I Learned The Hard Way That 18 Is Not The Parenting Milestone I Expected

The other day, my nephew asked me if my teenager is an adult now — that gave me pause for half a moment.

Are my kids both adults now? At 18 and 20 are they, in fact, now adults? If so, why am I not breathing easy, sitting back with my feet up thinking the hardest parenting days are behind us?

When my kids were tiny and the days felt onerous and fraught with danger, I’d think to myself in terms of milestones. In fact, 18 was the biggest of these milestones and I would fall asleep thinking If only we can safely get them to the age of 18 then we will breathe a sigh of relief.

And here we are at 18 and I am not resting easy. I am not relieved. In fact, the closer that we got to 18 the more apparent it became that parenting duty was not over and while these milestones helped me get through some of the hardest stages of childhood, 18 was certainly not what I expected.

Paula Schuck knew it was coming as an adoptive family — her child told her that she wasn’t their real mother. Here’s how she handled it.

The Years Working Towards 18

Both my children are adopted, and before my youngest child received an ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) and FASD (fetal alcohol spectrum disorder) diagnosis we often wondered about the cause of their most challenging behaviours.

My two-foot tornado was a full-on escape artist who ran everywhere and had no fear. They could undo their car seat buckles with a flip of the wrist. There was that time they ran off in the park at a picnic that we were having with other families. They would simply wander off, feet running so fast that I struggled to close the distance gap. The same thing happened when we travelled, when we stayed home — even at school.

“Despite all the challenges and hair-raising moments, 18 was the goalpost.”

My kiddo was impulsive, wandered and it made for a mess of terrifying moments as a parent. How could we ever keep this child safe?

Despite all the challenges and hair-raising moments, 18 was the goalpost. If we can just get past this latest stage, if we can just get them safely to 18, then I will know that I have succeeded. Magically, the parenting zen badge would then be unlocked.

When my oldest turned 18 we celebrated with a pandemic birthday of course, but frankly very little changed. She could vote in the election and that was one adult signal. But very few things impacted daily life. They still needed to finish high school, didn’t yet drive even though they could have, didn’t pay bills, couldn’t drink. We were in the first year of the pandemic and age really wasn’t a super relevant subject at that time.

Nothing Changes Except For Everything

Does the brain suddenly mature magically at 18 for every youth? No, quite the opposite. In fact, science shows that brains don’t fully develop until the age of 25. When neurodiverse kids such as mine turn 18 though, the world changes and not in a good way. Suddenly the slim supports they might have had fall away.

When a child with a disability turns 18, in many ways they start over again. Continuity of care stops, and you or they need to apply for adult services and supports that are even less straightforward than the children’s byzantine health care system, mental health system or social services supports. 

“Overnight, a teenager becomes an adult in a legal sense and yet, now more so than ever before, I feel like 18 is a questionable number that we anchor to this transition to adulthood.”

At school, an 18-year-old will be expected to make adult choices to advocate for themselves even when a communication disorder or neurological impairment is on board. I think it is slightly nonsensical.

At 18, they can sign themselves in and out of school independently. They can drop a course without parental permission, which could shift their ability to graduate. Report cards now go to them, the young adult student. Communications from the school can be completely stopped, if they so choose.

Legally they can vote, and while they can’t yet drink legally, many have probably tried and succeeded. They can also suddenly be charged if they break the law. Don’t even get me started on that. While they are technically deemed to be legally responsible for those types of legal or illegal decisions, and in a court of law have agency for their own choices, parenting is very much placed under the microscope of public opinion when the wheels come off at any age or stage.

Overnight, a teenager becomes an adult in a legal sense and yet, now more so than ever before, I feel like 18 is a questionable number that we anchor to this transition to adulthood. After two years of disrupted school during the pandemic, lost time with friends which typically would have been spent developing the skills that lead towards that adult stage, is it any wonder why some kids might feel stuck where they were when the pandemic began?

Laura Mullin has been fondly remembering her five years in high school because her daughter is nearing the end of her four years, and graduation is coming too fast.

Recently my younger child turned 18 and for weeks after their birthday, they’d walk around stating: “I am 18, you can’t tell me what to do.” Pretty sure they uttered some variation of that at school as well. And while “my house, my rules” or some variation of that popped into my head almost as reflex, I’d often censor myself because it only set us up for arguments.

There are plenty of instances where the term “youth” is used to describe someone 18-25 or 16-25, which seems to reflect that stage of life more accurately. I’m not suggesting that every 18-year-old out there has no ability to adult. Tricking myself into thinking that was the finish line when the kids were younger worked temporarily.

But it’s clear to me as a parent that 18 is not the portal to enlightenment, nor does it unlock some mystical zen parenting phase — at least this isn’t the case for my situation.

Right now, there are as many sleepless nights as there were when my kids were babies. There are days when it looks like there’s no such thing as zen for parents at any stage of the journey. Many of my friends with young adult children frequently tell me it’s the 20s where the real growth and independence happens. So for the time being, I am shifting goalposts just a little and holding onto that thread of hope.