Managing the Milestone: Your Child’s 18th Birthday

18th birthday candlesOver the course of a decade working therapeutically with adolescents and their families, I have observed countless young people as they reach a highly anticipated milestone in their lives: turning 18. I have also observed the parents of all those young people as they attempt to adjust to the transition that occurs when their “baby” officially becomes an adult. It has been my experience that a child’s 18th birthday is an especially potent event for families, and the ways in which families respond to this event, for better or worse, can form the basis for the launching of their child into young adulthood.

Of course, we all know why the 18th birthday is a really big deal: it’s the one on which Western culture bestows young people with most of the rights they will enjoy for the rest of their lives. These rights include moving about at will without restrictions, curfews, or the like; choosing friends and partners of whom the parents may not approve; signing contracts such as military enlistments, marriage certificates, and leases; borrowing money via loans and credit cards; obtaining or declining medical and mental health care; and quitting or enrolling oneself in educational programs.

Along with those rights, a number of new responsibilities are also bestowed upon each young person on his or her 18th birthday. For example, the young adult must actually uphold any contract that is signed, including paying back loans and lines of credit. Another new responsibility is that, legally, a person—even one who is still in high school—is treated as an adult rather than a juvenile within the legal system. The 18-year-old’s behaviors and choices carry consequences that are far and above what they have ever before experienced.

With all of the cultural and personal implications that hang on the 18th birthday, it is no surprise that navigating this milestone can challenge families. This is an event that can change, literally overnight, the power balances, rules, and expectations between parents and children. Families may spend months or even years nervously anticipating this change; conversely, they may be blindsided by the realities of parenting a child in this brand-new context, and find themselves dealing with unexpected consequences.

In some families, the 18th birthday is treated as a full stop to adolescence, and the newly minted adult is expected to (or believes he/she is ready and able to) immediately begin fulfilling many adult-like roles. The adult child may be expected to, for example, begin paying rent to the parents, purchase his or her own vehicle, or find a full-time job.

In other families, the cultural and legal implications of a child’s 18th birthday are treated as irrelevant inside the family fold; the family attempts to keep everything regarding their child, from rules and curfews to roles and communication styles, exactly the same as before.

In still other families, both the anticipation and actual event of a child turning 18 can become a flashpoint for family upheaval and conflicts. The newly adult child may use turning 18 as a springboard for rebellious or ill-advised shows of independence. Likewise, the parents may threaten the adult child with being kicked out, losing financial help, or other withdrawals of support in an attempt to enforce compliance with rules and expectations.

The “real world” is at once enticing and terrifying for emerging adults.

Many young adults have described feeling as if they’ve been thrown into the deep end of a pool once it sinks in that they are truly considered adults, and may often feel quite unprepared to meet the demands of the “real world.” At the same time, they are excited to flex some of their new independence and privileges, and may at times feel driven to act out adult-like roles and scripts the moment that they have the legal ability to do so.

One primary reason for this is that at 18, the young person’s brain is continuing to develop and does not yet function as a fully mature brain does. The brain’s reward system, governing the way that novelty- and pleasure-reinforcing neurotransmitters such as dopamine are released, peaks in activity in the late teen years. The prefrontal cortex—which aids with decision making, problem solving, and impulse inhibition—is not at its full level of function until the mid-twenties. The fact is, a young adult on his or her 18th birthday is not magically wiser, more resourceful, or more emotionally mature than he or she was the day before, and won’t think and act like a fully mature adult until a few years later.

To complicate the picture, there are almost always needs and dependencies that persist between the 18-year-old and his or her parents. For example, an 18-year-old who is still in high school cannot work full time even if he or she wanted to, and even those out of high school usually continue to be financially dependent. Shared health insurance, car insurance, family cell phone plans, and other matters of money and information mean that negotiating the leading edge of your child’s independence can be tricky at best.

Although we in Western societies now experience a more extended period of adolescent development and dependence than ever before, and although we are now more aware of the realities of brain development, the fact is that 18 continues to be the age of majority in the United States. The mismatch between the legal freedoms and the young person’s capacity to exercise them responsibly can create rough waters for families to navigate. Power struggles that exist between the child and the parents around the time of the child’s 18th birthday can quickly escalate into the child threatening to leave, and/or the parents threatening to kick the child out. The child may choose to do things that are legally acceptable, but are not acceptable to the parents who support him or her.

