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Planning for Your Troubled Child from Birth to 18 – What to Expect and Do

Parents face daily challenges with a troubled child or teen, and easily overlook the future.  I know I did.  What’s going to happen as they grow and change?  What does one plan for?  It helped me to hear from parents who had already traveled this path.  Based on their experiences, these are some things you can expect–and do–before your child reaches the pivotal age of 18.

Your child may not be ready for adulthood by age 18, but be OK with this.  Collective experience indicates your son or daughter  will continue to need your support and health care management into their mid-20’s.

If he or she reaches young adulthood with the capacity to maintain well-being on their own, you’ve done a good job.

From birth to age ~5

YouConsider yourself lucky if he or she has an identifiable behavior problem early!  You have ample time to understand your parenting needs and prepare, and use the many “special needs” services for young children.  Start a file and keep absolutely every medical and school record and contacts for people and services.  You are about to become a case manager.

Your family

  • Talk with siblings frankly.  Explain that sister or brother has a different brain and will be treated differently.  Inform them you will be distracted by their sibling’s need for appointments and other issues, and that it may feel unfair.  Ask for their patience.  Reassure them you love them very much.
  • Talk with your partner or spouse about revising expectations for your child, and accepting that your life may be harder than you planned .  Discuss how you will work together and share responsibilities, and work through disagreements about parenting the child in the future.

Everyone – Keep friends, activities, and plans the same.  Keep hobbies and interests alive.  Be as inclusive as possible of your special needs child but don’t sacrifice your family’s needs.  It’s a tricky balance.

Ages ~6-11  – young children

If your child’s behavior problems started at this age, read the above.  It still applies, except you may find fewer services, and sadly, more blame.  Seek professional help now.  Early intervention is the key to future mental health.

What to teach your family:

    • Our lives will be different from other families, but this is normal for families like ours.
    • We will support your sister or brother, but we will take care of ourselves and each other, we will have each other’s back.

What you should do:

  1. Make safety a high priority in your home, emotional safety as well as physical safety.
  2. Focus on schedules and planned time for activities every day.  Maintain this structure consistently, including weekends and holidays.
  3. Teach your child skills for managing behavior–they may not be able to stop it completely.
  4. Modify your home to reduce stress: Less noise or over-stimulation.  Better diet. A separate time-out  space.  Lock up valuables or dangerous items.  Consider a therapy pet.  Create a  tradition of whole-family activities:  Wii, playing cards, board games, exercise games, art or crafts, movie night…
  5. Take frequent “mental health breaks.”  Be generous with yourself without guilt.  Let other family members have breaks too.

Managing resistance: tips and advice

Practical ways to calm yourself, your child, your family

From ~12-18 – ‘tweens and teens

If your child started having problems at this age, most information above still applies, but this may be the most difficult period!

Two things happen in the teen years:

  1. They enter a normal phase of development where they seek their own identity, and want freedom and a social life separate from the family.  But they take more risks, and expose themselves to more risks.
  2. Some mental disorders start at this phase, or get much worse and become quite serious:  major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and schizoaffective disorder, anorexia, borderline personality disorder… Risks include school failure, criminal activity, substance abuse, suicide, and assault.


Safety – You may need to take unusually strong measures to ensure physical and emotional safety. Many need to lock up all knives, or allow siblings to lock themselves in their own room for protection, or search their teen’s room, or take away the cell phone and internet access.

Your well-being and that of other family members – Assertively seek outside support for your family, such as a support network of friends and family, or a religious community or support group, or mental health treatment for yourself, or all of the above.

Education – This is critical, even if it’s only for one or two classes per day.  If your teen cannot complete high school in time with their peers, it’s not a disaster. They may not graduate now, but they can finish their education eventually.  It’s never too late.

Positive peers and adult mentors – Keep your son or daughter from risky youth or adults.  Encourage activities with anyone they like and trust whom you approve of.

Ongoing mental health treatment –  your child may not believe (or accept) they have a mental health problem but they can at least comply with treatment.

