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 – 33. In 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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?
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.
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:
Ongoing support from family, friends, and institutions
A job or continuing education
Ongoing mental health care
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.
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