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How Does Your Relationship Change When Your Child Turns 18?

Parenting never ends. We know that when you look at your child, no matter what their age, you still see the little kid whose bumps and bruises you cleaned up and kissed to make all better. As they grow older, so do their problems, many of which cannot be solved by a bandaid and a kiss. It can be scary to watch your child get closer and closer to adulthood especially for a parent who is raising a child who is struggling. Once your child turns 18 a lot of things change; including your relationship dynamics. This causes a lot of anxiety for many parents and if possible it can be really helpful for both you and your child if you start to prepare for this transition ahead of time.

young person posing in field

That is why we sat down with Edie Mannion a licensed marriage and family therapist who founded and directed a program from 1985-2021 that provided supportive educational services to parents/siblings/partners/adult children of adults with challenging mental health disorders in southeastern PA. She was also influenced by the Mental Health Recovery Model that is based on principles such as hope, respect, and self-determination that many adults report helped them rebuild their self-esteem and life that was affected by mental health disorders and stigma. Mannion grew up in a family that experienced various mental health and substance abuse challenges which drew her to the field of therapy. She is also the mother of 2 sons in their mid-30's so she has lived experience navigating through this difficult transition to parenting adults.

"I wish that I had thought more and learned more about this topic before my sons turned 18. I made some mistakes that I am still paying for, so I think planning ahead can be a huge asset to parents," said Mannion. In order to best prepare for this change, we asked Mannion to lay out what exactly changes when your child turns 18. "The minute they turn 18 you instantly lose access to their protected records including; medical, financial, and academic. All of that comes to a halt. You have no legal authority over your child anymore and that means they are free to do what they want, but they are also the ones who will receive consequences for their actions. If you would still like access to those records your child will need to sign a release form with their providers. This decision is up to your child as well as whether or not they want to continue services or continue to take their medication. I know that this transition is very stressful, especially for parents who have a child with a mental health or substance abuse challenge." explained Mannion.

"If your child is receiving services through the public system, your child's providers should be initiating a warm hand-off to adult service providers and explaining how services will change. If they do not initiate this information, it is something you can ask about as your child nears the age of 18."

mom and two adult children

The idea of planning and preparing is great in theory, but it can be overwhelming to know when and how to start. Mannion explained; "The most important thing to do is to be selective about when you have these important conversations. You want to have them when you are both calm and in a good mood. Pick both a time and a place where you are both calm and ready to hear each other. There is no set time frame that works for every family but generally, I think 2 years before your child turns 18 could be a good time to start to introduce the idea of thinking about life after turning 18. However, if your child is already older than 16 do not panic, just start to have these conversations with your child," said Mannion. "You have two jobs as a parent. 1 is to love them no matter what and the 2nd is to help them prepare for the challenges of navigating adulthood. These two jobs should be in the back of your mind when making any decisions about handling this transition phase."

"You can start by asking them what they want to do after high school. See where their head is at and see if it is something that you are comfortable with. Then you could say something like; 'You know when you turn 18 you're going to be able to do whatever you want (legally) and our relationship will be different because of that.'" said Mannion. She went on to explain that things are very different depending on whether or not your child plans to continue living at home after they turn 18. "If they do decide to stay home it will be good to establish the idea of "rent" in those early conversations. Rent does not always need to mean money, but it can.

You need to take some time to think about what your child will be doing in exchange for living in your home as an adult with adult freedoms. This could be rent, helping around the house, or a requirement that they are doing something productive while they live there (something that helps them for the future like a volunteer position or joining a support group). "You could put it on yourself, and say something like 'I will feel guilty if you are living in my house and not doing something that is beneficial to you," said Mannion.

young person on laptop

"Essentially your child becomes like your roommate when they turn 18. Only this is your house so you have the right to set house rules that ease your anxiety and work for your dynamic. Tell them you aren't trying to control them but you need to establish some rules in order for you to sleep at night. This is when you need to do some reflection and figure out what those rules would be. Some questions you could ask yourself are; 'Am I comfortable with my child staying out all night?' 'Am I comfortable with them staying out for days at a time?' 'Do I need them to text me if their plans change and they are no longer coming back that night?' 'Am I comfortable with them having friends over at my house, and if so what am I comfortable with those friends doing here?' This is very personal to you and your family and is different for everyone." said Mannion.

