Teenagers and Romance
Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson
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We all want the best for our children. Most of us parents think that, actually, we are the best things that ever happened to our kids. The very idea that someone else could take our place in our child’s affections is just… so wrong!
And, of course, without all that stardust and hormonal interference, we can see through the smokescreen our child’s boyfriend or girlfriend has thrown in front of our child’s eyes and we can discern just how shallow, delinquent, shiftless, ugly, and unkind to dogs our child’s significant other really is. Our child could do so much better!
What to do?
First, recognize that your child’s choice of friends and romantic partners is unlikely to match your own choice. You are not your child. You are old (if you have a teenager, you are old) and you have an old-person’s taste in fashion, music, piercings, tattoos and lifestyle. Expecting your child to match your requirements in a significant other is like asking him or her to date your spouse. Not what you had in mind!
Second, recognize that your child believes he or she is fully capable of making personal decisions without you, thanks a lot, and will resist to the point of moving out of the house any attempt on your part to undermine this capability. The quickest way to cement an unfortunate relationship is to talk smack about it – you will force your child to defend the relationship and deny anything bad. You cannot win a rational argument about the friend’s personal characteristics because this will not be a rational argument. You not only lose but you make proving you wrong your child’s main objective.
So… again… what to do? Your options depend on the age of your child. Let’s start with teens under the age of 18.
You set the rules in your house, so you can set them high and enforce them consistently. If you’re really serious about this, you can set up rules as stringent as you like: you can create a curfew, driving rules, rules about friends’ GPAs, and rules about the cleanliness of their hair – whatever bothers you. The problem is that you must apply these rules across the board – to all friends, not just the ones you don’t approve of – and this will limit your child’s social life severely. Your child may be lonely, unhappy, and living in your spare room until you finally move to Sun City.
A better tack is to be super-nice to your child’s friends, even the ones you dislike. Chat them up when you see them, offer them snacks, make them feel welcome. Get to know them a bit. This pretty much guarantees that these friends will treat your child better and, in fact, these friends might actually become better… or you might see that they are better than you thought. At the very least, you now have some ammunition you can (casually, carefully) ask your child about: “Clive had a funny smell last night… did you notice it?” The more you know about your child’s friends and romantic entanglements the better, but you need information from actual experience, not rumor or gossip.
And when your child and a significant-other-you-detest break up, act surprised and supportive. Never gloat. Never say, “I knew that would happen.” Remember that your child doesn’t want your opinion and won’t accept your advice just because you said it. Treat your teen like an grown-up friend and you’ll get further.
And speaking of grown-up friends, your over-18 children are just that. Trying to manipulate the rules doesn’t work for your older kids but being nice to their romantic partners does. Make certain, though, that you maintain some boundaries: cordial and welcoming are fine, trying to be best buddies is not fine. This is your child’s relationship, not yours.
It may happen that your child and a person you detest become a twosome: they move in together, get married, or have a child (not necessarily all of those and not necessarily in that order). If this is so, just keep on keeping on. Stay cordial, stay supportive, stay out of the way. If things fall apart – as you probably imagine they will – your child will need your shoulder to lean on. You don’t want to have driven him or her away by your prior disapproval.
And you might be wrong. Things might work out wonderfully, or at least tolerably. I know it’s hard to watch a child move from being dependent on you to being independent of you. This signals a change not only in your relationship with your kid but a change in your own role. Now, more than ever before, you are in the backseat. That’s your new position. You don’t have to like it, but you do have to sit there.
I have had the great good fortune of landing two wonderful daughters-in-law. I’ll confess I had my doubts about both of them. I was wrong. I wish you and your children and their partners the same lovely experience.