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How to help your troubled teen after they turn 18

By June 10, 2022July 23rd, 2022No Comments
Troubled young adults who need mental and emotional help

Your job as parent is far from over.  Parenting an 18 to 25+ year-old may feel the same as when they were 13 – 17 years 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 young people, the teen years may last well beyond 18 into the mid-20’s to early 30’s.  It’s a period of setbacks and stress, when suicides and suicide attempts are higher.

The stakes are high for many years to come.

Over the past 24 years, I’ve asked a question of people with mental disorders and addictions; I’ve asked their parents, siblings, children, or their friends.  “At what age did you or your loved one make the conscious choice to take responsibility for treatment?  When did you/they get a stable job or live on their own, and associate with healthy people?  I asked dozens of people. Their answer? Every single one tells me they or their loved one didn’t turn things around until they were about the age of 30In my personal experience, the late 20’s is when they start to realize something is wrong and that they have to do something about it.  This is when many make their first attempts to get well.

True story: a co-worker told me about his bipolar disorder and years of addiction.  I would never had guessed that this pleasant, stable person had had such a troubled past.  Never in a million years.  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. You’re child literally isn’t aware they have a problem because they have anosognosia “a deficit of self-awareness” caused by mental disorders.  They can’t tell they are different from other people, and many resist being told that they are and resist treatment.
  2. They get good at coping.  They squeak by, or use others, give up, or depend on others to rescue them.  Many delay the inevitable scary thought that there really is something wrong with them and only they can change their life.
  3. Emotional development falls behind for young people with disorders or addictions. They may need an extra 10 years to go through the final brain maturation phase into an adult brain.

Because of their challenges, the adult child needs better life management skills than their normal peers–better self-discipline and self-monitoring, continual assessment of their state of mind.  It’s like a diabetic who must continually assess their blood sugar levels.  Your adult child need to remember to take meds, get enough sleep, and avoid situations that impact their wellbeing.  Your child must avoid excesses that their peers can get away with, e.g. risky liaisons, parties, junk food, marijuana and alcohol, anxiety-ridden situations, paranoia, despair.  They must stick with a healthy diet, exercise, sleep, and invest in supportive friendships.  You know your child, all of this may be hard for them!

How much to sacrifice and how much to let go?

Parents need to let go eventually.  Make a plan for pulling back a step at a time.  You may need to watch your child struggle, so plan to be encouraging and supportive and to avoid rescuing as much as possible. Parents are often tempted to rescue their adult son or daughter when a crisis occurs because it’s so hard for their child to recover from set-backs. But rescuing too much may make them more dependent as well as resentful.  On the other hand, pressuring a troubled young person act like an “adult” when they are not ready can push them to dependence on others who might make their life worse, or addictions, isolation, resignation, or self-harm.  Strive for balance, but be strategic when and how you hand your child off to the world,

True story:  I met a couple in their 70’s who’d rescued their demanding 34-year-old daughter her entire life, and couldn’t afford her financially or emotionally anymore. They were terrified she’d become homeless or suicidal, and deeply regretted that they may have unwittingly undermined her capacity for independence.  It was heartbreaking for them not to answer her calls.

It’s time to back away from direct support as a “parent,” and become a case manager, therapist, and mentor.

  • Case manager – This is the busy work.  You fill out forms, make appointments and perhaps provide transportation to appointments; ensure prescriptions are refilled; check-in that your child has taken them.  You might follow-up on calls and emails regarding: banking, waivers, police reports, insurance, self-care, etc.
  • Therapist – Just listen to your child’s demands or complaints; acknowledge and validate their feelings; but in your head, determine how much you’ll help without rescuing them or smoothing over issues.  Be supportive and caring but hold to boundaries.  What should they struggle with on their own so they can learn how to be a responsible adult.  Think about how and when you should rescue just a little bit.
  • Mentor – Build trust by listening strategically for legitimate needs of any young adult.  When they trust you they’ll listen to you, and when they listen, you teach them all the things they need to know.
On mentoring:
“For mentors, the most important thing is to ask questions, to be the guide on the side, rather than the sage on the stage.”
–Lisa Fain, CEO, Center for Mentoring Excellence
The best way to mentor is to ask open-ended questions which can’t be answered by ‘yes” or “no”.  This can start before they turn 18.  Your goal is simply to get your child to ponder key questions.  There are no right or wrong answers.  If they share with you, do not offer opinions, ideas, or suggestions–only listen.  Your child might be unrealistic, mean-spirited, immature, or naïve.  But let it be.  They only need the key questions and time to come up with their own answers (hours, days, weeks, months).

Pondering the future:

  • What is your ideal future?
  • How do you want things to be different in 3 years? in 5 years?
  • What’s getting in the way?  What might get in the way in the future?
  • What can you control?
  • What are your ideas for overcoming barriers?
  • Tell me more
Pondering long-term mental health self-care:
  • What will you do to feel better when you’re upset?  How can you solve the problem that keeps happening?
  • How do you want others to treat you?
  • What do you want others to know?

A major challenge is where they’ll live.

At home:  Can you bear the stress if they live with you?  If so, how long?  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 should become your guest, who stays at your invitation, or a renter who contributes to the household and follows the parent-landlord’s rules.  On the other hand, you’ll need step back and respect their privacy–this means compromises and letting go of being the parent.

Living on their own: 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 (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 of their daughter’s condition and the risks she posed, and reassured them they will be on the spot as need if she had problems.  It helped for a year when there were complaints, but eventually complaints and police calls continued, and their child eventually evicted along with the others who camped out there.

With roommates or housemates:  This is tricky.  What if your child creates problems and get’s kicked out, or just as bad, abandoned by co-inhabitants and stuck with rent.  Even if your child is not antagonistic, they can create stress for housemates or be too stressed by them.  And what about these co-inhabitants?  Are they safe for your 18 and older child’s mental health?

With a boyfriend or girlfriend: the same concerns apply as for housemates.  This living situation is only as stable as the partner.  Some parents have encouraged couples to stay in their basement or their child’s original room.  It may have been uncomfortable, but worked because the partner provided stability.

In the eyes of the law, you are not responsible for them anymore.

You aren’t.  In fact, you have the right to banish your 18 and older child 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 does not mean you are a bad person.  It is understandable and forgivable if you feel forced into this step.  But know this, things change.  Your adult child can get well and be back in your lives someday

At the age of 18 and older, broad institutional supports kick in.  (Don’t you wish that happened years 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 people.
  • 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 peers, and legal and legislative advocacy.
  • Educational institutions have special departments solely for supporting students with disabilities, and that includes anyone struggling with a disorder.

There are 4 important things that your troubled young adult needs from you to function after 18. They are based on long-term monitoring of 1000’s of others from adolescence up into their 40’s and 50’s.  The best long-term prognosis happened when they had:

  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.

There is a long road ahead.

Don’t expect milestones to be reached.  Those struggling with behavioral challenges or addictions do not keep up with peers.  You may wait and wonder uncomfortably– when will they’ll get a job, find friends, manage money, move out…?  Except the fact of delayed progress because remember, some aren’t ready until 30-ish.

Do keep up regular communications with your child even if they resist.  Do everything you can to build and maintain a relationship even if it’s difficult.  If not with you, perhaps you can find another mature adult who can mentor your child in your stead, such as another family member.


Scroll down to add a comment or ask questions below.  Your thoughts and experiences help others who read this article.


If you feel you need extra support for your own situation, I may be able to help as a parenting coach, guide and mentor.  I have 22 years experience helping parents navigate challenges with young adults struggling with mental disorders.  Follow this link.


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