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When They Don’t Leave at 18: Parenting an Adult Child with ODD

By Kim Abraham, LMSW & Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW

There’s a calendar date parents of Oppositional Defiant kids often cling to: the 18th Birthday. That magical day when your child becomes an adult and you are no longer responsible for him — at least not legally. Sure, you’ll still be his parent. But things will be different! No more power struggles, disrespect or refusal to follow the rules. No more embarrassment over the way he behaves or the choices he makes. No more feelings of shame, disappointment or anger about the relationship. He’ll be an adult and out on his own. If he doesn’t like the rules of your house, then he just needs to move out!

“You’ve been waiting for your child to grow up, both in age and maturity so your relationship will be different. If that doesn’t happen, it can leave you feeling disappointed, angry, sad and cheated.”

Some parents can actually tell you how many days are left until their ODD child turns eighteen. “Only 543 days until Jake’s an adult!” So what happens when that day finally arrives and it’s not so magical? You’ve been waiting for your child to grow up, both in age and maturity so your relationship will be different. If that doesn’t happen, it can leave you feeling disappointed, angry, sad and cheated. Many parents have been walking around on eggshells for years, with one thought to keep them going: there’s an end to this eventually.

Related: How to parent your Oppositional Defiant child.

If your ODD child seems to have grown into an ODD adult—with the same old behavior that has driven you crazy in the past—here are some tips that can help:

  1. Accept that this may be your child’s personality — even as an adult. Some kids do “outgrow” their ODD behavior. For ODD kids, giving up control feels like drowning, and they will fight with parents, teachers and any authority figure until the bitter end. Many ODD kids go on to pursue their dreams successfully in this world: Goldie Hawn, Cher, and Steve Jobs are just a few examples. That strong, stubborn spirit and tenacity can translate into the strength and drive it takes to survive and change the world. One ODD kid we know went on to become a very successful lawyer — when she was ready and on her own terms. Her mom’s response? “Well, she always did know how to win an argument!” On the other hand, some kids will continue to fight against authority figures in society as adults. Yes, this can present challenges and make it difficult to maintain employment or a marriage. But we all have the ability within ourselves to change our outlook and our behavior. People change when they are uncomfortable and are motivated to do so. If you can accept that your adult ODD child’s journey is not yours, but his, it can help you feel less responsible and bitter about the choices he continues to make. You can love him, wish him well and encourage him, but in the end, the responsibility for his life is his own.
  2. Related: How to give fail-proof consequences to ODD kids.

  3. Set Boundaries. Just because an adult is your child doesn’t mean you are obligated to have him in your home. You have the right to set limits on your home, property and finances. You have the right to set and enforce your own emotional boundaries. Sometimes a relationship with an ODD child can transition into an abusive one once adulthood is reached. You cannot control your ODD adult child’s behavior, but you can control your own. Again, people make changes when they are uncomfortable. If your ODD adult is still living in your home, disrespecting you and arguing with you, you don’t have to put up with it! If you are, spend some time identifying why you’re having trouble setting and enforcing those boundaries. What stands in the way? Guilt? Fear? Sometimes we have baggage from our own upbringing that’s standing in our way. You may want to consult a counselor to help you work through things, or even an attorney if there is violence or intimidation occurring in your home. Remember: you have rights. What would you do if your ODD adult was a neighbor or a tenant living in your home? What limits would you set in that relationship?
  4. Don’t Rely on Your ODD Adult to Change. You’ve probably been waiting 18 years for that to happen and if you continue to wait, you could wait forever! It’s up to you to define how you will relate to your ODD adult. Write down on paper what an acceptable relationship would look like with your child. Is she living with you or not? If so, with what boundaries and limits? What would you like conversations to look like? Some parents find they can only talk about certain topics with their ODD adult child, otherwise an argument will ensue. If you need to stick to the weather, the news or other surface topics in order to be able to have a pleasant conversation, that’s okay. Maybe conversations need to be short — just a few minutes — or infrequent. But it will probably be up to you to set those limits. One mom shared, “If my son starts talking about his friends or his job, I end up getting drawn in, trying to get him to change his behavior or fix things for him. So if he starts talking about arguing with his boss or drinking the night before, I let him know I have to get off the phone and will talk with him later. He knows the limits, but usually I have to be the one to set them.”
  5. Related: Defiant child, teen or young adult?

