Dear Dr. Wes and John: I saw your article about underage dating (March 6, Journal-World). I have a similar situation. My son is not quite 17 and is in love with a 21-year-old woman who is 4 1/2 years older than he. They met at a job where he no longer works. She started confiding things in him that she'd been sexually harassed at the current job and at a past one. She also had taken a trip to another country, where she was supposedly drugged and sexually mistreated. She's never reported any of this. Neither of them see anything wrong with the relationship, but I have done my best to stop them. We recently learned they were sneaking around behind our backs, and we've taken some more drastic measures. Am I out of line? I want my son to lead a healthy and normal life, and I can't see that happening with someone like this in his life. I see her as a pedophile, and she makes me ill to think about.
Dr. Wes: There's too much here to cover in one column, so I'll begin by suggesting that you and your son head to the therapist posthaste. Until then, here are some pointers. There certainly are some deeply concerning issues in this relationship, but they are less about age and more about the mismatch in experience this woman brings to the relationship. I am especially concerned about her introduction of sexually laden material - especially involving her own sexual abuse - to a 16-year-old. Additionally, that any woman of this age shows interest in a 17-year-old makes her suspect in my book. She is obviously very immature, and as I said in the other column, that does not help matters a bit.
That said, there are some serious limits on your influence with an almost-17-year-old. We see this same situation more commonly with the genders reversed, and it is nearly impossible to pry a 17-year-old away from a relationship with what amounts to a college-age partner. Technically, you have every right to try, but practically speaking, you are 100 percent guaranteed to drive them closer as they pull together to defend their unique and magical love from the onslaught of inconsiderate authoritarians who've forgotten what real romance is - or something equally melodramatic.
The big difference between this and the last case is that your son is at the age of consent and just over a year short of adulthood himself. It is legal for these two to be involved with one another, and while it may be distasteful, it certainly is not pedophilia. A pedophile is a person who is interested in prepubescent children, not a very young adult who likes to date teenagers. That may seem a far-too-fine distinction, but for your situation it is extremely important. Your son is acting in a very normal manner by being attracted to an interesting, provocative "older" woman. The fact that she has some odd baggage probably makes the thrill even greater.
I think John's position (below) is quite tenable, but we differ slightly. I'll just share the advice I was given by a mentor many years ago when I presented an even ickier scenario (17-year-old girl, 34-year-old convict). She told me that instead of lecturing this client about how awful this was, I should invite this dude to therapy and treat the situation just as seriously as the girl did. I did exactly that, and he was history in a few days. I don't think it will be that quick in your situation, but it is always best to keep your friends close and your enemies closer. So have her over to dinner, get to be her buddy and see where things lead. You don't have to tell your son that you approve of this, but the more you fight it, the more "interesting" it will become.
John: Captain Obvious once said that teenagers like to be rebellious. You can encourage your son to invest his hard-earned money, but that may convince him to blow it on slot machines. This "girlfriend" has made herself out to be flashier than Las Vegas, and your son thinks he's won the jackpot. Every day he pours his time, money and credibility into this casino of a woman, thinking he can beat the dealer and win it all. Your haughty disapproval and this woman's tabloid background only add to the thrill of the game.
Slot machines have warning signs attached to them, but they do little to deter hard-core gamblers. Your son knows the risks he is taking - he just chooses to ignore them. An emotional tirade won't convince him to fold, because it is partly your frustration that has encouraged him to go all in. Instead, keep your cards close to your chest. Try to avoid talking about this woman, and don't raise your voice when the subject comes up. But when he asks for your approval, tell him no dice. Start adding little restrictions here and there, slowly tightening the noose around his social life. If you threaten him now, your son will think you're bluffing. But if you're calm and consistent with your punishment, he'll know you play to win.
Reality, meanwhile, will kick in soon enough. This woman is obviously taking advantage of your son, and Vegas has 11-to-1 odds this "relationship" will end reeling in heartache. I'm betting there will be a lot of bitterness following, so make sure you are understanding and don't push the "I told you so." Once your son has come to realize his mistakes on his own, he'll be much more eager to cover his losses. When that happens, it's time for some mother-son discussion, professional therapy and adjustment to life as usual. Your son is lucky to have a wise mother taking care of him, which is a good deal more than we can say for his "girlfriend."
Next week: A reader asks about eating disorders and the media.
- Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. John Murray is a Free State High School senior. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.
Double take writer contest
Want to be the next student Double Take writer? Submit a 400-word essay responding to the challenge question below, offering your best advice on how the letter-writer should deal with her problem. Consider all sides of the issue. Good answers may not be obvious ones.Paste your essay into an e-mail and send it to email@example.com or mail it to 2601 W. Sixth St., STE C, Lawrence 66049, ATTN: Wes Crenshaw (Double Take). Deadline is 5 p.m. May 1.The challenge question: My boyfriend and I had all the discussions you suggest having before deciding to have sex. When we discussed pregnancy, we agreed that if it happened we would give the baby up for adoption. Recently we had a brief pregnancy scare, which turned out to be nothing, but it forced us back to that earlier conversation. This time I told him that I didn't want to give the baby up, and he told me that I was betraying him and that he wouldn't stay with me. Even after I realized I wasn't pregnant, this issue has divided us. Now I don't know what to do.