Hi Dr Justin,
My daughter is 16 and she has a boyfriend who she is crazy about. We don’t let her be alone with him or drive in the car with him. I am just worried that sometimes she is going to have to be alone at home when we are at work and he will show up when we are not there.
Do I threaten and tell her that we have someone driving by to watch her? She keeps a lot to herself. I try and talk to her all the time - to the point where she gets annoyed with me. I even tell her if she doesn't want to talk to me about her feelings she can text me, but she doesn’t.
I want to trust her ... but she is a 16-year-old teenager with crazy hormones.
Dr Justin responds:
Our child’s first serious relationship makes most parents shudder. We do not like to think of our children as having romantic, or sexual, interests. We want to protect them, keep them safe. But with a romantic interest comes that moment when we realise that our child is a child no longer. We find them making decisions we aren't so crazy about –and this is especially the case when it comes to love interests. The thought of all of those hormones racing around their body at the same time that we are out of the house and our child is unsupervised is unnerving.
Around the same time that we realise our child is no longer a ‘child’, we discover (if we haven't already) that teenagers resent unsolicited attention and advice - particularly about those romantic decisions.
Now that your daughter is 16 you’ll be seeing that she is acting like a grown-up, and capable of finding her way without parental involvement. She isn’t one yet, and she still benefits you’re your participation in her life and decisions. But when you help, she sees you as interfering. When you show concern, you are treating her like a baby. When you give advice, you are being controlling. Autonomy is valued above all.
If we control, we are the enemy. This means that as parents of teenagers, we face a difficult dilemma: How are we supposed to help when that help is resented; how do we guide when our guidance is rejected; and how do we communicate when our words are taken as attack?
The question of control
The old-school gold-standard model of parenting prescribes a kind but controlling approach. It goes like this:
"I'm the parent and you do what I say. If you do as you're told, I'll treat you well. If you don't do what you're told, there will be 'consequences'".
Of course we say this with a smile and a kind voice, but that warmth masks an uncomfortable truth that we will use our power to make things happen our way.
While mainstream psychological training is slow to catch up, research over the past three or four decades has shown this approach to be unwise. The more controlling we are with our teens, the more they rebel. When we coerce, manipulate, or threaten, our teens shrug and think, "I'll just stop talking to them, and I'll have to be sneakier so I don't get caught." Some openly defy us.
As such, threats will backfire. Attempts at control increase resentment. Such interactions will undermine trust in your relationship and undo any influence you may have.
So what can be done?
The most consistent finding in recent years has been that parents who move away from an approach where they act on their children like they are objects - where they bribe or threaten, and "do things to" their children - and move to an approach where they allow their children to act for themselves within reasonable guidelines , seem to have the best outcomes in their families and with their children.
As an example, one researcher found that adolescents with the most consistent value-congruent behaviour (that is behaviour that was congruent with their highest values) had parents who used deference or reasoned deference as their parenting approach. Deference means we 'defer' decision-making to our teen rather than deciding things for them. Reasoned deference is where we go through our reasoning for preferring that our teen act a certain way (that is, we explain our values and reasons), and then we defer the decision to them.
In simple terms, this research showed that when parents deferred decisions to their teens (usually with some values-based discussion beforehand), those teens made decisions based on values rather than emotion. And they were better decisions. The teens in this study used drugs less, engaged in more pro-social behaviour, did better at school, and chose better friends.
When we tell our teens what to do, they get mad. Their emotions then drive decisions. When we allow our teens space to choose what to do, their values are more likely to drive their decisions, leading to more values-congruent behaviour.
Your daughter needs your involvement - but it has to be the right kind of involvement. It should not be prescriptive. She doesn't need to be told what to do, and telling her what to do will only drive emotional responses to decisions. Instead, remember the following tips:
- Spend more time on getting your relationship right and less time on correction and direction
- Give responsibility. We don't get responsible children by removing responsibility. And if she makes a mistake, discuss it, and then give her another chance to be responsible.
- When you do need to set limits, provide a clear rationale (explain your values)
- When your daughter disagrees, listen and understand. Really see how things are for her.
- Encourage her to determine self-generated values. If her values are at odds with yours, problem-solve until you can both agree on a positive way forward.
- Minimise the use of control.
Your concerns are valid. You have decades of wisdom your daughter has not had a chance to acquire. There is no doubt that your daughter needs limits (as we all do). The way that you set them will make a significant difference in the way she adheres to them, and the quality of your relationship and family life over the coming years. These tips will help.
What are you dreading as your children grow up and become independent teens?