How to help your troubled teen after they turn 18

How to help 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.  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 responsibility for themselves until about the age of 30.

Over the past 16 years, I’ve asked this question of people with mental health disorders and addictions, or I’ve asked their parents, siblings, children, or their friends:  “At what age did (you, your loved one, friend) make the conscious choice to take responsibility for treatment?  When did you/they get a stable job, or live on their own, associate with healthy people?  I asked 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 30 – 33In my experience, you start to see signs of awareness that they need help in the late 20’s, with limited attempts to face their problem.

True story: a co-worker once shared about his bipolar disorder and years of substance abuse.  I would never had guessed that this stable, wise person had had a troubled past.  I asked when he turned his life around; it was 30.  I asked what motivated him.  He said, “I couldn’t avoid it anymore.  I ran out of excuses.  I just hit rock bottom too many times.”

Why does recovery take so long?

  1. Anosognosia “a deficit of self-awareness” caused by mental disorders.  They simply can’t tell they are different from anyone else, so they resist messages that they are.
  2. They get good at coping.  They squeak by, or use others, or depend on parents to rescue them.  They try to delay the inevitable scary thought that there really is something wrong with them.
  3. Their brain or emotional development is slower than normal people.  They may need an extra 10 years to go through the final maturation phase into the adult brain.

Because of their mental disability, a child over 18 needs better life management skills than their ‘normal’ peers because they have so much more to worry about.  Besides the usual adult responsibilities, they need self-discipline and self-monitoring for mental and emotional stability. They need to be continually alert to their states of mind–the same as someone who’s an insulin-dependent diabetic needs to continually check blood sugar.  They need to remember to take meds and stay in therapy.  They need to avoid or limit fun excesses their peers can get away with, e.g. parties with poor snacks and alcohol.  They must stick with a healthy diet, exercise, and investment in supportive friendships.  You know your child, all of this is hard for them!

How much to sacrifice and how much to let go?

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).  On the other hand, pressuring a troubled teen to be an “adult” when they are not ready push them to dependence on others who might make their life worse.  Pressure can motivate them to cope with drugs or alcohol, or take unnecessary risks, or give up.

True story:  I met a couple in their 70’s who’d rescued their troubled 34-year-old daughter her entire life, and faced cutting her off financially because they couldn’t afford it anymore. They were heartbroken to let her go, and painfully afraid she would become homeless or suicidal, and they deeply regretful they unwittingly undermined her capacity for independence.  Don’t let this happen to you.

You must transition away from “parent” to case manager, therapist, and mentor.

  • Case manager – This is the busy work.  You are the one to fill out forms, make appointments, provide transportation, ensure prescriptions are refilled and taken.  Follow-up on calls and emails regarding anything: banking, waivers, police reports, insurance, appointments, etc.
  • Therapist – This is actually easy if you can keep your thoughts to yourself.  You listen.  You acknowledge their feelings without rescuing them or smoothing over issues.  You ask probing questions so you can get data that will help you help them meet their needs.
  • Mentor – Start by building trust.  When they trust you they’ll listen, and when they listen you can teach them all the things they need to know to be independent (like the self-management skills in the paragraph above).  Mentoring also means setting boundaries and expecting better of them.

A major challenge is where they’ll live.

At home:  Can you bear the stress if they live with you? or if they leave your protection?  How do you help them move on?  If your troubled young adult child must live at home full or part-time, adjust your rules and expectations. Rules can include a requirement for ongoing mental health care. Your troubled child of 18 or more becomes your guest who stays at your invitation, or a renter who contributes to the household and follows the landlord’s rules.  On the other hand, you’ll need to step back and respect their privacy and acceptable choices and activities.  This may not be easy with someone 18–this means compromises and letting go of being the parent boss.

In an apartment on their own:  This is the preferred situation, but who will be ultimately responsible for rent and utilities?  Who can pay the deposit, usually the first and last month’s rent?  Should the manager/landlord know about their condition in case there are problems?  Problems include property damage, inappropriate visitors (drug users or sellers, couch-surfers, party animals), neighbor complaints.  In one parent’s case, both the local police and management company were notified and given both parents’ phone numbers.  It helped at first when there were complaints, but as the complaints and calls to the police continued, their child eventually evicted along with the others who camped out there.

With roommates or housemates:  I do not recommend this unless you are willing to move your child repeatedly.  Even if your child is not antagonistic–maybe withdrawn due to depression–it is very stressful for housemates.  Your frequent calls and visits for a check-in will also be stressful to them.  And what about these co-inhabitors?  Are they safe for your child to be around?  Will they victimize your child?

