the hollywood guide to teen emancipation

Following actress Ariel Winter’s triumphant emancipation story, we examine the phenomenon of teens divorcing their parents in Hollywood and beyond.

by Jane Helpern
08 June 2015, 1:40pm

It's not exactly front-page news when an angsty teenager scoffs at mom's famous bolognese and storms out of the house because her well-meaning parents didn't know she became a vegan. And pierced her lip. Yesterday.

And it's certainly nothing to raise an eyebrow at when a pissed-off high-schooler declares pure and unadulterated hatred toward her parents, expressed mostly by excessive name-calling, passive-aggressive huffing and puffing, and obnoxious door slamming.

More often than not, these hormone-fueled revolts are resolved rather speedily. Maybe dad gives Joe a few bucks to take his sweetheart to the mall, or mom agrees to let Jenna shave her legs despite concerns that she's too young.

But then there are those disputes that aren't so benign. It takes a serious level of vitriol to legally sever ties and become emancipated from the people responsible for bringing you into this world. Or, in the case of Clueless actress Alicia Silverstone, a desire to skirt child labor laws and work as an adult. Emancipation in Hollywood is by no stretch a new phenomenon. In fact, the legal tactic is practically a rite of passage for child actors, from Corey Feldman and Macaulay Culkin (who cite money as a catalyst for their familial rift) to Drew Barrymore and Taylor Momsen. Whether driven by financial mismanagement, emotional trauma or restrictive labor laws, teen stars have found many reasons to split from their families.

17-year-old Ariel Winter, best known as middle sibling Alex Dunphy on hit show Modern Family, made headlines for her victory in a much publicized legal battle to emancipate from her allegedly abusive mother Chrisoula Workman. Winter has been feuding with Workman since the age of 14, when horrific accusations of physical and emotional abuse, including violence, food deprivation and the attempt to sexualize a minor, first surfaced. Older sister Shanelle Gray made the same allegations against their mother more than twenty years ago, and was awarded temporary custody over Ariel in 2012. After a messy three year battle, the law recently ruled in Winter's favor. The newly-freed teen turned to social media to announce her good news, tweeting "I am now officially emancipated!!! I'm really lucky I have an amazing support system and lovely people in my life who have given me the support and guidance to have been given this wonderful opportunity."

So what is emancipation, exactly? And how does one go about it, logistically? According to attorney Ken LaMance at, "Emancipation is a court procedure in which a minor (someone under 18) is released from parental control. Once a minor is emancipated, she is free to make all her decisions without the consent of her parents." But it's not all one big blowing off curfew and marathon candy eating party. "On the other hand, her parents are no longer responsible for providing her with financial support, food or shelter," wrote LaMance.

It's a serious move, and one that isn't taken lightly by the legal system. There are rules and regulations in place to prevent ticked-off teens from making rash and irrevocable decisions. For example: in many cases, parental consult is required. However, if a parent refuses to cooperate or grant emancipation, it is still possible for the teenager to proceed with the emancipation in some states. Additionally, a minor seeking emancipation must be at least fourteen (or as old as 19 in some states), with a legal source of income, capable of managing his or her own finances, and the decision must be ruled to be in his or her best interest. A common myth is that emancipated minors can drop out of school, vote, and drink alcohol - freedom-seekers should take note that all of the above is false.

While many teens, like Ariel, flee from a destructive home life or abusive parents, there are cases in which emancipation is a professional tactic. Consider Drew Barrymore. The ET star started drinking and drugging at the age of ten. By fifteen she petitioned for emancipation from her parents, both to escape the hard-partying club scene and to get around child labor laws, which in California do not permit a minor to work more than five consecutive days. Actress-turned-vegan activist Alicia Silverstone did the same during the 1993 filming of The Crush. As did Juliette Lewis, whose parents actually helped her emancipate. Michelle Williams too did the deed for labor law reasons, but later told GQ, "It was just stupid. I didn't know what I was taking on."

Clearly, emancipation is far from a new trend in young Hollywood. In fact, it's kind of the oldest trick in the book. There was even speculation that binary-blurring Jaden Smith talked getting his own place and emancipating back in 2013. Those rumors were quickly extinguished when he and papa Will Smith appeared together on Ellen DeGeneres and joked, "The thing that people don't get is that everything at his house is free… So I can get anything and everything that I want at his house, so I think I'm going to be there for 20, 30 more years." If we were Fresh Prince offspring, we'd probably milk it 'til the cows come home. Just a friendly tip from us to you, Jaden.

There are a whole slew of legitimate benefits to emancipating, beyond getting the hell away from toxic parents, including the right to sue whomever you want to, make a will, consent to medical decisions, apply for a work permit, live where you choose, and keep your own earnings. Given Hollywood's touch-and-go history with child stars and their money-grubbing guardians, it makes sense that so many young actors and actresses have taken this brave and savvy step toward independence.

So we know what would incentivize a child actor to emancipate. But why would a real, non-Hollywood teen take steps to separate from her parents? The reasons range from financial woes to physical and emotional abuse; in fact, not too dissimilar from child actors. But there is one key difference to be warned against: most "regular" teens don't have the income that a child star has to make emancipation a manageable option, says Amy Lemley, a policy director at the Jon Burton Foundation For Children Without Homes. She told The Daily Beast, "Our system is not set up for emancipated minors… you can't work for a wage that will sustain you unless you're a child star." While it isn't recommended in most cases, it's certainly been done. Redditor Faux_Bacon emancipated at age 16 because her mother was physically violent and emptied his bank account. She describes the pros of emancipation as being "able to establish a healthy environment and focus on school." On the downside, she describes feeling lonely and isolated. "The source of strength and support at that age should come from your parents, but they were actually the source of my problems," she tells the Reddit community.

In short: unless you have multi-millions in the bank and a big time movie contract, emancipation is an uphill battle, nearly impossible to achieve and even more difficult to navigate if and when you've managed to liberate. Do you research, and treat emancipation as a last resort.

For further information about minor emancipation in the U.S., read more.
The state of Connecticut has an excellent guide.
And if you are facing physical or emotional abuse at home, contact the police or
The Department of Child And Family Services.


Text Jane Helpern
Photography The LIFE Picture Collection/Getty Images

Alicia Silverstone
Drew Barrymore
modern family
ariel winter