Transitioning from teen to adult

How to navigate the changes ahead

The transition from age 17 to 18 can feel empowering for kids… and somewhat frightening for their parents.

For kids turning 18, the idea of their parent telling them what to do anymore seems long gone. It is the age of independence and exploration — the age when they can vote, join the military, get a tattoo and start making their own decisions.

For many this is also the time when kids pull away from their parents and begin to define who they are away from their parent’s rules and expectations. The new “adult” begins a journey of defining their values and morals, as well as what brings them happiness, who they will spend time with and how they will work through the various issues we face as adults.

This change can create conflict and strain between parent and child.

For parents who are still supporting their children, the idea that their kids can make decisions on their own can make communication challenging. Because they are dealing with feelings of loss around their child’s inevitable departure, parents can struggle with how to negotiate the relationship.

So how can parents move into a new relationship once this time has come? The more parents communicate with their budding adult, the more both can talk through what is important to them.

Parent and child can develop a level of respect and empathy for each other so each feels heard and understood. Giving kids more freedom and control over their schedule is a way for them to learn skills and coping strategies for dealing with new challenges. Setting up rules and expectations, as a form of communication, is a way to help kids understand their parent’s need to know if they are safe.

Talk to your kids about how to communicate if things change during their time away — not as a way to monitor everything that they do, but instead as a form of checking in to help parents begin to let go of the control. Parents should tell their kids that they trust them and be mindful of picking battles. Make scenarios like drunk driving or unsafe places be where you agree to have a truthful, transparent conversation.

As adults, our children want to be respected and communicated with in a way that makes them feel valued. A message encased in respect and love will be more effective than a message encased in anger and punishment.

Finally, it is important that parents know that their new adults will fail. Our job is to walk behind our children and pick them up when they fall rather than hold their hand tighter to make sure they never fall. The learning curve for beginning adults is steep and having parents they can talk to and rely on to help them through the rough times is the best gift you can give them.   

Tracey Tucker is Executive Director of New Heights: Adventures for Teens and a licensed mental health counselor at Tradeport Counseling Associates in Portsmouth.

More Parenting in the Moment columns by Tracey Tucker

Making sleep a priority

Adequate sleep time is critical for adolescents

At the finish line

Senior year is perilous for both students and parents

The push and pull of letting go

Managing the many emotions you will have when your child leaves home

Supporting gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered teens

Support for youth revealing their sexual orientation is critical
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