By age 18

mature at 25

25 years???  Yes, hang in there.  Pace yourself.  You can do this.  At a minimum, this is what your child needs–fundamental criteria for a functional adult life:

  • A steady job and income, or a meaningful activity (volunteering, school)
  • Healthy, stable relationships
  • Maintenance of health and hygiene
  • Decent housing, maintenance of housing and belongings
  • Maintenance of financial stability

Additional information about young adults in here:  “How to Help Your Troubled Child After They Turn 18

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


  • Kari LaPlante says:


    I think your posts are wonderful. They offer great insights to what parents will be dealing with and how to cope with the difficulties of raising a child with emotional and behavioral difficulties. I taught a self contained class for students with these difficulties for 4 years before I took over the special education department for my school, and I know how challenging it can be. I am working on a master’s degree in applied behavioral analysis and as part of my focus (because I love these kids) I want to help keep them in the classrooms. I am working on a project that looks at the parents perspectives. Can you tell me the top three things that parents email you about? or the top three things that you find to be most helpful for parents?

    I appreciate your time and for dedication to providing helpful information to parents.



    • Three things that help parents the most:
      1. You are not alone. There are millions of parents out there with a troubled child they all understand how you feel.
      2. You are not at fault. You didn’t cause your child’s problems and they didn’t choose to have them. You are good parent who cares.
      3. Things will get better. Your child may not turn out like you hoped, but their life will improve someday and your job as parent will get easier.

  • alice says:

    Hi I have a 19yr old daughter diagnosed bipolar ADD. Because of her repeative stealing, lying to me and other impulsive behaviors – I no long allow her to live with me or stay at my home when I’m not there. About a month ago she took my credit card number and charged multiple things. I reported it to the police ( this being the after a threatened her that’s what would happen if she every did it again) It broke my heart to do it and this week a detective called me saying if I precede it looked like there would be multiple felonies. This is killing me. I have been advised to follow through with this by others – or she will never stop. She said she will go to her psychiatrist and therapist now. But do I believe her? I have tried everything. I just dont know what to do anymore. She still is my little girl.

    • Hello Alice, every parent in your situation empathizes with your grief, and many parents who read this blog have a beloved child just like your daughter, and face the same impossible painful choices. Starting with you, acknowledge your grief and give yourself permission to bear it with grace. You will get through it. And with a daughter like yours (and mine at her age) the grief experience will come back again, yet you will endure with a little more comfort and strength.

      Your daughter is 19, but emotionally she is 13 because mental disorders delay maturity. It looks like she faces multiple charges and the System will mete out its punishment–but it will be the Bad Guy, not you. This is where you come in with support for her and keep a bridge built in your relationship. She will get through this rough period and be your loving daughter someday. It WILL happen. In my experience, this make take years, possibly until she’s 30. But stay connected in every way possible. Don’t let go. Your baby is still in there and she’ll be back.


  • Nandi says:

    My boyfriend of 32 years 15 year old grandson was put in some kind of school/ home because of anger. His mother just got divorced and she started to bring strange men into the house and them decided she was gay and moved a 22 year old woman into the house as her mate. (the mother is 38). Her son the 15 year old was angry and he attcked her with his sandwich from burger king. The mother called the police. ( I am sure there must have been more ro it).

    The police took him and later he was brought to some kind of home which Nobody not even his grandfather my boyfrriend knew where. Later my boyfriend grandfather was able to visit.

    My question is why would this kid be taken away over a sandwich attack? I, nor my boyfriend, the grandfather ever found out why this kid was taken away.

    My boyfrien thinks his grandson was bad but I think it was how he was brought up with different men and then a woman who became his mother`s lover.
    He is home now and visited but seems to have such a bad attitude that he did not have before. Perhaps he hid his unhappiness from us?

    I am just curious if it was in up bringing when others thought he needed to go away.
    The mother was close to another family that put her son away,not by the state.

  • The top three things that parents ask about their child:
    1. How can I make our horrible situation end?
    2. How can I get my child back on track and be normal like their peers?
    3. What am I supposed to do? Where do I get help? I feel so lost.

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