Teen Girls and Dating? Uh, Not While I’m Still Breathing

Dear Mr. Dad, My 14-year-old daughter is obsessed with the idea that she needs to start dating. She says “all of her friends” are doing it, and feels left out. Fourteen just seems too young. I don’t think anyone—boy or girl—should start ‘til at least 16. I want to tell her “over my dead body” but I also don’t want to be that dad. What can I do?

A: As the father of three daughters—two of whom made it through their teen years without getting pregnant (the third is only 10 and I’m confident she’ll do the same)—I feel your pain. The very idea of your little girl, alone with a … boy, can bring up all sorts of emotions, headlined by anger (“Boys that age have only one thing on their mind”) and worry (How can I possibly protect her?”).

Let’s start with the “only-one-thing-on-their-mind” idea. Do you really believe that? TV, movies, and the Internet put a lot of pressure on teens to have as much sex as they can as often as they can, with as many different people as possible. But the reality is that the majority of boys your daughter’s age are petrified of girls, and what’s most likely on their mind is, “I’m hungry.”

As far as the “how-can-I-protect-her” idea, you have two things going for you. First, your daughter herself doesn’t sound like she’s all that into it and just wants to date because everyone else is. By telling you that, she’s almost begging you to say No. Second, even if dating were her idea, you’re right: 14 is too young for serious one-on-one dating.
That said, you can’t just play the tough guy and expect her to be happy about it. In fact, the more forcefully you forbid dating, the more you’ll push her towards it. Here’s what to do instead.

  • Really Talk to Her. You have a wonderful opportunity here. Your daughter actually came to you with a problem. That says a huge amount (in a good way) about your relationship. Ask her to tell you more about the dating her friends are doing, the pressure she feels, and what she actually means by “dating” (you might be thinking, “dinner, movie, make out in the back seat of the car”; she might be thinking “hold hands and share an ice cream cone”). Listen carefully and don’t be judgmental. When you sense an opportunity, talk to her about the dangers of dating, including violence (which, by the way is just as likely to be initiated by girls as by boys). Talk about relationships, sex, and the finances involved. You’re not going to wrap this up in one conversation, so take it a step at a time.
  • Establish some dating rules. Number one is that group dates are okay, one-on-one dates are not. End of story. Group dates let her be with the boy who makes her blush, but in a setting where inappropriate behavior is a lot less likely.
  • Tag along. In my view, groups of young teens shouldn’t be out and about without an adult nearby—there’s too much opportunity for things to go wrong. And if you want your daughter to see how serious you are, be the chaperone. Don’t be right in the middle of the group or try to be everyone’s buddy—that would only embarrass your daughter. Instead, walk half a block behind and sit a few rows away in the movie. But be there. Watch carefully, and let her enjoy herself.

Setting Limits to Preserve Focus, Privacy, and Relationships

[amazon asin=B00F8LP87Q&template=thumbleft&chan=default]Anne Katherine, author of Boundaries in an Overconnected World.
Setting limits to preserve your focus, privacy, relationships, and sanity
Issues: Making social media, smart phones, and other devices work for you rather than against; tips to keep you focused at work and home; how to tell whether you’ve got a tech boundary problem; protecting your identity and your reputation; what to do if you can’t set boundaries for yourself (or your family).

Houston, We Have a Problem…

Dear Mr. Dad: How do you handle a 21-year-old male who’ dropped out of college, has no job, and has been living in our house for the past six months? My husband and I provide our son with a car, insurance, gas, clothes, and cover all his healthcare. But whenever we ask him to do anything around the house, he flat out refuses or does it poorly. And whenever we bring up the issue of his finding work and moving out, he gets angry and accuses us of not supporting him. What can we do?

A: My first reaction is to suggest that the next time your son leaves the house you call a locksmith and have all your locks changed. However, that would only work (to the extent that it would at all) if your son was responsible for the entire problem. He’s not. In fact, I’d say that you and your husband are making an already difficult situation even worse.

But let’s take a step back for a moment. If it makes you feel any better, you’re not alone in having an adult child move back in with you. Some studies have found that as many as a third of all young adults under 35 are living with ma and pa. The situation is so common that there’s actually a term for these adult children: “boomerang kids.” The bad news is that these arrangements are often extremely stressful on everyone involved, but especially on parents who had planned to downsize during their retirement years.