Every family will handle this transition differently, according to its own unique set of strengths, expectations, and history. However, there are a few rules of thumb that parents can keep in mind which may assist them in managing this major milestone.

The boundary around the family must be flexible—neither too diffuse nor too rigid.

First and foremost, resist the urge to threaten to kick your child out. The subject of your young adult child leaving home will often arise sometime within the months around his or her 18th birthday. You may find your child saying things like, “I don’t like your rules. I should go live with my friend where they don’t have these rules.” Often, by talking about (or threatening to) move out, the child is testing out ideas about being an adult, without any actual intention of following through on those ideas. The 18-year-old usually does not have the experience, wisdom, or resources to leave the home in a safe or well-planned way—and he or she knows it.

If your child does threaten to leave home, as the parent it is imperative that your response be one of reassurance that the child is still a part of the family and that the family home continues to be his or her home. Remember that your 18-year-old is struggling to adjust his or her self-concept to include adult-like roles, and mentally trying some of these on for size is developmentally normative. However, when parents respond to limit-testing behaviors by threatening to kick the child out of the home, the child feels insecure about the stability of the family system and his or her role in it; the boundaries become diffuse and the child becomes unsure about whether he or she can count on remaining a part of the family on which he or she remains largely dependent.

Another problem with parents threatening to kick the child out is that systems under stress tend to escalate to the most intense point of conflict during each conflict cycle. Once parents introduce the possibility of kicking the child out, it is likely to become incorporated into every argument that follows—either by the parents or by the child in anticipation of the parents’ threat. This escalation pattern severely disrupts the stability of the family system.

So it’s important that the boundary around who is in and who is out of the family system remains well-defined so that the young adult child feels secure about his or her place in the world long enough to figure out his or her next steps into adulthood. However, it is also important that the family boundary not be so rigid that it inhibits the child’s necessary practicing of adult-like behaviors in safe and appropriate ways. Families who refuse to allow their 18-year-old to make an increasing number of choices and reach increasing levels of independence can inhibit the development of responsibility, self-sufficiency, and life skills that the young adult child will soon need. Therefore, ongoing adjustments to certain family rules, such as curfews, jobs/bills, and friend/partner choices, are essential.

Use negotiation skills to co-create a new set of roles and rules that meet the needs of all family members.

How, then, can parents approach these transitions? One way to help your child learn how to be an adult is to treat him or her like one—at first emotionally, and later more practically. Speaking respectfully to your child, accepting his or her opinions as valid, and encouraging him or her to do the same to you are ways to introduce your child to adult-like, egalitarian relating. Negotiating new rules, privileges, and responsibilities together—“family meetings” are helpful for this—allows both the parents and the child to mutually create adjustments to the rules that are thoughtful, sensible, and predictable. Many families find it helpful to write down the new rules and display them in the home so that all parties remember them (and remember that they agreed to them!).

If any family member feels that the current rules and expectations are not working, they can call a new family meeting at any time to review and possibly revise them. If parents and child reach an impasse, try to be as creative as possible to find ways to meet the needs of all family members. Young adults may be happy to agree to increasing levels of responsibility in the home in exchange for increasing levels of trust and privilege. The family members should keep in mind that flexibility, communication, and negotiation with a goal of mutual agreement will take them smoothly through this period of transition.

It can be helpful for these discussions to begin well before the 18th birthday, so that there is plenty of time for the family members to think ahead, anticipate, and become mentally ready for the changes to the power balance and expectations that will likely occur. A discussion that occurs over the course of weeks or months is more likely to involve all family members, cover more contingencies and “what-ifs,” and result in a smoother transition through the actual birthday.

However, it is never too late. If you find yourself with a child who is already 18, or even 19 or 20, and are experiencing a difficult family adjustment into your child’s young adulthood, it is still advisable to approach your child and create an open dialogue about the rules and roles in the family.

