“I’m 18 — You Can’t Tell Me What to Do!” Is Your Young Adult Child Breaking House Rules?

Posted July 23, 2013 by

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Many parents struggle with their just-turned-18, newly-minted adult children refusing to follow house rules and waving the, “I’m an adult. You can’t tell me what to do,” banner every time the parent confronts an issue of broken rules or disrespect.

For many families, the transition from adolescence into adulthood is one of the more difficult ones for both parent and child. Why is this so? Part of the reason is that older teens often seem to have one foot planted firmly in the adult world while still keeping a toehold in their childhood.  They want to be adults when it suits them — meaning when they want autonomy and the ability to make grown-up decisions — but they can quickly revert back to the “child” role when they want or need something from the parent, such as use of the car or continued financial support. It’s important to know that this isn’t all due to manipulation on their part. Some of it is the fear of being completely on their own, along with everything that entails.

If you’re having a hard time with your young adult right now, you are not alone. Many of the parents we speak to through our 1-on-1 Coaching Service say that the time right after high school graduation is especially challenging. It’s hard to know how to respond to your child when they break house rules or act out — if your child is going to college, you probably don’t want to rock the boat this close to your child leaving. You might fear your relationship may be forever tainted or that there will be irreversible damage to their child’s future. I talk to many parents who put up with behavior they wouldn’t have tolerated when their child was still 17, because they’re anxious about the possible long term effects of any consequences they may implement and want to “end on a good note” before their child launches. It’s an understandable viewpoint, since the consequence that is most often suggested by friends and family is to “toss the kid out.” As a result, oftentimes parents are simply left feeling powerless.

So, what can a parent do in this situation?  Here are three ways you can “right size” the issue and regain parental authority in a calm and positive way.

Recognize that your child is an adult — with everything that entails. It’s important to in fact recognize that your child is an adult now. With that shift come certain freedoms, but also certain responsibilities. As an adult, your child is allowed to make whatever choices he or she chooses, even if those choices are bad, or not ones you would necessarily agree with. You can’t control the choices your child makes, now or at any other time, but you can control how you choose to respond to those choices. There are natural consequences that go along with certain choices that tend to be more severe when you become an adult. As an adult, if you break the law for example, you may be looking at steeper fines or jail time as opposed to having the charges filed or being put on probation if you’re a juvenile.  Your consequences can also be firmer, because, after all, everything you give or provide for your child after he turns 18 is a privilege, including the roof over his head.

Use what you provide for your child as a consequence/motivator. I’m not saying you have to throw your now-adult child out when he breaks rules or doesn’t meet expectations. But, it is possible to continue using what you provide for your child as consequences/motivators. Let’s take not following curfew as an example. First, it’s okay to have a curfew even if your child is over the age of 18. As James Lehman explains in the article Rules, Boundaries and Older Children Part I, it can be helpful to think more in terms of “house guest” than “family.” If you had a house guest who stayed out to all hours of the night, how long would you allow him to stay with you? Most people who took advantage of a situation this way would wear out their welcome pretty quickly!

It doesn’t have to be any different because it’s your child. So, maybe you let him know you’re going to be locking the front door by a certain time. If he’s not home by that time, he’ll need to find another place to sleep that night. (This is always left up to the parent’s discretion. You know your child best.) You can also set it up so the expectation is that if he’s going to be in after curfew or staying the night somewhere else, he needs to call you by a certain time. If he doesn’t, then maybe he loses his driving privileges or cell phone for a certain amount of time.

From “manager” to “consultant”: “When your child is young, you can think of yourself as a manager. You are involved in her day-to-day life in a very ‘hands–on’ kind of way. But as your child grows and becomes an adult, you’re really more of a consultant,” says Debbie Pincus in her article, Adult Child Living at Home? How to Manage without Going Crazy. “That means you talk to your child about what’s going on like a consultant for a business might. As a parent, you need to step back more and more as time goes by because your child is an adult. You can be helpful and check in, but it’s best not to give unsolicited advice.”

This doesn’t mean that you don’t hold your child accountable. You still need to define boundaries and let her know that you’re going to stick to them. At the same time, you’re also giving her more respect and autonomy.

Be proactive: As with younger children, it can be helpful to be proactive: plan for possible scenarios before they happen and come up with a list of fail-proof consequences you know you’ll be willing to follow through on. Don’t threaten things, such as throwing your child out or calling the police, if you’re not sure you’d be able to follow through with it should push come to shove. I’ve spoken to many parents who have used threats like these but, when the time came, couldn’t do it. They ended up losing whatever authority they may have had. Don’t pick the nuclear option if that won’t work for you: instead, find something you’ll be willing to do that will also have an effect on your child.

After all, you just want your child to make better choices, right?  Using threats with no intent to follow through usually backfires.  So, the simple solution is, “Mean what you say and say what you mean.” Simple isn’t always easy, though. In the end, the only one who can decide where your limits and boundaries lie is you.


Denise Rowden is a parent of two teens: an 18-year-old daughter and a 19-year-old son. She has worked in Special Education, Alternative Education and adolescent group homes. She has a BS in Psychology from the University of Southern Maine and is currently working on her Life Coach certification from the International Coach Federation.

