When an Adult Child Behaves Badly

What happens if your 18-year-old or older child is behaving badly? What do you do then? This is a predicament that parents often ask me about and it’s probably one of the most frustrating situations that parents of older children have to deal with. 

Here are just some of the issues that parents have shared with me that frustrate them; coming in loud and late at night even though house rules were established, skipping classes or getting bad grades when you’re paying for their education, or living destructive lives with substance abuse or extreme risk-taking.

During the adolescent years, your teenage child develops “an allergy” toward you because they are going through a phase in life in which they must reject the whole premise that they were once a dependent little child. And because you, the parent, are attached to that image they have of themselves of once being dependent on you, they in essence are rejecting you as well.

This rejection may appear as them not liking you, being embarrassed by you, annoyed by you, or they think they know more than you do. It can (but doesn’t always) include yelling, arguing and verbally abusive treatment. There were many times when my teenage children would ask me to drop them off about a block away from the school so they wouldn’t feel embarrassed when their friends saw that they had a father.

This period of adolescence that teens go through can actually last well into their early twenties, which adds an additional element to this problem; they become an adult. This means that not only are they “allergic” to you as their parent, but they are also likely to have the attitude that says, “I’m an adult and you can’t tell me what to do anymore.”

My first suggestion to parents of adult children is that you can’t do much to control their lifestyle or their behavior. You had your chance with that and it’s now up to them to do that on their own. You also can’t control who they hang out with, where they go and how they spend their money. You can however, control how they cooperate at home and how they spend YOUR money.

If you’re paying for their education and they are skipping classes or getting poor grades, perhaps it’s time to re-evaluate your original financial agreements. If you help support them financially and they’ve become irresponsible with their lifestyle, gotten involved with substance abuse or can’t keep a job, you may need to reconsider how you’re willing to help them. And if they still live with you and you had previously set up house rules, it may be time to set a date for them to move out and experience life on their own.

It’s never easy watching an adult child mess up. Focus on what you can control and be sure to keep yourself and the rest of your family safe. Sometimes the best parents in the world have children who grow up and make bad decisions. Don’t take it personal and don’t be quick to rush in to rescue them. Even though my may have done the best job you could as a parent, it’s sometimes the consequences of their actions that speak to them the loudest.


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