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Navigating Milestones: Turning 18

June 13, 2019 | Rachel Velishek, LPCC

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For more than a decade I have developed therapeutic relationships with adolescents and their families. I have witnessed the transition from childhood to adolescence and adolescence to adulthood. I have supported parents through the emotional roller coasters and engaged in many discussions with adolescents as developmental milestones are achieved. In my experience, transition to adulthood on the 18th birthday is influential on the entire family’s thoughts, feelings and behaviors. The expectations and response that a family has during this time develops the foundation for adulthood.

We know that turning 18 is a big deal. Rights are earned such as the right to vote and the right to make our own legal decisions. At 18 a person can apply for their own credit card, they can schedule all their own medical appointments, receive or decline medical care based on their own interest, enlist in the military without parent consent and get married. With these rights come responsibilities. Although rights are legally earned at age 18, not all individuals who are 18 understand the responsibility and the long-term consequences of their decisions.

Navigating the milestones can be a challenge. It literally occurs overnight. Your child goes to bed and wakes up as a legal, consenting adult. Time is one thing we have no control over. We may want it to slow down so we have extra time to learn, support and navigate, but unfortunately it does not work that way. There is no choice. Time cannot be stopped or rushed. So it happens and the only control a person has is over their own thoughts, feelings and behaviors. They only have control over the how they want to respond to the milestone.

Some families spend months planning and preparing for an 18th birthday,  creating mutual agreed upon rules and expectations and teaching the life lessons necessary for success as an adult. Others may avoid it and some may expect an immediate transformation from depending on parents to independence, paying bills, contributing to household expenses and being completely responsible for themselves.

It can be scary and it can be exciting. It is normal to have a conflicted emotional response to the change in behaviors and/or routines. Some adolescents have described feeling terrified, fearful of failure, scared that they cannot handle the real world, or feeling like they do not have the skills. Others have been counting down days for the past year and are excited for the moment they gain that legal independence. Regardless if they are feeling fear or excitement, no 18-year-old is developmentally mature. The brain’s reward system, which governs novelty and pleasure, peaks in activity in late adolescence. The prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision making, problem solving and impulse control, is not fully developed until mid-20s. Just because a person turns 18 does not mean they are magically capable of making more responsible decisions, instantly emotionally mature and suddenly wiser.

A good parent never stops parenting a child, regardless of age or location Your child turning 18 is not directly correlated to immediate separation from his or her parents. Fear has the potential to prevent an individual from living a fulfilling, successful life because it creates resistance. To encourage your child’s success, help navigate them through their fears, guide them in developing the necessary tools to cope with life, and encourage self-awareness and autonomy.

If you want your child to act like a responsible adult, then treat them like one. Respect your child and their developing beliefs, accept their opinions as you would any other adult, and treat your child like you would expect any other adult to treat you. Work with your child on developing new rules, privileges and responsibilities. Talk with your child about their goals and plans. Be sensible and practical. Refusing to let your child grow in their decision making and responsibility can inhibit growth and development and may reduce their learning of life skills and self-sufficiency.

Turning 18 is a milestone. It is a stepping stone on the path leading to adulthood. It can be anxious and exciting. As a parent you may think your child is ready, they have the skills to conquer the world and handle it all. For those turning 18 you may feel that you have it all figured out and you understand this thing called life. That is all wrong. No one regardless of age or intelligence has the ability to predict the future. There is no guarantee for how things will go. Throughout our lives we grow, we develop, we evolve, and we learn.

The only guarantee to success is first knowing who you are, developing a purpose, identifying your needs, being willing to fail and having the motivation to learn, the ability to acknowledge emotions and develop supports. So take the time, talk with your child and encourage their growth. For those preparing to turn 18, take the time to listen: listen to yourself, listen to your parents, ask questions and process through the fears. Take the time to enjoy this transition and navigate through the process. Rights are granted, privileges are earned, responsibility is developed and they all are in response to choices made.

Rachel Velishek is a licensed professional clinical counselor with Fisher-Titus Behavioral Health, Fisher-Titus Medical Park 2, Suite C, 282 Benedict Ave., Norwalk. Her office can be reached at 419-668-0311. For more information on Fisher-Titus Behavioral Health, visit fishertitus.org/behavioral-health.