Help! I Hate My Daughter's Boyfriend!
How parents can cope with their child’s dating choices.
Posted Mar 08, 2017
It’s an ongoing problem for so many parents, and it’s been an issue that has been around forever: We may find ourselves not liking, or disapproving of, our children’s choices in dating partners.
As a college professor, it is amazing how often students sit in my office and tell me that they anticipate that their parents will not approve of whom they are dating or that they are already aware that their parents do not like who they are dating, often leaving them feeling increasingly isolated and torn between family and peers. Here are 14 things for parents to keep in mind:
1) Most children, and even adult children, truly yearn for parental approval and acceptance and claim to not feel it as much as they need and want.
2) Many kids may know that as a parent you have a point, or that you see something they wish they had detected or done something about earlier. In recognizing this, they are usually more reticent to approach you for fear that you will say “See, I told you so” or “See, moms are always right.”
In January, a young woman came to my office to let me know that her absences had been due to being diagnosed with genital herpes. She went on to say that she only had this one boyfriend and lost her virginity to him, but that her mother never wanted her to date him. So, she was hesitant to tell her mother anything and worried about needing health care and medication. I sat and listened, held space for her, and then gave her many resources and contacts so she could get help; but all the while I knew that her shame was a direct result of her perceptions of maternal judgment and that that would remain a big obstacle for her.
3) Check your homophobia, biphobia, and transphobia at the door. I have had numerous students come out to me as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans in conversations in my office and on papers, and virtually all of them perceive and worry that their parents will have extremely negative and hostile reactions. Seek help through organizations such as PFLAG.
4) Check your own prejudice, bias, racism, and religious beliefs at the door. I have had many students in interracial and/or interfaith relationships worry about introducing their parents to their boyfriends and girlfriends for fear of their parents’ attitudes about race and religion and the harsh comments and accusations they might receive.
My first boyfriend in junior high and high school was black. I recall that my mom didn’t think much of it, probably because she sensed we would not wind up together forever, yet she conveyed to me my dad’s disapproval and concerns. That man and I remain friends even to this day. In college, I dated a guy who had grown up on a dairy farm in Iowa, he joined the military, his mother lived in a trailer, and he was Lutheran. All of this was a far cry from the upper middle class suburb of Cleveland where I was raised. We stayed together for four years, and he joined me across the country when I pursued graduate school. I was in love with his spontaneous, playful, adventurous, irreverent ways, but ultimately I couldn’t get past the alcoholism and the irresponsibility that accompanied all that. But I had to see it for myself. I had to learn that what was so special and full of joy had a shadow side that I couldn’t bear for the long haul. But, my interest and curiosity in “the other” and in dating across differences continued, and I found myself over the years involved with Christian men, much older men, a Chinese man, an Arab man, another black man, and I wound up marrying a Jewish man---one of only two I had ever dated though I was raised in a Jewish home.
Later, we divorced, and the love of my life is a man who was raised Catholic, was an altar boy, and was raised in the south loving shrimp and grits and bluegrass. He embodies all the qualities I adored in my college boyfriend, but he’s not addicted and he is super-reliable. When we were each single before we met, my stepdad suggested I go to a synagogue and try to meet a nice Jewish guy, and his mother suggested he attend church services to meet a nice Catholic woman. I suppose all that makes sense, but we met on Match, fell in love and met each other’s families who, thankfully, can see and feel the love and happiness that transcend any religious divides. This personal story is to suggest that sometimes your child’s early choices will reveal some partial truths about the intimate trajectory they are on.
5) Get curious about what your son or daughter finds so special about this boyfriend or girlfriend. What do they admire about him/her? Perhaps it is a quality they wish to cultivate in themselves that they haven’t yet and are working on.
6) Making threats such as “if you date so and so, I won’t pay for school or clothes or whatever” will only alienate your child. And then, should they choose to keep dating this person, they are much less likely to share with you if and when they encounter any problems and need your help and support.
7) Your son or daughter may wind up in a study abroad program where s/he meets someone and falls in love and then wants to remain there for the summer or move back there after graduation. You may have hoped your child would live nearby or at least an easy daytrip drive or plane trip away and not across the world. But, perhaps, your child craves a more unusual life in a faraway place or has always been interested in other languages, cultures, or healthcare and social policies in other places. They might need to live out these questions now and at least try this journey. They might decide to come back---or you might get a fabulous new place to visit if you stay open to it.
