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"Just get emancipated" is dangerously naive advice, and I'm sick of seeing it everywhere.

Leaving Home before 18: A Practical Guide for Cast-Offs, Runaways, and Everybody in Between

Happy Pride, my beauties!

… okay okay, that’s enough pleasantries—I’m worked up about something!

I recently read an article about queer teens being thrown out of their homes by unsupportive families. It had a lot of advice that sounded pretty good. Pursue legal emancipation. Talk to your teachers and guidance counselors. Seek therapy.

“Bah,” I scoffed through a mouthful of Babybel cheese. “Amateurs! Someone needs to write a real guide. Someone who actually knows what it’s like!”

I was too busy playing with that weird red wax to remember I was exactly that person.

I left home when I was a junior in high school. The reasons were complicated and sad. Suffice to say it was driven by a need for physical and psychological safety I wasn’t getting at home.

Everything worked out for me. I got lucky and landed on my feet. A few psychological scars added to my roguish charm! But it’s not the best strategy. Sorta like throwing yourself down a mountain and hoping you learn to ski on the way down. (Also a thing I did once. How am I alive?)

There are many reasons a teenager might leave home early. Among them: poverty, instability, abuse, neglect, addiction, incarceration, system involvement, and mental and physical health issues. Some are thrown out or kicked out in stark, dramatic fashion. Others are slowly, painfully squeezed out or frozen out. Still more are ignored, unsupported, or victimized to the point that the child must take the initiative to leave.

Regardless of the method, one of the most prevalent reasons teens become homeless is due to their sexual orientation and/or gender identity. Nine in ten homeless LGBT teens “ran away” (46%) to escape family rejection, or were actively forced out (43%) by unsupportive parents.

So I dedicate today’s article to our young queer readers. May you never need the tips I’m about to lay out.

Understand your legal options

Your rights versus your guardians’ legal obligations

In most cases, a parent cannot legally abandon their minor child unless their child has been legally emancipated. Abandonment encompasses eviction, neglect, failure to financially support, and failure to reconnect or communicate.

If that minor child elects to leave home on their own, their parents are still legally obliged to provide financial support. It it still their fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the child, regardless of where that child lives.

Financial support must include necessities like food and housing—but it doesn’t extend to conditional expenses. Depending on the state, conditional expenses can include some pretty important stuff, like cell phones, Internet access, and college tuition.

Depending on local laws and the age of their child, parents have some recourse to force a reunion. Usually it involves calling the police. But police may only be able to compel the child to return home if they’re in an unsafe or unhealthy environment. From what I have read, most courts are reticent to intervene if the child is very close to their age of majority.

Emancipation by court decree

Emancipation is a legal process that grants minor children the status of an independent adult legally responsible for their own care.

Despite what you may have heard, it is almost impossible for a minor child to be legally emancipated from their parents by court decree.

Let’s count hurdles. In most cases, for a child to be emancipated, you need to find a lawyer (1). Now pay that lawyer (2) to go to court (3) to prove that you are in a better position than your guardians to provide for yourself (4). You’ll have to already be living independently, in your own place (5), with your own income (6), and your own insurance (7), and a demonstrable record of maturity and good decision-making (8). Couch surfing or living informally with others while looking for employment will not cut it. And you’d better hope your parents aren’t fighting back with their own persuasive lawyers (9) and that you lucked out with a sympathetic judge (10).

Oh, and only half of states even have a special court procedure for emancipation.

If you’re a child with independent wealth (like income or an inheritance), and you have rock solid proof that your parents are frittering away that money, you may be able to swing emancipation. But for the average kid, it’s a source of false hope IMO.

“Just get emancipated” is dangerously naive advice, and I’m sick of seeing it everywhere.

Automatic emancipation

Certain actions can trigger automatic emancipation. Waiting out the clock and reaching the age of majority is the easiest one. Others include getting married and joining the armed forces.

Please don’t get married or join the armed forces to get away from your parents unless you have tried absolutely every other option first. These are extraordinary commitments, with ramifications that last much longer than your minority.

Alternatives to emancipation

As you can see, emancipation laws aren’t the robust set of protections they could be. It’s unfortunate but true: for many teenagers in untenable home situations, enduring until 18 is the most realistic solution. For most of human history, children have been property of their parents. Youth rights still have a long way to go.

I know this isn’t the answer you want. But take heart. You can do strategic things to minimize your present unhappiness.