© Copyright 2014 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Kyle S. King, LMFT, LCPC, therapist in Lake Bluff, Illinois

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Anna Kaminsky

    Anna Kaminsky

    January 16th, 2014 at 10:38 AM

    Very wise words for those with children on the verge of turning 18. Yes, it is absolutely true that there is no magical transformation at this age that suddenly bestows them with adult-level decision-making skills, but we do expect them to behave like an adult. Perhaps keeping them at home a bit longer is not such a bad thing, and with the extended education everyone requires these days, perhaps financially beneficial as well.

  • Jayma

    Jayma

    January 16th, 2014 at 6:10 PM

    I never experienced this threat of having to move out at 18 from my own parents so I certainly don’t see why I would do this with my own.
    How could we think that just because thye turn this magic number that they are automatically an adult and that they are responsible or mature enough to make it in an adult laden world? That’s ridiculous!

  • mack

    mack

    January 17th, 2014 at 2:14 PM

    Honestly, I think that a big reason that so many parents struggle with this is that the kids are struggling with it. They are stuck between still wanting to be a kid and yet wanting to be treated like an adult too and they haven’t learned yet that you can’t have it both ways. There will come a time when you will either have to stay a kid and abide by the rules of your parents or grow up and move up. You can’t have mom and dad still foot all the bills and still expect them to treat you like an adult. Life does not work that way. So there are some tough things that have to be learned on all sides at this milestone age, as well the years leading up to and immediately following it.

  • julia t

    julia t

    January 18th, 2014 at 6:18 AM

    But the kids these days make such a big deal of this being their big breakout year. I guess that it just shows you have to be pretty careful what you wish for…

  • Kyle S. King, LMFT, LCPC

    Kyle S. King, LMFT, LCPC

    January 19th, 2014 at 8:33 PM

    Anna, thank you for your comment. The extended education that is encouraged, or even required, for many occupations these days certainly has a major effect on young people’s process of becoming an adult!

    Jayma, you hit the nail on the head! The 18th birthday is a one-day event, but the maturation process takes years. It can result in quite a mismatch between the demands of life and the ability of the young person to meet those demands.

    Mack, thank you for your thought-provoking comment. At 18, there definitely still exists a child inside each young adult; after all, they’ve been children their entire lives. They don’t yet know any different. I agree that it is a source of tension for many families that their young adult child remains financially dependent, while wanting to be treated as an adult by those same parents. This is what makes the 18th birthday (and the few years after it) such a period of upheaval. The lines must be drawn and redrawn to achieve balance as families adjust.

    Julie, I think you’re right in that the 18th birthday is glorified and highly anticipated by many teens. They may even believe that they have all of the necessary skills and competencies by 18 that they will need to “break out.” Unfortunately, experience shows us otherwise, for most. Often, I hear parents lament that their child won’t listen and “thinks he or she knows it all.” Yet, parents are the ones with the worldly wisdom and often are there to help “pick up the pieces” when needed. It is a difficult line to walk!

  • Brennan

    Brennan

    January 20th, 2014 at 5:01 AM

    You know, I really thought that it would be me hitting one of these milestones that would get to me, like 40 or 50. But I think that for me and my wife both it was when our kids hit 18, not because anything was in reality changing, but it just felt like it was coming soon and we knew it. That was hard letting go of them being our kids and turning them loose to discover who they were and could be as adults. I didn’t want to hang on, but then again maybe I did for just a little while longer than they probably wanted me to. This is a hard thing for any family who is close to exeperience because I think that most parents are going to be concerned if we taught them the right things and if they are going to be prepared for all of the hardships that we know life will eventually hand them but they have no clue about.

  • Kyle S. King, LMFT, LCPC

    Kyle S. King, LMFT, LCPC

    January 20th, 2014 at 6:51 PM

    Brennan, based on what I hear from parents, your and your wife’s experience is quite common. The “launching stage” as we family therapists call it, is a bittersweet one for all involved. When the family has enjoyed a great deal of closeness, this can both make the process a little smoother, and make the “loss” of your children’s’ childhood a little harder. It sounds like you and your wife had the right ideas!

  • Tyshaun

    Tyshaun

    January 21st, 2014 at 3:50 AM

    So who decided that 18 was the best time for kids to fly the coop?
    If you could still actively be in adolescence until the age of 24, then that would intellectually seem like a better time to turn over new responsibilities to young adults.

