When Your Daughter Dates an Older Man
It's no secret that teenage girls mature sooner than boys. With access to Internet chat rooms, these teenage girls can now seek out more mature dating partners – some of whom are in college or out in the work world.
What happens when your daughter wants to date older high school students or college men? Would you know if your daughter was arranging a clandestine meeting with a 20- or 30-something-year-old teacher, coach or crush from the Internet?
Dennis Rainey, the author of Parenting Today's Adolescent (Nelson Books, 2002) and So You Are About to Be a Teenager (Nelson Books, 2003), has raised four daughters ranging in age from 19 to 30 and two sons. Rainey, of Little Rock, Ark., and his wife, Barbara, did not let their daughters date older boys. They also favored double dates or group dating if their daughters got the green light to go out at all.
Their daughters were not always happy with their father's rules. "We stood fast our ground," he says. "I think they would come back today and tell you that was good advice even though they did not like it."
Rainey says teenage girls are more likely to be vulnerable to older male suitors and predators if they don't have a solid relationship with their father. He calls it the "absent father syndrome."
"A lot of dads are absent from their daughters' lives, and so they are looking to fill a hole in their hearts their dads should be meeting but aren't," Rainey says. "I think young ladies were designed to nurture and love, and I think when they get old enough to express that, they latch on to someone who looks like they are fun, looks like they are cool, someone who is their idealized romantic man. In the process, they develop an unreal relationship."
Angela Thomas of Knoxville, Tenn., a single mother and a national public speaker who meets thousands of teenagers through "Girls of Grace" conferences, also says girls may fantasize about older men if they don't have a good relationship with their father. "Unfortunately a lot of it has to do with dads, a distant dad or not even present dad or abusive dad," she says.
Thomas believes it's important to teach girls to make choices from a strong place, not an empty place, in terms of their emotions. "I want her to be aware she could choose poorly just because of those feelings that are going on inside of her," Thomas says. "I think as parents if we can be ahead and shine a light on what could be a dark place for our kids, then at least we are in there."
You can learn to "be ahead and shine a light" for your daughter. Here's how:
How to Deal
Thomas will not let her daughter date until she is 16, although she does make exceptions for special events as long as adults supervise. "She was allowed to go to homecoming, but she went with the guy's parents," Thomas says. "They chaperoned. I feel like when she is 16, she won't go anywhere with anyone I don't know."
A two-year age difference is nothing for a woman in her 20s or 30s, but there is a big difference between 16 and 18, Thomas says. "I would not let her go out with someone even more than two years older than her," she says. "I think when you are young, you need time to test the water and make sure you are strong with your boundaries and your ability to say, 'No' or 'It's time for me to go home.'"
Joe Kelly of Duluth, Minn., the president of a national advocacy nonprofit group, Dads and Daughters, and the father to identical twin daughters who are now 24 years old, says that fathers hold the solution. Fathers should listen to their daughters, tell them stories about what it's like to be a young man growing up and stay involved with their daughters by playing sports together or watching movies. Kelly, the author of Dads and Daughters: How to Inspire, Support and Understand Your Daughter (Broadway Books, 2003), also suggests setting limits, including monitoring the use of the Internet.
"I think pretty much up until she is 16 or 17, dating anybody more than two years older is inappropriate," he says. "That is simply a matter of the immense changes that happen developmentally in a teenager. In an adolescent, the developmental changes are very rapid. The human mind is not completely developed until it is 25. So it's just not wise to be getting deeply involved with someone who is more than two years older than you at that age."
Maybe most important, Kelly advocates negotiating the ground rules for dating at an early age. "If this arises when she is 15 or 16 and she wants to be dating a 21-year-old or 25-year-old and you have never set any limits about her activities or relationships, you are going to have a really tough time."
While it may seem better to err on the side of caution, Kelly warns about trying too hard to protect daughters. "I think the other thing that is really important is a lot of fathers go into overprotection mode," he says. "If you talk to fathers about their daughters dating, they will tell you what I call the shotgun story. 'The first time a boy comes calling for my daughter, I'll be out on the front porch just casually cleaning my shotgun. I was a boy once, and I know what he is after, and I want him to know that I know.' People always laugh when I tell that story because we have all been one of those three characters in that story: the girl, the dad or the boy coming up the step. What's wrong with that approach is it tells the daughter, 'I don't trust you. I don't trust your choices.'"
The better approach is to listen to your teens and get involved in their lives. Encourage them to get involved in life, too. Teenagers are more likely to chat with older men through the Internet if they are bored or feel empty. Equip them with the limits and love they need to avoid growing up too fast.