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Social Thinking Articles

Parenting Through to Adulthood

Michelle Garcia Winner

Michelle Garcia Winner

When our kids are in preschool there are tons of books, parent support groups, play groups, field trips and play dates. When our kids get older all of that goes away, during some of our hardest parenting years we have the fewest networks and support systems... and through this process our children are magically supposed to evolve from kids to adults.  Having worked with many adults with social thinking challenges they have also taught me about how they handled this transition. Here are just a few of the lessons I have learned through watching my daughters and my clients' transitions into adulthood:


  1. There is a huge leap, larger than any our kids have experienced before, between teen years and adult years.
  2. The leap relates to the fact they have to acquire skills of dealing with the larger community (budgeting, time management, assignment or job-hour tracking, laundry, etc.) where we parents are no longer welcome to be their ears and eyes. Nor can we or should we walk the streets with them, drive the bus or help drive the car to keep them safe.
  3. For our kids to feel good about themselves they have to learn that they can make mistakes and move on. The good thing about being a “young adult” is that people expect you to make mistakes - a lot of them. They also expect you to learn from them.
  4. They have to learn to live with others who will not comfort them like their family did.
  5. They have to learn to find someone to relate to and, in doing so, find their own community that expands beyond their family.
  6. To cope with their increasing “freedoms,” our kids have to learn to be more comfortable in discomfort; e.g., to tolerate the crappy moment and live with disappointment without self-destructing.
  7. To learn to take on their own challenges - we, as parents have to start to let go of our advice, our directions, our wisdom and enter into a conversation where we encourage our kids to take on their own thinking and problem-solving. This means we say things like “what are you going to do about it?" rather than “This is what you should do about it!” We then help them to feel the pride of their own accomplishments when they figured out how to pay their bills or the reality of what happens when they don’t pay the bills, etc.

Our kids with social learning challenges learn all this slower, no matter how high their IQ! If you have a “high-functioning” child who is scoring well on tests, social learning is the frontier that will be his or her most difficult challenge but it is his or her challenge to take.  How do we teach them to pursue these accomplishments?


Here are my thoughts for parents whose children have been served through IEPs or 504 plans:

  • Don’t wait to the legal age of the school’s transition plan to start transitioning your child into increasing responsibility and independence.  The kids will not willingly go along with this plan to do more, but set an expectation and reward very small steps towards the accomplishment. Don’t over focus on the sneer on their face or the less than complimentary words they may say; pick your battles carefully. Subtly praise any step towards being a more responsible member of the family. Withhold treats (video games, cell phones, books, etc.) if they are not trying to be a reasonable member of the house most of the time. To give in to their stormy ways is to reinforce the cloud hanging over your house.
  • The adult world is rarely accommodating - This is a fact that is hard to face for everyone, particularly so if special education teams have only served our kids by accommodating to their disability (to some extent). Prevent the IEP team and yourself from making decisions that will always keep your child comfortable and in control of what he wants to do. As parents of young kids we work to keep our kids comfortable, now we have to work - literally - to make sure our kids are learning to be comfortable with the fact that world frequently does not offer “comfortable” options.
  • Problem solving is about finding the least painful option and not the one that causes "no pain":  This is a painful lesson we've all had to learn - problem solving often does not actually solve the problem! Assure your child, “Yes, you hate the teacher, but you've got to learn to deal with it! You will hate a boss one day!" Parents then need to make sure they don’t step in to intervene to try and solve their children’s problem for them. There is a tendency when we identify a child with a disability to make the child’s disability be everyone else’s problem, but by the time they graduate from school it is almost entirely their challenge. While there will be some special people to reach out and help, especially in the young 20s, the game changes significantly with age. Plan for this ahead of time!
  • Avoid burn out - Something the parents of my clients have taught me over the years is that they wear out! Begin to work on all of the above slowly at 13, 14, 15 years. Parents may have been happy to drive their child to high school, but they no longer want to drive their child to college or their job, nor should they! The social rules have changed and it is not okay to be driven around by your parents when you are a young adult! As the parent, you won’t regret pushing for more and more independence early but you will regret it if you don't.
  • Don’t confuse loving your child profusely with doing things for your child. Encourage them to figure things out, ask questions, locate information and help them learn to find the answer from someone other than you. Problem solving is important!
  • Our children’s self-esteem is born from the recognition of their own accomplishments and not on just “being smart” or being told they are wonderful. Show them how to appreciate that feeling good about doing things in their community by themselves is at least as important - or more important - than getting good grades on tests. The world has a lot of smart people in it, but what we really celebrate are people who can figure out how to work as a member of society.
  • Teach your children about your own experiences, what you know and have learned about yourself. Your lessons of how to be a more effective adult continue across your life. Help them to know that the process of learning about being a citizen of the world is not like graduating from high school, there is no diploma, it never ends, but a growing sense of maturity is something to be proud of.

This article was inspired by many parents coming up to me at workshops confused about what to do with their demanding adolescent, thinking they should call another IEP meeting to make the world easier for him or her.  Parenting kids into adulthood is just plain hard, emotionally wrenching for us all!


If it's not working...

All this being said, if you think your child’s challenges are far, far larger and his or her mood far, far darker... Make sure to consult a mental health specialist FIRST before putting any more demands on your child. It's always critical to rule out and/or deal with possible mental health challenges (e.g., depression and/or anxiety) before adding more pressure at a confusing period of development!

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