Dear Dr. G.,
My wife and I always enjoy reading your pieces, as they help us to better understand how to help our 19 year old son. However, we have a problem with him now that we haven't seen you touch on yet. I've posted this same question on a parenting forum, but my wife and I also thought it best to send it to you, to get your thoughts on it, as we do appreciate your insight.
As I've said, our son is 19 years old and he's an only child studying away at a university in Missouri. For a few years back when he was just beginning to start high school,my wife and I thought it would be a good idea to send our son to spend a portion of the summer with my sister, her husband, and their daughter so that he can get some experiences that he wouldn't otherwise have had. Their daughter is only about 9 months older than our son and like him is an only child. Over those few summers the two became very close (despite my sister and her husband not being very close at all with my wife and myself) and said niece of mine is now the closest thing my son has to a sister. In fact, he's taken to referring to her as his "sister-cousin," which makes this whole situation worse.
One of our son's friends let slip to my wife that our son has a romantic and sexual interest in this girl in spite of their relation. As far as my wife and I know she doesn't feel the same way as she's engaged to marry a U.S. Marine. Almost just as troubling, our son's friend also mentioned that our son uses his "sister-cousin" as a basis of comparison for every girl that he's interested in dating, meaning that even if he can't date her, he'd like to date (and therefore eventually marry) someone similar to the girl who has become his "almost sister."
My wife and I are uncomfortable with our son's feelings toward his cousin.What do you think of this situation?
A Confused Set of Parents
P.S. Our son wants to spend Thanksgiving at his cousin's house. Should we say no?
Just by coincidence I heard of a very similar situation to yours just this week. I am telling you that so that you feel a little bit less alone with your confusing situation.
It is understandable that your son would "imprint," so to speak, on his cousin and compare other potential partners to her. That is not necessarily a bad thing. It sure sounds like he admires her and is looking for similar traits in a girlfriend. That, in and of itself, seems fine to me.
You are concerned and confused that your son has romantic and sexual feelings toward his cousin. His interest in her does not surprise me. They are not biological siblings and have become very close. And we have learned that familiarity does not breed contempt but instead breeds fondness. It also does not sound like your son has acted on any feelings.
I do not feel that it is absolutely necessary for you to have a sit down discussion with your son but if that would make you feel more comfortable then go for it. Just please be careful to remain calm and nonjudgmental. You certainly don't want to either embarrass or shame your son. No matter what the situation may be, you are his parents and I am quite sure that he does not want to disappoint you. Since you are concerned that your son is becoming too interested in your niece you would be well within your parental boundaries to suggest that your son come home for Thanksgiving instead of going to his cousin's house. I suggest being honest with your son about why you are concerned about his holiday plans and then see what he has to say. He may actually feel relieved that he has the opportunity to talk about his feelings openly. Good luck and please get back to me and let me know what happens. You sound like very loving and thoughtful parents.
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