Commit yourself to school and extracurriculars

If you need to spend as little time at home as you can, throwing yourself into schoolwork or after school projects is an awesome way to do it. It strengthens the skills you’ll need as an adult and is a pretty unimpeachable alibi.

If there are adults you trust in your school, don’t be afraid to explicitly ask them to help you accomplish this. You don’t have to get into the details of why—just tell them you need work.

When I was sixteen, I handed a letter to my high school theatre director. I asked her point-blank to assign a role that would get myself and my baby brother (whose after school care I was responsible for) out of the house as much as possible.

She never acknowledged the letter. But when the cast and crew list for Into the Woods went up, I was listed as the “production stage manager.” Curiously, that role had never existed before. It would require me to stay after school, every day, for 3-4 hours, sometimes more. My baby brother sat quietly in the auditorium, drawing and doing his homework while I worked on the show. Eventually she devised a walk-on role for him as Snow White’s dwarf. He looked adorable in a pointed hat and string beard.

God bless you, Susan.

Maximize time spent outside the house

School is a great refuge for weekdays. But what about the weekends—or what if your school is part of the problem? It’s not your only option.

It’s hard to tell when you’re still living at home the incredible extent to which being physically inside a space influences your thinking. It doesn’t matter if you’re 16 or 30 or 65: walking into your childhood bedroom immediately makes you start thinking and acting like the person you were when you were a child.

Spending as much time as possible outside of that limiting physical space did wonders for my mental health. It reminded me that I was moving forward toward an autonomous future where I wouldn’t have to cope with these feelings of helplessness, isolation, secrecy, and shame.

Get a job

A part-time job can be an amazing escape. Working builds practical skills, introduces you to new people, makes you a more attractive candidate for colleges or other workplaces, gets you started making your own money, and gets you out of the house all at the same time.

Volunteer

Volunteering has a lot of the same benefits: get out of the house, meet new people, practice skills, build your resume. While you don’t get paid, volunteering is usually more flexible. Plus this: helping out in the community is a fantastic way to get out of your own head.

Spend time with friends

Kinda goes without saying that friends are a vital lifeline in troubled times. If you’ve got good quality people in your life, this is the time to lean on them. Hanging out in other people’s parents’ basements, doing silly shit or nothing at all for hours and hours, will be a sweet, nostalgic memory when you’re older.

Listen to your auntie Kitty now. When you’re under an extraordinary amount of stress, you probably aren’t in the right mindset to be a fantastic friend. Remind yourself that your friends are also children. Try to have some restraint and discretion with how much you rely on them. If you appreciate the solace they give you, respect that it takes a toll on their emotional well-being. Give them space to rejuvenate by exploring all the other support avenues listed here.

“What if I don’t have friends?” Well, that’s a different problem for another day. If it makes you feel better, think of it this way: friends are great to have, but maintaining healthy relationships while going through personal trauma is really challenging. It’s pretty rare for people to maintain high school friendships into adulthood. It’s a turbulent time, and it won’t define you.

Spend time at the library

Librarians are like glaciers: most of their substance is hidden. Librarians—especially teen librarians—have a keen awareness of social issues, and a passion for addressing them with dignity and discretion.

Don’t fret that you’re overusing the library, or there for “the wrong reasons.” You can sit and browse Tumblr until closing time, every single day, if it’s helpful for you to do so. I promise your librarian isn’t judging you.

Make your room a refuge

If you have your own bedroom, do what you can to make it feel safe and welcoming. I spent Baby’s First Paycheck decking out my tiny bedroom with a new coat of paint, new curtains, a mini-fridge, a little TV… oh, and a heavy duty exterior lock. Nobody had the key but me. It helped.

Just a word of warning: living inside your bedroom can be a lot like living inside your own head. At the end of the day, bedrooms are for sleeping. Living inside a cave 23 hours a day is a great way to break into disordered sleep patterns, poor hygiene, and social anxiety.

Make an emergency escape plan

Toughing it out at home until you turn 18 is often the most realistic and workable strategy. But sometimes shit gets real, and you just can’t make it to the finish line.

Maybe you’ve reached a crisis point, and you need somewhere to go, even for just a few days.

Shelters

Regulations change based on your age, the shelter, and the state. Unfortunately, if you are a minor, many/most shelters can’t take you in without parental consent. This may include contact with the police. If your options are a shelter or the street, please at least try the shelter. But they may not be your best option.