With a boyfriend or girlfriend: the same concerns apply as for housemates.  This living situation is only as stable as the partner.  Some couples stay in a parents’ basement.  This too is only as stable as the partner and the parents.  Consider that these living arrangements are temporary.  Good luck if they have shelter for a year.

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.  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 need not be forever.

At the age of 18, broad institutional supports kick in. (don’t you wish that were sooner?)

  • Once they turn 18, people with mental health problems are protected from discrimination in their job/housing/education by laws that protect all disabled.
  • Insurers are required to provide mental health care on par with all other treatments and services.
  • Adults over 18 are better supported by mental health organizations that offer support groups, referrals to safe housing or job opportunities, social connections with 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 4 things are what your troubled teen needs to function after 18. They are based on long-term monitoring of 1000’s of others in their 40’s and 50’s with mental health challenges who did well in life:

  1. Ongoing support from family, friends, and institutions

  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 of any ‘normal’ 18 year old also revise their relationship with them, becoming a mentor and peer rather than a parent.  What’s going to be tricky for you is avoiding a default role as ‘parent’–watch out for this!  What young adult wants their parents telling them how to live their lives (even if you’re right)?  If you want their trust–which you do–dial back your ‘parenting’ and remove the power differential it implies.

Keep up regular communications with your child even if they resist.  Do everything you can to build a and maintain a relationship even if it’s difficult.  If not with you, than with another mature adult who can mentor them.


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

If you would like to get ongoing updates on the latest news and research in child & adolescent mental health, follow my Facebook Page.

10 Replies to “How to help your troubled teen after they turn 18”

  1. I am intrigued by all of your stories. I am dealing with some major issues with my daughter. She has met a boy, hanging out with the wrong crowd, drugs are involved, although I have no clue what she is actually partaking in. We don’t talk like we used to. Her behavior changed as soon as this boy came into the picture so I know he is part of it all. She got “fed up” with our house rules, and used this boy as a way out. By the way, our house rules are, either go to school, work a job, or both if you so choose, clean your room, and take out the trash every week. Do that, and you can live here for free, and save up money to get your own place somewhere nice. We also asked her to communicate to us if she was going to be late, or if she was staying at a friends house for the night…simple common courtesy. These rules are not huge, in fact she gets off easy compared to most kids her age…but she wasn’t having any of it. so she left. I have been informed by others in my circle of family and friends that some of the people she is hanging with, are using heavy drugs. This scares the crap out of me. I’ve talked to her, the lines of communication are open for now, and she sounds ok, but the not knowing what is going on in her life is killing me. She seems ok. I have seen her since she left. No extreme weight loss, no crazy red eyes, or obvious signs she is using but the people around her are downright twitchy. I am an insomniac by nature, but the sleep is just non existent since she left. I admit, I’ve done all that I can to limit the amount of damage I can on my end, to help without “fixing it for her”. I am throwing myself into my work and working late hours. It has been my only respite from overthinking EVERYTHING. She is 19, she’ll be 20 in August. I have no legal recourse to stop her from doing anything. I just want her to be ok.

    1. Hello Dylan,

      I hate to sound trite but “I feel your pain.” I’m all too familiar with this story; my daughter was ‘lost’ to a heroin/meth user, who turned her apartment into a meth pad for his ‘drug family’ to use. This is a summary of the key points in your message that indicate the strengths and weaknesses in your situation with your daughter and what to do about them. This is a bad situation, yet there’s every reason to hope!

      — “Her behavior changed as soon as this boy came into the picture…” Bad news first: Trust your instincts; her behavior points to drug use. He has drawn her into his drug family. This ‘family’ will be criminally involved in (something) to pay for the drugs. They, like other addicts, will keep her in their circle and make it emotionally difficult for her to leave. It sounds like you haven’t seen her when she’s high. Depending on what she’s using and how much, you will see changes in personality over time, and possibly physical changes if she’s a heavy user, even if you don’t personally see her during a high.

      — Now hang on because there’s good news. You wrote, “I’ve talked to her, the lines of communication are open for now, and she sounds OK…” This is the number one most important thing: keep open a good line of communication. Take her out to eat if you can. Go with her to buy clothes. If this isn’t possible, use whatever means of communication she prefers, phone, text, or email. If she pulls away, drop by with a gift or groceries, send a card, send a care package, anything. She may get angry and hurtful (it’s the drugs talking) but as long as she stays in contact with you she won’t slip away.

