For parents of older teens struggling with behavioral or emotional problems, that teen’s 18th birthday may come to represent some terrifying realities.
Many parents fear a loss of parental control; or the symbolic and actual loss of their “little girl;” or loss of legal guardianship and the modicum of protection that comes along with it.
Our culture does little to formally, systematically prepare young people for adulthood. But we equip young people with instantaneous access to most of the rights and burdens of adulthood exactly at midnight on the 364th day of their 17th year. As a result many young adults enter adulthood unprepared, hence the “failure to launch” epidemic we’re all too familiar with.
Knowing this, many parents make a temporary and desperate attempt to increase control, exercise parental authority and show their 17+ year old who’s boss. Unfortunately for these parents, this tactic typically makes the problem worse instead of better. Young adults are developmentally wired to move toward autonomy. They’ll do it with or without your permission. When things go well from a developmental perspective, this is a gradual process that is supported by parents and other adult caregivers, advisers, positive peers and educators. It takes a village, after all, to raise a child. With this support, the teen assumes increasing levels of autonomy while at the same time forging a supportive network. In these ideal situations the young adult’s autonomy is interdependent rather than isolating.
But when emotional and behavioral issues are present, a young adult may not be willing to accept the kind of support that leads to gradual, supported interdependence. She may also feel the need to fight for, rather than gradually embrace, adult responsibilities. In these cases, many parents are faced with the prospect of their emotionally immature young adult’s sudden departure from the home—“when I turn 18 I’m outta here!” If the young person is in a treatment program they may, similarly, threaten to pack their bags and walk. The idea of a woefully unprepared teen being suddenly independent is, of course, terrifying to any caring parent.
For parents facing this prospect, it may be helpful to bear the following things in mind:
Bark or Bite
Many teens learn to bandy their 18th birthday around as a provocative taunt. For some, that’s all it really is—a way to push parental buttons in the heat of an argument or a way to manipulate for control during a power struggle. History is usually the best indicator of whether these threats are real. Is your teen prone to making manipulative threats and not following through or is she stubborn to the point of creating risk for herself and others in order to be right?
Previous behavior can help you anticipate likely future actions and plan your strategy accordingly. For parents truly concerned about a sudden and dangerous launch into independence, there may be legal options available to extend custody as a temporary solution.
Some consider Aikido to be the most effective martial art. In essence, it’s the art of getting out of the way. By effectively and repeatedly stepping out of the way of their opponent, aikido practitioners take the fight out of their opponents. The result: nobody gets hurt. In the case of a teen approaching young adulthood, this can take the form of stepping aside when “threats” of walking occur. Instead of engaging in a power struggle that your teen will likely find insulting—“you’re not ready to be on your own. What will you do? You lack the maturity. How will you make money?”—try stepping aside. “Okay. That will be your decision.”
By sharing power you can often effectively take the struggle out of a power struggle. This is sometimes the best way to create an opportunity for conversation instead of conflict.
Trial and Error
Sometimes experience really is the best teacher. Your 18 year old really does have the “right” to launch herself as suddenly as she sees fit. By letting her know that the door is open to return for a time as long as the rules of your home are honored, she may understand on her own—after a brief sojourn “abroad”— that she needs and wants your support and assistance.
This kind of experiential learning can feel scary and may, in fact, involve real risk as your unprepared teen forges out on her own. But it can also provide the first step in the important parenting process of moving from authoritarian to adviser.
Just as your teen needs a network of compassionate, wise support in order to successfully transition, so do you! The decisions you make as you navigate your young adults process toward independence may well be fraught with hazards and complexities. It’s a time of developmental and relational change for parents just as much as for the young adult. Outside support from friends, family members, place of worship and a family therapist will help you navigate much more effectively than you likely could on your own.
It takes a village, after all, to raise a good parent.