Okay, back to you. By providing your son with free room and board, transportation, and insurance, you’re undercutting any incentive he might have had to learn how to grow up and survive on his own. I’d actually go a step further and say that you’re encouraging your son to be a slacker—and the only way the situation is going to improve is if you change your behavior. Here’s what you’ll have to do:

  1. You and your husband need to get on the same page. Having one of you push for independence while the other slips your son wads of cash under the table will guarantee the status quo. What do you want to have happen, and over what period of time?
  2. Once you’ve come up with a plan, call a family meeting. Ask your son how he sees the current situation. Does he plan to finish college? Look for work? How long does he expect to be living with you? It’s possible that he’s feeling guilty and maybe even ashamed.
  3. Start charging. The value he places on his living arrangements is directly proportional to how much he has to pay. In other words, the less he pays—for rent, car, insurance, food, clothes—the more he’ll take them for granted. If he has income, put a dollar value on household chores and have him work off his debts.
  4. Get out your calendar. Your goal is to get your son ready to live in the real world. But it’s not going to happen overnight. So come up with a timetable that includes reasonable targets (enroll in college for the next semester, find a job within 12 weeks, move to your own place within six months, etc).
  5. Create rules and enforce them. Can he bring dates home to spend the night? Do you expect him to call if he’ll be spending the night elsewhere?

As the economy continues to stagnate, this is a bigger and bigger issue. We’ll go into more details in future columns.

Yours, Mine, and Ouch

Dear Mr. Dad: I have two kids from a previous marriage, ages 7 and 9. My new husband’s two children are almost the same age and spend every weekend and all holidays with us. Problem is, my kids and the step-kids don’t get along. In fact, it seems like they hate each other and they spend most of their time together fighting and bickering. My husband and I don’t know what to do. Any advice?

A: Sounds like a really unpleasant situation for everyone involved—kids and adults. But before we can start looking at possible solutions, it’s important to try to understand why your home becomes a battlefield every weekend.

From your biological children’s point of view, their home (and possibly their rooms) aren’t theirs any longer. Their once-familiar and comfortable physical and emotional spaces have been invaded by strangers. Like dogs, children are creatures of habit and they may be feeling more than a little confused about roles, rules, and boundaries: who gets to set and enforce them, and do they apply to everyone who doesn’t have a driver’s license, or just to them?

The resentment they’re display towards the uninvited interlopers is at least in part a reflection of their uncertainty and fears that things they’ve taken for granted all their lives (like their toys, other belongings, and even your love) will be somehow taken away from them and given to their step-siblings. In a way, they—again, like dogs—are defending their territory and their rights.

On the other side of the equation, your step-kids, are being taken, albeit temporarily, from the security and comfort zone of their own home and dropped behind enemy lines, in the middle of uncharted and hostile territory. They aren’t sure of the prevailing family dynamics, where they fit in, and what they’re allowed to do or play with.

I’m not sure whether this is good or bad news, but this situation is pretty common. Many blended families, at least initially, go through a pretty lengthy adjustment period. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to make the transition easier.
• You and your husband need to come to an agreement about how best to handle this situation and resolve conflicts. To start with, he should have the primary responsibility for disciplining his kids, and you for yours.
• If you haven’t already, have a friendly talk with all four children. Ask each of them why they fight. Whatever they say, take their grievances seriously and involve them in finding solutions they can all agree on.
• Write a new set of family rules, so that all four kids know what their rights and responsibilities are at your house. Make sure the rules are fair and don’t favor one set of kids over the other.
• Plan ahead of time the weekends and holidays when the step-children will be with you. Ask each child to come up with an activity that all the family members can participate in–trips to the zoo or a sporting event, family game night, and rotate so that each one can have a say in what you’ll be doing.
• Ease up on the pressure. You may mean well, but telling your kids (or your husband telling his) that they’re “really going to love” their new step-siblings is almost a guarantee that they won’t. They need to forge their own relationships.

It may take a while for things to calm down, so be patient, loving, and positive. Others have gone down this path before and have found (at least some) peace and harmony in the end.

No more No!

Dear Mr. Dad: I feel like when I spend time with my 2-year old, I’m constantly telling him “no!” Is there some way I can enforce boundaries without being so negative?

A: It’s no wonder that one of the first words kids learn to say is, No. After all, it’s the word they hear the most—even more than mommy, daddy, or their own name. Since two-year olds are on a mission to destroy everything in their path, hearing No is important. But the problem with No is that it eventually becomes background noise and our kids tune us out. And when it comes to health and safety issues, that’s the last thing we want.

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Taming the Savage Preschooler

Dear Mr. Dad: My daughter and son-in-law are raising their 4-year-old child with no discipline or boundaries. The boy is a little brat, screaming and throwing temper tantrums whenever he doesn’t get what he wants. I’ve tried speaking to my daughter about this but she just laughs it off. What should I do?

A: Oh, boy, that’s a tough one. I totally agree that raising a child without any boundaries, or, for that matter, discipline, is just plain bad parenting. Your daughter and son-in-law aren’t doing your grandson any favors by giving in to all his whims. Sooner or later, their lenient, anything-goes approach will backfire. (He’s already an unmanageable little tyrant. Imagine how much worse it’ll be as he gets older).

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