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  1. danni1970 Report

    I have a step son that turned 18 and he is a Senior this year. His Dad and I are having trouble with him fallowing the house rules and with Respect, we did not have any trouble till he got with his new girlfriend he has stop doing his chores around the house he is not in when it is curfew.  His girlfriend is 15 we have told him that during the week that he has to be in the house by 8 pm for school in the morning and the reason for 8 pm is that are youngest goes to bed at that time and on the Friday and Saturday he has to be in by midnight he told his father that is not happening he will be in at 2:30 am on thous days cause he helps babysit with his girlfriend. But every time we say anything about her or her family and tell him that he is grounded he just does not listen to us and does what ever he wants.  Our 15 year old does not want to do her chores now cause she see what he is doing and wants to do the same thing we have told him that she gets grounded for the things she does wrong and the same thing should happen to him as well and he just laughs in your face not happening I’m 18 do what I want and does it.  We don’t want to kick him out we had to do that to my oldest step son and it did take a toll on my husband to that and he fells that is how Sean is going down the wrong path his oldest did, and we don’t want that. Can you help us?

    • rwolfenden Report

      danni1970 I’m so sorry to hear about the struggles you are facing with your stepson, and I’m glad that you are reaching out for support.  It’s pretty normal for your stepson to want to defend his girlfriend, as most kids this age tend to identify more with their friends and dating partners rather than their family.  For this reason, I recommend focusing more on your stepson’s choices and behavior rather than his girlfriend, because despite https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/does-your-child-have-toxic-friends-6-ways-to-deal-with-the-wrong-crowd/, he is the one ultimately in charge of his own actions.  As outlined in the article above, it can be helpful to think of your stepson as a house guest rather than family, and think of how you might respond in that situation.  If a house guest or tenant was not following your rules, it probably wouldn’t be effective to “ground” them.  I understand your hesitation around kicking him out, so you might look at other privileges you provide, such as a phone, use of a car, or spending money, to hold him accountable.  I recognize how difficult this must be for you right now, and I hope that you will write back and let us know how things are going for you and your family.  Take care.

  2. Mel 50 Report

    My son is 18 and just graduated high school. He is going to college and living at home. To complicate it even more he is ADHD and is on Vyvanse. I’m divorced but have been in a long term relationship for almost 6 years . I have told him the usual as long as you live in my house you have to follow the rules, clean your room, odds and ends household chores. He is getting more hateful to me all the time. I ask him tonight to come home early after work and he blew up on me and said there is nothing to do at home. It escaladed into a huge fight and my fiance told him to pack a bag and don’t come back tonight. I am extremely upset. .Ifor this backfires then he skips school and then he can’t become an electrician and that’s my fault. ..I’m just trying to get him through school so he can have an opportunity for a better paying job than I have….I don’t want to financially support him forever. ..But I’m losing myself through this to…I’m depressed, cry all the time and sometimes just want to give up.

  3. Eddy4510 Report

    Well from my opinion, I think that there is a difference between doing what your parents tell you to do and following their rules. Doing what your parents tell you to do would mean to do what they say, even if you don’t like it. For example, if your parents didn’t let you have video games when you were a minor and you bought one now, if they ask you to give them your video game so that they can take it away, you have their right to not give it to them since its yours now and you bought it with your own money, and plus you are an adult now. If you get a tattoo and they ask you to remove it, they can’t do anything about this either. That’s what I mean. Now following their rules would mean to do what they say if you want to keep living with them. Examples may include to do chores, avoid drinking and swearing, no smoking or fighting inside the house,  an to help wash the dishes. Those sound like rules you must follow to keep living under this roof. So to sum things up, your parents cannot prohibit your personal decisions like having video games, tattoos, or a boyfriend or girlfriend when you are an adult. But they can expect you to obey their rules if you live with them.

    • Eddy4510 Report

      Sorry I meant you have the right to not give it to them. I knowticed that I misspelled the third sentence.

  4. lguzman Report

    I have a 18 year old daughter who is still in high school she gradutes 2016.for the last 2 months it has gotten extremely outt of control. She goes out all hours of the night I get up at 3 to 4am with her friends in my house everytime I try to talk to her it turns into a huge screaming match.she says okay I will not do thid again but I only have to more weeks of summer I plan to enjoy myself.I honestly cant deal with it anymore I have high blood pressure. Just recently she curses at me Iam every Bitch in the world. I believe she is going tp or is most differently turned intp someone I dont even no.She pushes the door o n me to get out her room….
    Her Dad passed away when she was 7..I just want her to obey my rules. Someone help me out with advise. PS DHE ALSO CANT FIND A JOB

    • rwolfenden Report

      We speak with many parents who
      are frustrated with their adult child’s behavior and apparent lack of regard to
      the house rules, so you are not alone.  Something to keep in mind is your daughter is
      an adult; thus, anything you choose to provide to her is considered a
      privilege, including a place to stay in your home.  While this does not
      mean that you have to tell her to leave your house altogether, you might
      consider looking at how you can enforce your house rules.  It could be
      useful to write up a http://www.empoweringparents.com/parenting-living-adult-children.php which outlines the expectations you have for her behavior while
      she is living in your home, and how you will hold her accountable if she is
      breaking the rules.  I realize how challenging this is.  Please let
      us know if you have any additional questions; take care.



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