Dear David Coleman: I worry my teenage daughter is going off the rails entirely
Q I'm desperately worried about my 15-year-old daughter. I'm sure she has started drinking alcohol, with her friends, although she won't admit it. I also worry that she has been sexually active with a boy.
We don't allow her to have a boyfriend because she is too young, and it'd be a distraction from her Junior Cert but she has become especially secretive about her phone and won't tell us where she is going when she is with her friends. We suspect she is meeting a boy. We are thinking of just grounding her because we fear she will just go off the rails entirely. What do you think we should do?
David replies: I think that grounding her would be a really bad idea. I think it will create a lot of resentment. Your daughter is likely to feel that you are being really unfair in imposing this punishment when there is no evidence that she has actually done anything wrong. In the longer term, this is likely to lead to a situation where your daughter might feel that she is likely to be punished no matter what and so she may as well behave however she likes, since she has nothing to lose anyway.
It sounds to me like you are making lots of assumptions about your daughter currently, without much hard evidence to support them. Your assumptions are all, also, negative. Perhaps you feel anxious about her and suspicious of her. You don't seem to have any positive sense of her at the moment. I wonder how easy it is to talk with her these days? I could guess it might be hard. I'd imagine that your daughter may feel that you are trying to control her and that she has to "fight" back to protect herself.
I can understand why you might be worried about her having sex, since she is young and the consequences for her emotional and sexual development may appear to be potentially overwhelming. Unfortunately for you, you can't stop her. So rather than trying to forbid her to have a boyfriend, you might be better advised to try to have an open and curious conversation with her about her feelings about boys, sex and relationships, such that you can help her to understand those feelings and make wise choices.
You cannot protect your daughter from all harm, nor is it healthy to do so. She has to be let make some mistakes. Our role has to shift to one of guidance and support rather than rule-maker and controller.
I think this is hard for us to achieve, since letting go more seems so risky, and we fear serious harm coming to our teens.
However, it will be much more helpful to communicate your worries, but show openness, and a genuine willingness to let her problem-solve ways of showing you that she can keep herself safe. Remind yourself about her positive qualities so that you can focus on the success you've had in raising her to this point, and hopefully build your confidence that she is ready to meet the challenges of her teenage years.
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