When Your Teen Says: “I’m Almost 18 – You Can’t Tell Me What to Do!”

April 6, 2009 by

Ah, the battle cry of the “almost adult”! Parents all around the country cringe when they try to enforce a family rule, only to be met with their 17-and-a-half-year-old’s shout: “Soon, you won’t be able to control me at all!”

Is that true? Are all bets off once your child reaches that golden age of eighteen?

The answer is yes and no. (Mostly no.) It’s true that when your child reaches the age of eighteen, they are legally seen as an adult and are legally responsible for their own behavior instead of their parents. They can’t break laws, of course – being 18 just means you can be tried as an adult, not that you’re free to do anything you please.

What concerns many parents is how much control they can have over their child once they reach 18, and many parents abdicate all authority once their kids are no longer minors. So how can you tell your child what to do when he’s legally an adult? The truth is, no matter how old your child, you have the right to enforce the rules of your house. Your 18-eighteen-year-old has to follow the rules just as much as your 4-year-old does. Of course, as kids get older, they can earn more privileges, and have more responsibility, but the age factor does not give them an excuse to be abusive (verbally or physically) or disrespectful. Your house rules are your house rules. And as James Lehman says, there’s never any excuse for abuse – no matter how old someone is.

In EP’s three part series on adult children, James describes how many parents get sucked into feeling like they owe their child a place to live, or food to eat. In fact, many older children begin to treat their parents’ home as though it were a hotel. Teens have an error in their thinking when they believe that turning 18 suddenly means they can do whatever they want. That “thinking error” shows up in many ways, often around issues of school or good grades. If they don’t want to go to school, they’ll say “I’m almost 18, you can’t make me.” Or, “As soon as I turn 18, I’m going to quit and you can’t stop me.”

Both of those statements are true. You can’t force your child to go to school, and you can’t stop them from quitting once they’re 18. You can, however, enforce a family rule. If you believe your child should finish high school, tell them, “You’re right. I can’t force you to go, and I can’t stop you from quitting. However, the rule in this house is that you graduate from high school, or you get a full time job and pay rent. The choice is up to you.” If they come back at you with “Okay, I’ll move out then,” you may just need to let that comment slide. Teens often challenge your rules by threatening you with leaving, trying to get you to give in to their demands.

A more appropriate response to that kind of comment would be: “That’s not what I want to see happen. However, you do need to find a way to comply with the rules as long as you live here.” Then, walk away. Your child might be so shocked by your reply that they’ll find a way to comply with your rules.

Remember, the rules are the rules — and the rules of your house remain the rules of your house no matter how old your child. This needs to be stated clearly and firmly. Your house rules should reflect your morals and values, and provide a safe environment for everyone in the home. For example, no stealing or lying will be tolerated in your home. Curfews need to be met. Basic hygiene and respect for others’ property is expected. No drugs or alcohol, especially if the child is still under legal drinking age. You may have other rules to add to this list. If your 18 or older child is living in your house, they need to abide by your rules, or face the consequences for breaking those rules. Sit down together and talk about your rules and your expectations.

Once you’ve had this discussion, you can sidestep all those cries of “You can’t make me.” When your child challenges you with “I’m almost 18, you can’t tell me what to do,” the most effective response is: “You’re right. I can’t tell you what to do outside of this house. But while you’re here, you do need to comply with my rules. You don’t have to like them, but you do have to find a way to follow them.” Don’t engage in a power struggle over who’s right or wrong, and don’t argue with their faulty thinking patterns and entitlement. If they break the rules, follow through with the consequence for breaking those rules. Remember, whether your child is 5 years old, or over 18, your home is your home, and your rules are your rules. Once they’re 18, you can’t control all their choices,  but you can create a safe, and somewhat peaceful, home environment. Good luck!

Megan Devince LCPC is a 1-on-1 Coach for the Total Transformation Program. If you are a Total Transformation customer, you can access the 1-on-1 Coaching Team for help with these and other challenges you’re experiencing with your child.

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