Stuck between the milestones of driving and drinking, becoming a legal adult at 18 is a bit anticlimactic for many teens. And for most parents...

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Stuck between the milestones of driving and drinking, becoming a legal adult at 18 is a bit anticlimactic for many teens. And for most parents, high-school graduation — not a birthday — is the key transition.

But the privileges and responsibilities of legal adulthood, especially for those who turn 18 early in the school year, can surprise some families.

Many parents assume they’re still in charge while a student is in high school, but when teens turn 18, the legal system, businesses and some school districts will treat them as adults. Now they can vote in elections — and buy a car, receive their grades and get a tattoo.

As long as teens live at home, however, parents can insist on “house rules” such as common courtesy, helping with chores and letting parents know where they’re going and when they’ll be home, experts say.

A base of respect

The transition will go more smoothly for parents who move to a collaborative style of mutual respect as teens get older, said Bradley Steinfeld, an assistant director in Group Health’s behavioral health services.

Parents can acknowledge teens’ need for independence by listening to their input while setting reasonable rules.

“They want to have more privacy, and parents can respect that,” said Steinfeld, a licensed clinical psychologist and dad to two young twentysomethings. “But you don’t want them to be totally without supervision.”

Trusting older teens

DeAnne Alvare, a Shoreline mom of two, tried to avoid saying “no” as long as her teenagers showed they deserved her trust. “We hope the expectations we instilled are carried through adulthood,” she said. Her son recently graduated from the University of Washington, and her daughter, a senior at Shorecrest High School, will turn 18 this spring.

The first time her son really exercised legal adulthood was when he considered enlisting in the military against his parents’ wishes. Arguing didn’t help. Then they explained they were very concerned but would support him either way.

“As soon as we backed away, he was able to work through the decision on his own,” Alvare said. “He didn’t like us to tell him what he should or shouldn’t do. Our focus was on letting him know how we felt terrified for him.”

Adult responsibilities

Shoreline mom Jennifer King, whose daughter will turn 18 this month, worries a little about her daughter’s ability to write her own excuses for school absences if senioritis kicks in this spring. But she figures that’s a lesson, too.

“There’s a ceiling on how much she can miss and still graduate,” she said. “Part of being an adult is learning to balance your needs with the requirements of the real world. It’s preparation for college, where they’ll have to motivate themselves to show up for class.”

Even with the best relationships, parents can expect some conflict as teens “flex their adult muscles and make mistakes,” said Gloria Heier, assistant principal at Juanita High School in Kirkland. “Kids on the cusp of becoming adults are a little fearful of what life will be like. And parents are losing their babies. It creates some tension in the household.”

House rules

For parents of challenging teens, a child’s 18th birthday is cause for celebration; members of Changes Parent Support Network often bring a cake to share at their meeting. Parents are no longer legally liable for a teen’s troublemaking, and “the obligation for support ends,” explained Mimi Hudson of Shoreline, whose oldest son turned 18 his junior year. Now 25, he’s marked nine years of sobriety and “is doing really well,” Hudson said.

But as a teenager, he “acted out — a lot.” Before he turned 18, he approached his parents about remaining at home. The list of conditions included attending school and maintaining a B average, plus signing a release to allow his parents access to school information.

“I was thrilled my son asked what he had to do to stay,” Hudson said. “He was very respectful of our rules. The power had shifted and he was cognizant of that. Some teens say, ‘I’m 18, so I can do whatever I want,’ ” she said. “The response of the [support] group is, ‘Well, you can, but not at my house.’ “

Stephanie Dunnewind:

or 206-464-2091