Family and friends

The more realistic option is to ask to crash with someone you know. Grandparents, aunts/uncles, older siblings, teachers, friends, and neighbors are all options.

This kind of arrangement is probably much more common than you realize.

I crashed for a year with my girlfriend’s mother, in a bedroom vacated by an older sibling away at college. My younger brother followed in my footsteps and spent most of high school living with a different friend’s family. It took me awhile to learn that my mentor’s children weren’t family by blood, but former students she’d adopted out of difficult circumstances in their teenage years. Lots of people lean on distantly related or unrelated adults during adolescence.

The hardest part of achieving this arrangement is summoning the courage to ask for help.

I was very reluctant to ask for help when I needed it. I was hypersensitive to the idea of putting others out. Now that I’m an adult myself, I understand that one of the highest callings of adulthood is extending stability to someone who has none.

Prepare yourself for autonomy

Secure copies of difficult-to-replace documents

If you want to rent your own apartment, apply for your own insurance, get student loans, or travel, you will need certain documentation. Don’t leave home without it. It’s absolutely essential for adult life.

For Americans, these include:

  • Birth certificate
  • Social security card
  • Driver’s license
  • State ID
  • Passport
  • Insurance card

Get your own money

No matter your age, money opens up new options.

Earning your own money is a really smart move. Unfortunately, if you are a minor in the care of your parents, it is usually legal for them to withhold your paychecks. Depending on the state, they may even be legally entitled to keep the money.

Adding to this, most American banks won’t let minors open independent accounts. (Minors cannot enter into legal contracts on their own.) So the most common setup is a joint account, which your parents could easily access and plunder at will. This actually happened to a friend of Piggy’s well into his college years. His mother told him he “owed” her his pay, and so she just… took it.

On top of all that, getting a credit card without a guardian’s co-signature is next to impossible.

If you’re able to open accounts that your parents cannot access, do it.

If this isn’t an option, it may be in your best interest to keep your money as cash and hide it somewhere no one will find it. But this is risky—if it’s discovered, or if you lose access to the hiding spot, you’re shit out of luck.

Take care of your health

Do whatever you can to keep health insurance. It’s expensive though, and if you’re on your own at a young age, you may not be able to keep up.

While you’re still covered by your guardian’s plan, try to address any long-term health needs:

  • Schedule your annual appointment with a primary care physician
  • Go to the dentist for regular cleanings, and get any cavities filled
  • Get glasses, or enough contacts to last you through the Long Night
  • Establish a plan for long-term birth control
  • Get therapy, if possible
  • Establish good physical and mental healthcare habits

Many of these can be done with no co-pay, or a bitty baby co-pay of $10 or $20.

Learn skills that will help you be independent

When I really wanted to leave home but couldn’t yet, I found solace in HGTV. Watching people set up their own homes was intoxicating. I fantasized about my imminent independence through the rich weirdos of House Hunters.

What I wish I’d done instead was practice adulting more. I left home without a lot of vital skills: how to write checks, clean, cook for myself, wash my own dishes, and do the laundry. It would’ve made my landing a lot softer.

General words of wisdom and caution before you go

Listen to your gut

Living under someone’s roof is an extension of great trust. You are in a vulnerable position, at a vulnerable age. In this world, there are total strangers who would selflessly help you—and there are people who are close to you who might try to take advantage of you in your hour of need.

You don’t need a better reason than a gut feeling to decline someone’s offer of help. This is true in all circumstances and at all times in your life.

In particular, pay attention to anyone who urges you to ramp up conflict with your parents, or cut them out of your lives prematurely. That person may be trying to isolate you: a classic precursor to abuse. Don’t leave home without a well-calibrated bullshit detector.

Learn to recognize bias

Sometimes adults who should help let you down spectacularly.

“But they’re family! Family is the only thing that really matters! Give them time! They raised you! They’re just doing what they think is best for you! Forgiveness will set you free!” You’ll hear it all.

Please recognize that this isn’t real advice—it’s personal bias.

Some people find it seriously disturbing to consider the idea that a family could fail its members. Those people may try to reject your difficult story (“my dad threw me out of the house because I’m gay”) and try to replace it with a simpler, more acceptable one (“this dramatic teenager is going through a phase.”) Don’t relinquish your rights to your story.

Don’t give in to negativity

When times are hard, dark thoughts can creep into your mind and disrupt your optimism and good sense. Don’t let your present unhappiness color your perception of the world around you.

