Archive for Tuesday, February 1, 2005

Double Take: ‘Referent’ power can help parents guide teenagers

February 1, 2005


Dear Dr. Wes and Jenny: My teenage daughter has been "dating" someone for over a year. It concerns me that at the age of 15 she is with someone for that length of time, but the fact that he does not seem to treat her very well is most distressing. I have brought it up several times, and she just clams up. I'm afraid if I push too hard it will just make her more determined to stay with him. What should I do?

-- Worried Mom

Jenny: When you suggest that she should reconsider dating her boyfriend, she most likely feels that you are attacking her, and her defenses kick in. That's why she clams up. One thing to consider is why she is accepting negative treatment. Maybe she is just waiting for someone better to come along, or maybe in some twisted way she believes he really does like her, even though he is treating her badly. If that is the case, I would have to recommend the book "He's Just Not that Into You," which is a series of letters from women who are trying to understand why guys do the things they do.

Trying to talk to her is a good idea as long as you begin slowly and don't push her to say or do anything she doesn't want to do. You can drop hints about him not treating her right or suggest that she can do better, or you can mention any suspicious behavior. But if it comes off like you don't want her to be with her boyfriend, she likely will just clam up once again -- then you're back to square one.

For the most part, you must let her figure out on her own what really is going on. If you tell her bluntly what you think of her boyfriend, she will perceive you as an overprotective parent and she likely will just disregard your opinion because she thinks you don't respect her decisions. I do think you have been respectful of her so far, but you still can't push her.

If she has any siblings, maybe it would be best for them to try to help her take off her blinders because, after all, what do you know? You are just her parent!

Otherwise, you may just have to accept that she needs to figure this one out on her own -- with your support. I once tried to tell a friend her boyfriend wasn't treating her right, and I wound up offending her and, eventually, I lost her friendship. I took the wrong approach, and I hope your approach works better than mine. I learned from that experience that you have to be careful telling someone what they are doing wrong -- even if you desperately want to help them.

Wes: With all things adolescent, the first rule is: Try to remain calm. You seem to have done that very well. The second rule is: Maximize your influence. As parents, we want our kids to adopt values we think are important in life, in this case being in a healthy romantic relationship. Of course, this is the major point of conflict between teens and parents. As teens, we had many of the same views and behaviors as our kids do now. Having grown up, we now realize that we were not always wise in those days and we want to impart greater wisdom to our kids, even though they aren't really ready for that level of wisdom any more than we were.

Nowhere is this more complex than in the realm of dating and sex. To be influential as parents, we have to realize that power and control rarely impact teens, just as Jenny notes. So the "no because I said so," routine is likely to get you exactly what you fear in this case: instant Romeo and Juliet. And NOTHING is more romantic than star-crossed love. So let's not go there.

Instead, parents must rely on "referent" power, or the desire to be like someone. Teens may seem to want to be like anyone except their parents, but this is not as true as you think. In fact, referent power comes when parents effectively guide their kids by example and involvement. The example you set in your intimate relationships will influence her more than anything in the media, school or her social life.

As for involvement, I suggest you become a close personal friend of any young man your daughter is dating. This allows you to observe the relationship while supporting it in a way that minimizes the target for teen rebellion. You also want to draw on what is called "expert" power. Unfortunately, since she is clamming up about this guy, she may think you don't have much to offer on the topic of boyfriends -- which is, of course, not true. Just don't come off as self-righteous or preachy. That will make for a short discussion. You are on the right track. Hang in there.

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