Mental health continues to be one of the most-requested topics readers ask me to cover both in the Parental Advisory advice column and in other more general posts. So I wasn’t surprised that when I wrote in January about parenting a child who is at risk for developing a mental health disorder, it sparked another reader question on the topic—this time about parenting an adult child with a mental illness.
Here’s that question, from Kinja user Mushin:
“What about after your child becomes an adult? We had a lot of resources available until my son turned 18; now we can’t find any help.”
I cannot tell from your question whether the difficulty you’re having is related to your specific health insurance or local resources available for adults or whether it’s because of the lack of control you have over your child’s mental health treatment now that they are an adult.
Without more specifics, I’ll assume the struggle is more about your new role in supporting your adult child’s treatment. And I’ll tackle that struggle from two different sides: If they want help (and, specifically, your help), and if they don’t.
If they want your help
If your adult child wants your help navigating the mental health system (or is at least open to your assistance), that’s a great first step. Start by offering to help with some of the initial research or phone calls.
“I have a lot of 18-year-olds in my practice, and it’s usually one of the parents that will make the initial contact with me,” says Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who specializes in the treatment of adolescents. “Offer to make the first phone call and offer to go to the first appointment with them.”
That can be key, Greenberg says, because even though an 18-year-old is now legally an adult, it can still be intimidating to see a mental health professional for the first time. If the teenager is especially hesitant about the meeting, she says she sometimes even meets in person with the parent first.
“You can say, ‘If you’d like, I’ll go see the person first and I’ll give you my opinion,’” she says. “Or you could do a couple of interviews because it has to be a good match. That’s one way to be a supportive part of the process.”
You might also offer to drive them to their appointments and sit in the waiting room for them so they can feel your support without actually having you in the session. But once they come out, don’t be intrusive by hammering them with a game of Twenty Questions. They can share what they’d like to share and should feel free to keep the rest private.
And if your child doesn’t like the professional you found for them? Honor that, too, Greenberg says. Just because you liked the person or they came recommended doesn’t mean they are automatically a good fit for everyone. In the end, she says, you can’t coerce an 18-year-old to do what you want them to do; but you can walk with them and be supportive of their journey.
If they don’t want your help
Chances are, though, that one reason you may be struggling to help your adult child through this is because, well, they don’t want your help. Maybe they don’t think they need help at all or maybe you’re simply not the one they want to lean on for support. Unless there is reason to believe they are an immediate danger to themselves or someone else, there’s not much you can legally do about that.
But legalities aside, there are still ways to connect with your adult child about their mental health and offer support without becoming overbearing or pushing them away. Mental health speaker Victoria Maxwell—who refused mental health support from her own parents as a young adult—writes for Psychology Today that listening is the first step in supporting your child. You are on the same team, but after a lifetime of you calling the shots, they need to know now that they are being heard and understood (even if you don’t agree with them).
And because you have their best interests at heart, it may be important for you to acknowledge that you might not be the best person to advise them right now. Maxwell says:
Sometimes there’s too much animosity, so much trust broken (on both sides) that your adult child only sees you (at the moment) as an enemy. Because of the current (yet temporary) volatile nature of the relationship, it may be best to find out who, if anyone, they do connect well with. Is there someone who they will listen to; who they do trust or confide in? That person needs to be someone who has their best interest at heart (obviously), not someone who enables them or aggravates the situation. For example, not a person who they drink with or who encourages them to believe you are an interfering parent. A close friend, a trusted uncle, a former teacher they admire, are options.
And then, let them know that you love them unconditionally and will be there for them as they navigate treatment in whatever way is most helpful for them. But at the same time, it may be necessary to set boundaries—loving them unconditionally, Maxwell points out, does not mean you should tolerate physical or verbal abuse. But of course, you’ll want to make sure they are safe:
It might be about giving them space, you taking space or telling them they need to leave. Always ensure they are safe and not at risk of suicide or harming someone else. If they are at risk, then taking them to the emergency ward (or if they refuse but are still at risk, calling the ambulance or police) will be necessary.
Finally, make sure you are caring for your own mental health. You very well might benefit from talking to a professional or joining a support group yourself, such as the National Alliance on Mental Illness’s family support group. The more support you have, the more helpful you can be to your child.
Have a parenting dilemma you’re grappling with? Email your questions to email@example.com with “Parental Advisory” in the subject line, and I’ll try to answer them here.