What you most need is help, and it’s hard to ask for it if you give into the idea that you’re worthless and unloved in an unfeeling world. The world is still a bright and beautiful place. It’s still filled with people who are eager to meet you, know you, understand you, and help you.

  • Text the word “SAFE” and your current location to 4HELP (44357) to ask A National Safe Place to connect you with the closest youth advocacy group
  • Call, text, or chat online with the Trevor Project, an organization that helps queer youths
  • Text “START” to 741-741 or call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to connect with The Jed Foundation, an organization that helps students cope with emotional problems
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Call 911

This, too, shall pass

Teens are often labeled as highly emotional, irrational, volatile, impulsive, short-sighted monsters. This is pretty fucking unfair. Everyone is different. Many people are wise and mature beyond their years—or foolish and immature despite them.

However: science suggests that teenage brains are still changing and developing. In fact, we now know that the brain doesn’t fully mature until age twenty-five.

Ask people in their thirties and forties about their teenage years, and almost everyone goes pale at the memory of how wild it felt. For me, everything felt incredibly intense. Every day brimmed with opportunity for catastrophic highs and lows. Aging sorts a lot of things out—like a warped funhouse mirror slowly straightening out into something trustworthy.

You’re not crazy. And you’re not wrong. But you are neurologically different than your parents—and different than you will be when you’re their age.

There are days you’ll feel excruciatingly anxious, depressed, lost, and misunderstood. But every day you age, your brain is reshaping itself to better handle the stresses of adult life. And every day, you’re one step closer to full legal autonomy.

It won’t always be like this—I promise. It really does get better. And even if it gets worse, you get better. More resilient, more rational, more understanding of long-term consequences, and more aware of your own power.

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11 thoughts to “Leaving Home before 18: A Practical Guide for Cast-Offs, Runaways, and Everybody in Between”

  1. I don’t normally comment on stuff but because of the situation I’m in right now this means the world to me and I really really appreciate all the advice. Thanks ❤️❤️

  2. Unnamed Deity, bless you Kitty! So much of this was very eye-opening to me. I can’t believe there are still so many instances where teen children are still de facto property of their parental units. Ewww

  3. Non-US tip: in the UK, charities like Albert Kennedy Trust can offer help to LGBT youths who are homeless or at risk of homelessness. They’re open to people who are already homeless, yes, but also to people who fear their families might kick them out if they were outed.

  4. You guys should really get some kind of funding for providing a public service. Keep it up; the world needs Bitches like you.

    1. Thank you so much, baby! At the moment we’re completely donor-funded, which allows us to keep writing stuff like this instead of catering to sponsors. If you can spare a dollar, join our Patreon!

  5. It still disgusts me that people think kicking their kids out because they are gay is the “right thing to do”. No it shows how small minded and biggoted they are. Thank you so much for this advice, I was fortunate enough to grow up in a house that was super pro LGBT rights even though I am straight. My Uncle was disowned by his family (later reconciled) for being gay and my sister has come out (fortunately) to a very supportive household. I think I have more LGBTQ2S friends than straight most days and always make it very clear that my house is a safe place any ANYONE who has an issue with them get GTFO of my house. Please keep up the good work.

  6. I have been lurking for a while now, but this article inspired my patreon commitment. I love you ladies, and as a teacher, this is full of great advice that will actually help youth.

  7. This is so incredibly good, Kitty. Thank you for writing this. I was beyond lucky to grow up in a home with unconditional love and safety and security to boot, but I know way too many friends who didn’t. The “just get emancipated” comment got thrown around a lot by some of them, but none of them ever did/could. Here’s to hoping the Google gods of SEO get this guide into as many hands as possible, because it’s damn important.

  8. YES YES YES! I am a (former) high school teacher and part time crisis worker on the Lifeline and Trevor Lifelines you mention. This is such a wonderful piece. People have no concept of the complexities of teens-in-bad-living-situations and tend to go all one sided (“just get out” or “just leave when you’re 18” or “the state should take them away!”). There are serious legal, emotional, financial, and physical risks to leaving before you are 18, but there are great ways to ameliorate less than healthy circumstances (I spent most of my time between 16 and 18 staying at friends’ houses for 3-10 day stints and HOURS in school doing theater; it kept me mostly sane). Thank you for writing.

  9. Oh my goodness! This is such a great resource. I volunteer in my school district’s youth mentoring program, and I have run across so many teenagers that could find this information helpful to know. Thank you for creating this helpful resource!

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