      — Your house rules were fine by the way. They are not the reason she’s made this sudden change. Blame it on drugs and the romance of risk and freedom with a crowd who is all too able to drag people down.

      Get sleep!!! If you need medical help to get regular sleep get it! Look up something called “sleep hygiene” on Wikipedia ( If you need a medication, take it! Sleep is vital to your own mental health and your capacity to play the next role in her life. If you go down, she goes down.

      Get other forms of emotional support for you: psychotherapy, friends, volunteering, religious community, or social group. Reach out to friends and ask them if they could just listen if you’re down. Find a support group for families of loved ones with addictions such as Narc Anon for Families ( The support group will help you understand more about addiction and how you can help your daughter when she tries to leave the druggies and get back to her life again. She WILL try to leave them–life with a drug crowd SUCKS. If she’s had a good life before then she’ll want it back someday.

      From now on, you will not be the parent caregiver. Avoid ‘parenting’ or you may drive her away. She is an adult now. You will be her mentor, case manager, and ear–someone to listen without judgment. She needs you to continually remind her you’re a phone call away if she needs help. And you DO have legal recourse. Get the boyfriend and his cohort on the police radar and help the law take them down. Or inform the police or landlord ahead of time that she has a family who loves her and is able to look after her should something happen (police raid, eviction, other crime). This may help her avoid being charged or getting serious charges.

      This reply may be difficult stuff to read, I know. Get thick emotional armor, pull out your inner warrior, and educate yourself. I promise, you have every reason to hope. Families rescue their loved ones from Drug Hell all the time, but it’s a long road back to their health. Be strong enough to be there when she needs you.

      Take good care,


  2. My 19 uear old smokes meth steals cars has been in countless relationships is always angry doesbt clean kr sometimes shower. His braces needed to be taken off over 6 montbs ago and ge will not go to the dentist. He had my house under investigation my 8 year old daughters winsow beoken out while sbe was sleeping. He has no respect for no onebincluding himself. I am so heart broken but more for him it’s like slowly being forced to watch him kill himself or potentially someone else.
    Is there honestly any help….

    1. Hi Jennifer,

      I hope you are taking care of your mental health. If you want your son to get better, you must be OK. I have bad news and good (or pretty good) news.

      Bad news first:
      • There are few to no options for treatment given your son’s drug use (and I strongly suspect an underlying mental illness);
      • As long as he’s using meth or another drug (especially marijuana), he cannot be treated unless he’s held against his will in a long term program;
      • It may take years before you see steady progress;
      • He may never be the person you hoped he would be.

      Good news:
      • My child was lost in Meth Hell for 10 years and came back! I’ve witnessed other adult children make that heroic struggle out of Meth Hell, because their families stayed supportive.
      • You can escape much emotional pain by changing your attitude and expectations. You must also put yourself and your other daughter first as much as possible.
      • You have options for getting him the help he needs, but they are drastic. An extreme situation requires extreme actions.

      This is what may happen to your son. It can keep him alive while he’s storm-tossed by meth and mental illness. He gets charged with a crime and indicted and jailed. You advocate for him to receive addiction and mental health treatment while in jail. You present testimony in court and in writing to the judge. You want to have your evidence of addiction and mental illness in court records. He may not get treatment, but he will get clean and sober for a while, and you can visit him as often as possible to show support.

      In jail and afterwards, he gets connected to some programs for addiction and mental health recovery. Eventually, it all falls apart again, and he starts going through that rotating door—criminal charges, conviction, and incarcerations over and over again. But this is not necessarily a bad thing if you stick with him each time and continue to advocate for treatment in court. Your son gets clean and sober in jail and remembers what it feels like. You keep visiting your son or writing letters or calling.

      While all of this is happening, you use these years to enjoy your daughter growing up, and you start something positive in your life and get happy again.

      As time goes by, your son will reach the same stage as (most) everyone else does, whether they struggle with addictions or mental illness or both. He gets tired of it. He’s suffered too much or witnessed too much suffering. If you’ve been involved all this time, he will allow you to help him… and that’s when healing starts.

      Now about those drastic steps: consider getting him out of your house ASAP; he’s toxic. Monitor his whereabouts if you can. Be cooperative with police and landlords and social workers. This is what other parents have done. These other drastic steps worked: charging their son or daughter with a crime, or turning them in, or reporting their associates with a crime if there is evidence. (This worked in my case, but could be risky.)

      A lot of us have been through this situation and walked your path. Stay committed, even if you have to keep your distance for safety. You want to live out your life knowing you did the best you could.


  3. 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.


  4. 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.

Your views help other readers.