'Modern Family' 's Ariel Winter Opens Up About Surviving Child Stardom: 'I Have a Great Support System Now'

"My mom put me in the industry when I was 4," Winter tells PEOPLE. "I love what I do, but I don't know if it's a choice I would have made on my own"

Photo: Ari Michelson

Ariel Winter is just one day away from turning 18, but her Jan. 28 birthday is not exactly a rite of passage for the Modern Family star in the same way it would be for other teens.

“I’ve kind of been in adulthood for a little bit now,” Winter says in the current issue of PEOPLE.

And she means that in both the figurative and literal sense.

After her guardianship was transferred from her mother, Christoula Workman, to her sister, Shanelle Gray, in 2014, Winter successfully petitioned to become an emancipated minor last May.

“I have a great support system now,” says Winter, who still lives with her sister, Gray, 37, her sister’s husband, David, and their two young daughters, Skylar and Parker. “They’ve been so amazing and supportive.”

That feeling of support is not something Winter has always had during her childhood spent in front of the camera.

“I was put in the industry when I was 4,” says Winter. “I love what I do, but I don’t know if it’s a choice I would have made on my own.”

Winter was first cast in a Cool Whip commercial, then booked small TV and film roles. At 9, she began voicing characters on Disney’s hit Phineas and Ferb.

Even then, Winter felt the pressures of Hollywood.

“People criticize you at an extremely young age,” says Winter, whose hair was dyed black for the first time when she was 7 because it was believed it would make her more marketable. “There’s a lot of rejection. I heard no thousands of times. That was hard to cope with.”

But in 2009, her hit ABC comedy provided a, well, modern family for the young actress.

“I think the world of Ariel,” says her on-screen dad, Ty Burrell. “She’s so mature and composed.”

For more from Winter – including why she got a breast reduction at age 17 – pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday

Winter – who also voices the title character on Disney Junior’s Sophia the First – is now applying to colleges but has no intentions of leaving the safe place she has created for herself.

She’s applied to over a dozen schools, but she ultimately hopes she can attend college in Los Angeles so she can continue working on Modern Family and living with her sister.

“I love living with my sister. She’s my best friend, and I love her husband and their babies. My nieces are my entire life,” she says. “I’ve found a happy situation for me. So there is not really a reason for me to leave until they kick me out!”

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