Ask Dr. Mike: Daughter, 15 – Boyfriend, 18?

Ask Dr. Mike: Daughter, 15 – Boyfriend, 18?

Dr. Mike,

Our 15-year-old daughter has a crush on a boy from our neighborhood who just finished his freshman year at college. They met at our neighborhood pool a few weeks ago and they’ve been glued together ever since.  My husband and I read her texts recently and it’s pretty clear that she’s having sex with him. We’ve met him and he seems like a nice guy, but he’s 18!!! Beyond the inappropriate age difference, we’re worried that our daughter is obsessed with this boy. Since he’s entered her life, she won’t do anything with us or her friends anymore. It’s also clear from the texts we read that she’s been drinking and smoking pot with him. We’re also worried about the impression this is all having on our younger son. My husband and I tried to sit down to talk with our daughter about our concerns, but when we told her that we didn’t want her seeing him anymore, she exploded on us. Our house is currently a very tense place to dwell. Your guidance on this would be appreciated.

– Help in Loudoun

Dear Help,

Young love is a beautiful thing; and, while it can be innocent, vibrant, tender, beautiful and hopeful, it can also be impetuous, reckless and even dangerous or tragic. Take Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, for example, where a 13-year-old girl and 17-year-old boy fall in love, and within 3 days 6 people are dead! In my opinion, Romeo and Juliet ended tragically for two reasons – first, the young star crossed lovers didn’t possess the maturity to have the sort of relationship they were wanting to have, and second, Lord and Lady Montague and Capulet weren’t present enough as parents.

Adolescents need their parents to be present because, for adolescents, feelings will very often drive behaviors, and common sense and logic will very often take the back seat. They don’t do stupid things because they think things through and come up with bad decisions. To the contrary, adolescents can exercise poor judgment and can become impulsive largely because they simply want to do what feels good (or avoid what feels bad) – and they will frequently do this with little to no planning or forethought.

Is it smart to play video games to the point where it compromises your academic or social life? Is it smart to stay out until midnight when your curfew is 10 p.m.? Is it smart to smoke pot or to drink alcohol? Is it smart to have sex at a young age? Is it smart to drive well beyond the speed limit? Of course not, but adolescents are vulnerable to engage in these sorts of behaviors, again, without forethought and simply because they want to feel good.

So, why do adolescents do things that aren’t good for them? Certainly, external factors such as peer pressure and fitting in socially can contribute. Also, to some extent, they are developmentally supposed to separate from their parents’ opinions and ideas to make their own more independent decisions for themselves as they age out of childhood.

But the real culprit for what drives adolescents do stupid things is the adolescent brain. Research has shown that adolescents exercise poor judgment and can become impulsive because the prefrontal cortex, what some scientists have dubbed the CEO of the brain, is a work in progress for them. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that houses our planning, organizing, working memory, judgment and mood modulating skills and abilities. As the brain develops into adulthood, adolescents are able to exercise better judgment, and in turn, are able to have more control over their impulses. Research has also shown that the prefrontal cortex doesn’t fully mature until the mid to late 20’s.  Incidentally, this is why a lot of hotel and rental car chains don’t rent rooms or cars to individuals until they are 25 years of age – actuarial data has shown that the likelihood for property damage, accidents and or other sorts of problems increases for younger persons.

So, what should you do with your daughter? In my opinion, the first thing you need to do with your situation as mother and father is appreciate that your daughter cannot control her thoughts or feelings. It’s not her fault that she’s fallen for a guy a few years older than her. But what on Earth does an 18-year-old have in common with your 15-year-old daughter beyond physical attraction and good times? Developmentally, they are at two very different places in their lives, and their star crossed moment, if it continues, could lead to larger problems.

Thus, the second thing you should do, in my opinion, is end your daughter’s relationship with her boyfriend immediately. While you can’t control who she’s attracted to, it’s your job as parents to make sure she behaves responsibly and safely, and at 15, her having sex with, smoking pot with and drinking with an 18-year-old college student is neither responsible or safe.

And finally, you will need to address the behavior you are concerned with. Even if she no longer sees the boy, she is now sexually active and has experimented with drugs and alcohol. It would be naive of you to think that once the boyfriend is out of the picture she suddenly reverts back to your innocent little girl. Your daughter has demonstrated poor judgement and should face consequences for her behavior. You need to have a frank talk with her about drugs, sex and other temptations. This may be her first foray into drugs, but pot and alcohol could be a gateway for worse and she should know your feelings, disappointment and expectations moving forward.

I recommend that you sit down with your daughter, with an emphatic and caring approach and tone, to let her know that, as parents, you cannot allow her to continue to see her new boyfriend anymore and your position on sex and drugs and alcohol. I would explain to her, in great detail, your concerns and the reasons why you don’t feel that the relationship is appropriate. Inasmuch as your daughter will likely not be able to stop or control herself, I also recommend that you speak to her boyfriend’s parents so that everyone is on board that their relationship is over and that no further contact is permitted by you.  You may want to place your daughter in more structured activities for the remainder of the summer to keep her active and busy and away from her boyfriend.

Know that your daughter will also likely become upset with your position, but also know that sometimes parents need to make the big and important decisions in life for their children, even if it means being unpopular. I am hopeful that your intervention will work, Summer will pass, and your daughter will get back to life as usual at 15.