and health care management into their mid-20’s.
If he or she reaches young adulthood with the capacity to maintain well-being on their own, you’ve done a good job.
From birth to age ~5
You – Consider yourself lucky if he or she has an identifiable behavior problem early! You have ample time to understand your parenting needs and prepare, and use the many “special needs” services for young children. Start a file and keep absolutely every medical and school record and contacts for people and services. You are about to become a case manager.
- Talk with siblings frankly. Explain that sister or brother has a different brain and will be treated differently. Inform them you will be distracted by their sibling’s need for appointments and other issues, and that it may feel unfair. Ask for their patience. Reassure them you love them very much.
- Talk with your partner or spouse about revising expectations for your child, and accepting that your life may be harder than you planned . Discuss how you will work together and share responsibilities, and work through disagreements about parenting the child in the future.
Everyone – Keep friends, activities, and plans the same. Keep hobbies and interests alive. Be as inclusive as possible of your special needs child but don’t sacrifice your family’s needs. It’s a tricky balance.
If your child’s behavior problems started at this age, read the above. It still applies, except you may find fewer services, and sadly, more blame. Seek professional help now. Early intervention is the key to future mental health.
What to teach your family:
- Our lives will be different from other families, but this is normal for families like ours.
- We will support your sister or brother, but we will take care of ourselves and each other, we will have each other’s back.
What you should do:
- Make safety a high priority in your home, emotional safety as well as physical safety.
- Focus on schedules and planned time for activities every day. Maintain this structure consistently, including weekends and holidays.
- Teach your child skills for managing behavior–they may not be able to stop it completely.
- Modify your home to reduce stress: Less noise or over-stimulation. Better diet. A separate time-out space. Lock up valuables or dangerous items. Consider a therapy pet. Create a tradition of whole-family activities: Wii, playing cards, board games, exercise games, art or crafts, movie night…
- Take frequent “mental health breaks.” Be generous with yourself without guilt. Let other family members have breaks too.
If your child started having problems at this age, most information above still applies, but this may be the most difficult period!
Two things happen in the teen years:
- They enter a normal phase of development where they seek their own identity, and want freedom and a social life separate from the family. But they take more risks, and expose themselves to more risks.
- Some mental disorders start at this phase, or get much worse and become quite serious: major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, anorexia, borderline personality disorder… Risks include school failure, criminal activity, substance abuse, suicide, and assault.
Safety – You may need to take unusually strong measures to ensure physical and emotional safety. Many need to lock up all knives, or allow siblings to lock themselves in their own room for protection, or search their teen’s room, or take away the cell phone and internet access.
Your well-being and that of other family members – Assertively seek outside support for your family, such as a support network of friends and family, or a religious community or support group, or mental health treatment for yourself, or all of the above.
Education – This is critical, even if it’s only for one or two classes per day. If your teen cannot complete high school in time with their peers, it’s not a disaster. They may not graduate now, but they can finish their education eventually. It’s never too late.
Positive peers and adult mentors – Keep your son or daughter from risky youth or adults. Encourage activities with anyone they like and trust whom you approve of.
Ongoing mental health treatment – your child may not believe (or accept) they have a mental health problem but they can at least comply with treatment.
By age 18
At a minimum, this is what your child needs–fundamental criteria for a functional adult life:
- A steady job and income, or a meaningful activity (volunteering, school)
- Healthy, stable relationships
- Maintenance of health and hygiene
- Decent housing, maintenance of housing and belongings
- Maintenance of financial stability