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My daughter is 13 years old, and just got her first boyfriend (he’s 14). I’m not a jealous dad by nature, but I am very close to her, and I’ll be honest... I hate her boyfriend’s guts. I checked him out on social media, and monitor all her texts (don’t judge, she knows I’m snooping), where he acts like one of those foul-mouthed alpha males I despise. I’ve read Romeo and Juliet, so I know what not to do. But I need help here. Am I wrong for thinking my daughter deserves better for her first boyfriend? And if I am wrong, what can I do to manage these feelings? —Desperate Dad
Desperate Dad, it’s good you’re not giving into those “Papa Bear” urges that could trigger Romeo and Juliet dynamics. Your primal instincts are perfectly natural, and you might be right that this guy is bad news. But the essential question is this: If you start lecturing her and emoting about your speculations, will you be effective in protecting your daughter, having influence, and maintaining your relationship with her? What’s a loving and protective dad to do?
First, be humble. Are you sure you know how bad this boy is, based on social media? Many kids show their least appealing sides on these platforms—but they may have character strengths you are not privy to (yet). Secondly, since you are monitoring your daughter’s communications and whereabouts (good job!), you can track whether she breaks rules or becomes dishonest. If there are violations, you can give her consequences and avoid power struggles about Romeo’s “terribleness.” The point is that you want to take action on misbehavior, not your opinion.
Here’s the paradoxical and super-hard action item. Invite Romeo to your home so you can get to know him a bit. You might be surprised. When you make this disarming move, Romeo will quite possibly clean up and try to impress you—to prove he’s not the scum you think he is. Also, you can look at him, face to face, and tell him your expectations for honesty and respect. You may be surprised to find that he’s more motivated to follow through on expectations than your daughter, who is individuating from you and declaring her independence. As a young buck, Romeo wants to prove he’s a good man.
I’ve engineered these tactics with families in my clinical practice, and with good results. Ultimately, you want to trust that if Romeo is filth, he’ll show his colors in time. At that point, you want your daughter to come to you for your wise counsel and support. She won’t if you have an “I told you so attitude”—but she will, if you play your cards right. Self-restraint is hard, but Juliet is worth all your effort.
Laura Kastner, Ph.D. is a clinical professor in psychiatry and behavioral sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle. She’s the author of several books about parenting teens, including Getting to Calm: Cool-Headed Strategies for Raising Tweens and Teens and Wise-Minded Parenting: 7 Essentials for Raising Tweens and Teens. Her next book is on parenting the three-to-seven year old, due out this spring.