8) Dating across socioeconomic lines happens all the time and presents various challenges for kids and their parents. This is especially likely to happen in college when kids come together from diverse class backgrounds; in college, there is much less to indicate and reveal the markings and trappings of social class. Kids on both sides of the class divide often sense potential parental disapproval. For example, I met with a young woman in my office who had grown up poor and was involved with a young man, also a student of mine, who came from an extremely wealthy family; his parents owned multiple successful businesses, traveled internationally on a regular basis, and had several homes. My female student was worried about what to wear to meet the parents, if she knew all the right table manners, and what she would do if they asked about her upbringing. Later, the young man came to me also concerned that while he knows his family to be down to earth and unpretentious, his home might appear ostentatious to someone with so much less. He wanted to know how to mitigate that without being ashamed of who he is and where he came from. They were due to meet her family weeks later and she also conveyed shame, worried that she would come up short or feel judged, knowing her home could not compare and that her parents would not be able to afford to treat them in the ways she had just been treated.
9) Wait to actually meet the person your son or daughter is involved with before imposing judgments. Try to stay open-minded. Perhaps, when you meet him/her you will be pleasantly surprised. You may even experience your child in a new way when s/he is with him/her and you might see a newfound happiness or sense of calm and peace wash over your child. Or, perhaps, you will see things that confirm your suspicions and worries but be sure to delineate how much of that is simply a self-fulfilling prophecy and how much is accurate.
10) Try to offer having your son or daughter over with his/her boyfriend or girlfriend, perhaps for a meal at home, or offer to take them out to a restaurant or an outing like putt-putt, a concert, show, etc. Observe how they behave in public together.
11) Try to invite a conversation with your son or daughter privately in a way that s/he is less likely to feel cornered or interrogated. Consider going for a ride since young people often share more when not looking at adults during challenging conversations and looking out at the long stretch of road. Or, suggest a walk. Or go somewhere s/he already enjoys, even if you don’t. Maybe your child loves a latte or Frappuccino at Starbucks and you dislike it there, but try treating him/her there and sitting down to chat. A new relationship is likely one of the first moments when your child will feel like a young adult, so try your best to treat him/her this way. They are more likely to confide in you as a result. Get curious. Open the space of your heart to truly listen and receive your child.
12) If you have witnessed or heard things that reveal to you that your son or daughter is actually being abused in any way, then it is definitely time to speak up and be proactive. This would include: physical and sexual abuse, all forms of psychological, emotional, verbal and financial abuse and control, as well as coercion, threats and neglect. And, if you ask questions and still get nothing or hear things that create further concern, you might try to provide your child with information and resources that s/he can access on his/her own. Often, if someone is being hurt in an intimate relationship, s/he is scared to tell, but then if s/he does tell, s/he is also worried that should they choose to remain in the relationship, then the partner will be condemned and hated forever. And the same goes for if your son or daughter breaks up with this person and then gets back together, as is often the case in abusive relationships. If abuse is suspected, consider trying to help in the following way:
- Help your son or daughter identify and name the abuse.
- Help him/her create a timeline of the abuse so s/he can see the patterns and cycles of it.
- Ask the person specific questions, in non-threatening ways, to show him/her that this behavior is abusive.
- Ask what his/her concerns are.
- Help the person identify reasons for abuse as excuses.
- Consider the victim as an expert.
- Don’t assume the sex of the abuser until you are told it.
- Talk to the person away from the abuser.
- Let the survivor of the abuse set the pace and tone.
- Provide this person with as much resource information as possible.
14) Being in relationships is a great way to get to know oneself much better, to discover more about oneself, and to grow and stretch. Your kids need every opportunity to do this and to clarify their own needs, interests, values and priorities in intimate relationships.
And remember, in the end, we were all once young and crazy in love, often unable and unwilling to listen to older people about love, sex and relationships. And, most of us found our way, however hard it was, however many times we fumbled and fell. So, try to let your children do the same, and listen and await with curiosity the interesting and loving selves they are continuing to become as young adults.