Q. Our daughter Sara is 15 and a sophomore in high school. She is a good student, and up to this point, she has been an easy child to raise. However, recently she seems to be attracted to kids who pride themselves on looking different and not being well-engaged in school. She wants to date Ben, a boy who is a junior. He has long hair, two piercings in one eyebrow and some kind of spacer to help make a big hole in his ear. I don’t like him, and I don’t want my daughter to date him or hang around with his “on the fringe” friends. I worry that Sara won’t be able to tell him “no” when it comes to intimacy or possibly drugs. Is he on drugs? I don’t know. Can we tell her she can’t date or even hang out with this guy?
A. You could tell Sara she can’t date or hang out with Ben and his friends, but this probably would intensify her efforts to be with him and would likely close communication with her about him—and other issues as well.
Why not approach this in a way that keeps communication open with your daughter and still keeps her safe? I suggest talking with Sara in a positive way; trust that you raised her well, and that there’s something she sees Ben. (This may not be true, but you will get information from her if you talk to her as if you are interested.) Ask her what she likes about him; ask why he likes piercings, etc. Open up about what puts you off about his looks, but indicate that you really want to get to know him for the reasons she likes him, and that’s why you want him around the family for a while. One idea is to tell your daughter that Ben has to come to the house to visit several times before you will even consider saying yes to dating. Invite him to supper, homework sessions in your home, family game night, and perhaps going with the family to a sports outing. Discuss rules with Sara and Ben, such as being in sight at all times and fully participating in family activities.
Find out what Ben’s good qualities are, as well as what his family is like and—even if they are dysfunctional—consider that he might be able to succeed in spite of his family, especially if you help mentor him. Discuss his goals with him, and encourage him. With some respect, acceptance and encouragement, he might decide to do well in school and to be involved in acceptable activities. On the other hand, you may find him to be worse than you suspected and your daughter will, under supervision, recognize it for herself.
It’s next to impossible to choose your children’s friends when they get to preteen and teen years and later. When you deny them access to someone you disapprove of, it’s highly likely they’ll rebel and find ways to secretively be with that person.
I checked with one of my favorite high school teachers about her thoughts on situations similar to yours. Here’s what she had to say: “Maybe he (Ben) treats her (Sara) really well; I’ve had some of the ‘scariest’ looking kids in various classes turn out to be the absolute sweetest kids, almost like they are so good that they wear the ‘scary’ outer to tame the ‘sweet’ down below. I love it when they blow my assumptions and prejudices away.”
Betty Richardson, Ph.D., R.N.C., L.P.C., L.M.F.T., is an Austin-based psychotherapist who specializes in dealing with the problems of children, adolescents and parents.
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