  6. Communicate Your Boundaries. Just because your ODD adult might have difficulty communicating doesn’t mean you can’t effectively and respectfully communicate your own boundaries and limits. After years of conflict and arguing, she may be in the habit of relating to you in a certain negative manner. It’s perfectly acceptable for you to say, “You know, you’re an adult now. We aren’t obligated to live together. If we do, it needs to be based on mutual respect. I have some expectations if you continue to live here, in my home.” Remember, it’s your home even if your adult child with ODD has a way of acting as if she’s entitled to live there. (You are responsible for providing a home for your ODD child, but not after she becomes an adult. After that, it’s a privilege.) If your adult ODD daughter has dug in her heels and refuses to leave, you might consider seeking some legal assistance. It’s interesting that the same ODD child who fought against living with you sometimes refuses to leave! That’s because that underlying need for control doesn’t just switch off automatically at the age of eighteen.
  7. Be Aware of Expectations. We all have expectations — for ourselves and for others in our lives. Often we aren’t even aware of what those expectations are until we sit down and really think about it. As you transition into a new relationship with your adult child with ODD, take some time to understand, grieve and let go of the expectations you had for him that were never met. There was a picture you had of what your child would be like that never fully developed. Accepting that the picture is what it is — that this is your child— will help you let go of the expectation for him to be different. It doesn’t mean you agree with him or the way he chooses to lead his life — it just means you accept that this is how things are right now. You may continue to have hope, but when it turns into an expectation, that’s where the potential for disappointment, anger and hurt can occur. Your adult ODD child likely has expectations of you, as well. You may not always meet them; as parents, we usually don’t. You also may not meet all of the expectations you have for yourself all of the time, either. Be gentle with yourself.

Related: How to stop fighting and start communicating with your defiant child.

Raising a child who fights against all forms of control — into adulthood — is one of the hardest tasks a parent can face. If you expect yourself to parent in a way that leaves you feeling good about your behavior — always — and one day you lose your temper and say something in anger to your child, forgive yourself. Start the next day fresh. Ask yourself, “What needs to change so I can feel good about myself more often?” Usually, if we find ourselves losing our temper or behaving in a way that we feel guilty or ashamed of, it’s because somewhere along the line we failed to set a boundary with our adult child. We stayed on the phone during a power struggle instead of disengaging; we allowed her to live in the house — making messes and not contributing; we gave money that went to drugs, alcohol or something else we didn’t intend. If you expect your ODD adult to maintain boundaries you may be disappointed, because he has the ultimate control over whether or not he meets that expectation. But if you set the boundary — and enforce it — yourself, you have the control.

The transition from childhood to adulthood with our children can be difficult even under the best of circumstances. When that child has a strong personality that is used to fighting against authority, it can seem like a daunting challenge. Just because she’s eighteen doesn’t mean she’ll stop looking at you as an authority figure she must fight against. And just because she’s technically an adult doesn’t mean you’ll automatically stop engaging in those power struggles. But by being aware of your expectations, accepting your adult ODD for who she is and — maybe most importantly — setting and following through with reasonable boundaries, your relationship with your adult ODD child may change into one where you can find and build on the times you actually enjoy each other.

About Kim Abraham, LMSW & Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW

Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of The ODD Lifeline for parents of Oppositional, Defiant kids, and Life Over the Influence, a program that helps families struggling with substance abuse issues. Their first children's book, Daisy: The True Story of an Amazing 3-Legged Chinchilla, teaches the value of embracing differences and was the winner of the 2014 National Indie Excellence Children's Storybook Cover Design Award.

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