"If your child is able to financially support themselves and move out on their own that is a blessing and a curse. It can cut down on the everyday friction of living together, but on the other hand, it may leave you worrying and wondering, especially if there is not a lot of communication. In those conversations about life after they turn 18, you could discuss that if they do move out you have some needs and preferences that you would appreciate if they try to understand and respect. For example, not answering your texts or calls for a couple of days could be really worrisome. Tell them that a simple "I am ok" reply when you do a periodic check-in because you haven’t heard from them is something that you may need in order to sleep at night."

mother doing her daughter's hair

"When your child turns 18 you lose a lot of the leverage you once had. While you hope that it never gets to this point, remember that some of the things that you continue to do for your child are privileges. Things like keeping them on your insurance, or your cell phone plan, paying for tuition, or co-signing a lease are things that you are not required to do for them. Explain to your child that you want to help them in any way that you can to get on their feet, but if your house rules or your preferences in how you stay in touch are not being respected, that they could lose those privileges. Again, we hope it doesn't get there but this can be a very effective bargaining chip that many parents have if they are providing privileges." said Mannion.

Mannion encourages you to look at your relationship with your adult child in a different way than you did before. "You are going from being their supervisor to being their co-worker, and that is very different. If you are a co-worker who is pleasant to be around, they will be more inclined to want to spend time with you and maybe even ask you for advice. If you are a co-worker who is negative, and nags, and is unpleasant to be around, they are way less inclined to spend time with you and may even want to spite you. How you treat them determines a lot of how this transition will go. When I was growing up our parents did not have to earn our respect and time, it was just given without question. What I have learned in the last 10 years is that this generation that you are raising is much more inclined to cut their parents off if their parents don't make them feel good about themselves. That social norm has really changed and the mindset of many young adults now is that you need to earn their trust and their desire to want to be around you. Because of this shift, and the wealth of information on the internet where they can access advice, I think parents today have a much harder job navigating this transition than parents of previous generations." explained Mannion.

"Positive parenting of young adults really means that we don't criticize, we don't argue, and we don't question their behavior unless it crosses our boundaries or violates our house rules if they live with us, which should be discussed in advance so they are clear. Don't nag, don't tease, and don't use sarcasm at their expense. Try to be around and be pleasant. Make sure that you are not turning every single conversation into trying to make a point. Keep things light and fun sometimes. If they ask for advice, be there as a wise counselor, but do not offer unsolicited advice because they will probably stop asking if you do. Listen to them and help them feel heard. That can be done by reflecting back on what you're getting from what they're saying. Try to understand what they are feeling and let them know that those feelings are understandable. This does not always mean that you are going to agree with what they say or do. For example, if your child comes to you and tells you that they want to quit college because they are having a hard time; don't freak out. Rather than jump to 'Oh you can't do that you have to think about your future!' Start with; 'Tell me more about why you are feeling this way. Or "Wow, what you’re telling me sounds really stressful and I can understand why you would be thinking of doing this.'" said Mannion.

two people having a converstion

"Trust me, I know this is very hard to do as a parent because hearing extreme or unwise decisions can be very scary. However, if we can put our fears aside and let them talk through how they are feeling and validate their concerns, they are more likely to talk to us about deeper issues, ask for our advice, and maybe even sign release forms so we can be part of their treatment services. If you go right to giving unsolicited advice, questioning their judgment, or criticizing them, they may block you out and not tell you many of their concerns or feelings in the future. It takes a lot of self-control and practice to parent in this way, but it can have far-reaching benefits," said Mannion.

Overall Mannion wants to leave you with the message of; "You will not be perfect at this. Nobody is! We all have our moments and our meltdowns. This is a practice of love and support that may take a lot of self-control, so take care of yourself during this difficult transition. Be kind to yourself because as parents, we all need self-care and self-compassion, especially during these difficult times." said Mannion.

Are you concerned about your child's mental health but not sure where to turn?

Are you a parent who's overwhelmed trying to help your child who has been diagnosed with a mental health challenge or you're concerned that they may struggle with one?

Are you tired of the red tape you get as you just try to get your child the help they need?

At the Parent Alliance we get it. We've been there and we are here to support you. Join the FREE community of parents just like you here.


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