  • Henry f

    Henry f

    January 22nd, 2014 at 3:47 AM

    Wow, when I was this age I thought that turning 18 was going to be that point in my life where I finally got to be an adult and do the things that it seemed I had been waiting a lifetime to do. But at that young and tender age I had very little clue that being a man had nothing to do with how old I was turning on that birthday. I still had a whole lot of growing up to do as I am sure that most 18 year olds do. Maybe older society puts those expectations out there and then again maybe it is the young people who want it to be about so much more than it really is. Looking back now I can see that at this age you are far from being an adult even those who are thrown into it and forced to make it. You still have a whole lot of growing up yet to do.

  • kasey

    kasey

    January 25th, 2014 at 4:50 AM

    Parents make this hard on us you know. On the one hand they are telling us that we need to grow up and then on the other, well, they won’t let us. What are we in all honesty supposed to do with that? I mean, I think that they should have to choose one way or the other and if they did then I think that this would be a whole lot easier on the whole family. No I am not laying the blame solely at their feet because I know that I have some growing up to do too but they have to let that happen and if they want me to start taking on the extra responsibilities then they have to be willing to let go a little more than what they have. Want to know why so many kids go insane when they get to college? Because parents have spent so many years micromanaging their lives that they take this first little taste of freedom and run wild.

  • Jenn

    Jenn

    January 28th, 2014 at 1:03 PM

    It’s kind of one of those big events in yor life, like turning 40 or whatever, that starts to make you feel a little old, when your own child turns 18. You probably still see him or her as a 10 year old, but he is ready to spread his wings and fly on his own a little. I say let them. If they succeed then great, you know they are mature and responsible and can handle it. If they fail, be there to help them land on their feet and give them the encouragement and reassurance that they need that eventually it is okay for them to try again.

  • Rachel

    Rachel

    April 11th, 2016 at 8:44 AM

    My 16 year old daughter has just informed me that when she turns 18 and gets her own money all she will be handing up is the difference in the rent. How do I explain to her that I cloth her feed her she has internet at home it all costs money

  • Trish

    Trish

    September 17th, 2016 at 8:43 AM

    While I agree with everything you have said here, and I mean completely… what I wish you had addressed in this article is what you do when you have a 17 yr. old, who no matter the consequences, still continues to live by his own rules. I love my son very much and of course only want the best for him and I believe he knows this. He, however, still feels the freedom or lacks the impulse control to keep from doing things at our house (and away) that his father and I have clearly, again and again, forbidden. He and his friends chew tobacco and leave spit containers open in his room amidst a cluttered mess, he smokes pot and we will find the evidence of it in our garage or his room or on his person. He allows friends at our house when we are not home, which was never a problem except that they are taking the opportunity to drink and smoke while there, he’s taken money from us on several occasions, I have to keep all alcohol locked in a gun safe so he won’t get into it, he has allowed his friends to drive our vehicles, which twice over 3 yrs. has ended in totaling one of them and major damage (over $4000 worth) of another. Driven home drunk from a party, and majorly damaging another vehicle. These were spread out offenses and in-between all of this, he has a great sense of humor, can be helpful at times, engages well when he actually spends time with the family, and is very smart. He graduated from high school and is now taking a couple classes at a junior college. I know Jayma said she certainly couldn’t see how she could kick her child out… I’m wondering if she has endured the kind of conflict other people have. I don’t think all parents who make that decision, make it lightly. I have threatened it myself and after reading this article, am wishing I hadn’t because my goal is not to make him feel that he is not an important part of our family unit. At the times I have talked about it with him, it typically isn’t done in a yelling fit of rage. I have actually had full conversations about what our expectations have been, are, and will be at the time he turns 18. I have told him I don’t want it to come to that and expressed how much we love him and that it doesn’t have to be this way. We just can’t allow him to engage in illegal activities at our house and do feel it’s not too much to expect that as a member of our family, he hold himself and his friends to a certain standard of respect. He has been trying to get a job for the past nine months with no success. I don’t believe he could be trying too hard with as much time he has on his hands and still not have anything (even fast food, if that’s all that is available, is still income). I guess I feel like the only way he will see how easy he has it and truly appreciate everything we do for him, is to force him to go out on his own and try to make it. I need him to see that it is time for him to start holding himself to a higher standard of conduct. I feel lost.

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