“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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