Susan Sanders* of Willisburg, Ky., had some excellent reasons for not liking her daughter's former boyfriend. He was a major freeloader, never paying or offering to drive. Then he got her started with drugs and with forging the checks he stole to support their drug habits.
In spite of all that, Sanders was polite for the sake of family harmony. But her daughter, Brittany, 19, knew her mom didn't like the boy and eventually broke up with him and entered rehab. She's now dating someone of whom Sanders approves.
"He scored points with me when he immediately started wanting to go to church with her," says Sanders. "Also, she smiles more now and has said that he says things to her she's never heard from a guy before, such as her being beautiful, and he leaves her little notes everywhere."
While Sanders' case is fairly extreme – who wouldn't loathe a boy who got their daughter started on drugs? – it's not unusual for parents to dislike their teenager's boyfriend or girlfriend for much less compelling reasons. Young adult author and family therapist Chris Crutcher says it's because parents perceive the stakes to be higher for their children when they get into an opposite-sex relationship.
"Your child is making a special bond with this person," says Crutcher. "Looked at from the parents' point of view, this relationship can threaten the relationship they have with their child. Even if you've raised your kids right, there's often anxiety about the level of commitment and intimacy, both physical and emotional, that your child is going to allow."
Crutcher says some part of that anxiety has to do with the parents' own ego. "Parents tend to have a picture of what we want our kid's life to be like, and we want our kids to avoid the mistakes that we made," he says. "The fact is that no one learns from your experience but you. Parents need to let their children make their own mistakes and have their own experiences."
According to Michael J. Bradley, psychologist and author of Yes, Your Teen Is Crazy (Harbor Press, Inc., 2001), choosing a boyfriend or girlfriend, even if it's one you're not wild about, is an important part of the hardening off process that separates a child from his or her parents. "If our kids did everything we told them to and were perfect little extensions of ourselves, including dating only those people we chose, those kids would be living in our basement in their 40s," he says. "As parents we have to think of these bizarre choices as part of the growing/learning/hardening process."
Bradley, who as a parent has had personal experience in this area, also notes that there may be an element of testing or rebelling in our child's choice of a partner. In other words, if Dad is a pacifist and his little girl brings home a Green Beret, she may just be testing his reaction or trying to push his buttons. Both Crutcher and Bradley say it's important not to allow them to be pushed.
Grin and Bear It
My daughter's boyfriend has such atrocious table manners that it drives my husband completely insane. When the boyfriend comes to dinner it's excruciating as I worry that my husband is going to either have a stroke or stab the boy with a fork. Coincidentally, Bradley used table manners as an example when he explained that the best defense against an obnoxious boyfriend or girlfriend is to just act like nothing is wrong. You don't have to pretend you love the guy (or girl), but criticizing or putting the person down are definitely going to make them more attractive, not less.
Bradley points out that your children already know what your standards are. Allow your son or daughter to compare the boyfriend or girlfriend against your family's standards in an atmosphere that's non-judgmental and non-critical. "You don't care about this guy; he's not your problem," says Bradley. "What's important is to maintain your relationship with your child. As soon as you criticize their choice of partners, they'll move to defend them. You have to sort of trust that they'll figure out that this person doesn't necessarily fit into the family dynamic."
Here are Bradley's top rules for handling a boyfriend/girlfriend you don't like:
- Don't demean.
- Don't criticize.
- Don't forbid.
- Don't get into a contest.
By a contest he means if your son says he's going out with his girlfriend somewhere on Sunday, don't say you've already planned something for Sunday and force him to make choices. Doing any of the above doesn't make your child want to break up with their partner' it merely drives your child away from you. And that's the one thing you don't want.
Bradley says that parents' best weapons are framed questions that will, hopefully, make your child think. One example might be if he or she comes home obviously upset, to ask what's wrong, and if the answer is "nothing," say, "Oh, you seem so unhappy." They may then begin to think, hey, I am unhappy. The important thing is to make non-judgmental statements that frame your child's feelings and leave it at that.
Crutcher also notes that how you handle your son's or daughter's first dating relationships can bode well, or ill, for your future relationship with your child. "This is the tough one, and if you handle this one well, then you'll be able to handle those easier problems – and almost anything is easier," he says. "You'll also keep those all-important lines of communication open with your child. They'll know you're someone they can come to."
*Name changed to protect privacy.