Dear Dr. Wes and Samantha: I’m having a hard time knowing how to handle my daughter’s relationship. She is 16 and wants to date a man who is 21. I think there is something wrong with this. I don’t know why he would be interested in a girl this young.
Samantha: A younger girl dating an older guy comes with assumptions. He’s pressuring her to have sex. He likes having control over her. He will introduce her to drugs and alcohol prematurely. However, these stereotypes may not apply here. Your daughter may be ready to date a guy who is more mature than high school guys, or maybe she just has more in common with him than she does with guys her age. Either way, this relationship could be good for her.
While there is evidence that girls dating older guys are more likely to face relationship violence and to abuse substances, relationships are not statistics. It would be a mistake to order your daughter not to date him just because you think dating an older guy is “risky.” That choice would be like throwing away an apple because there MIGHT be a worm in it.
Besides, ordering your daughter not to date this guy probably won’t stop her. She may actually become more attached to him. If you want to protect your daughter, you need to approach the situation differently. You have three things to consider: the guy, outside sources and your daughter in order to assess whether the relationship is dangerous for her, while still giving her the space she needs.
Invite the guy over for dinner. Don’t pull out your shotgun or start an interrogation. One open-ended question goes further than 100 closed ones. Find out what activities he’s involved in and show a genuine interest in at least one. Ask him follow-up questions about that activity. Find out what he’s proud of and what’s difficult for him.
Do a quick Google search on him. You probably won’t find much information on a college student, but you never know. If your daughter talks to him on Facebook, casually look at his profile while she’s online. A Facebook profile reveals a lot about a person. If he lives in the community, ask about him.
Your daughter is your most important source. Ask why she likes this guy. Show respect for her decision through your interest in her thoughts about him. Once you show you’re on her side, she’ll be more open to your questions. Ask her about where she stands boundarywise and whether he’s pressured her in any way. When she goes out with him on a date, find out the details of the plan. Then follow up to see how it went.
Frequent dialogue is important whether your daughter is dating someone her own age or someone older. Your best option is to stay connected with her. A shared interest in her happiness will strengthen your relationship so that if and when she determines she is in over her head, she will come to you.
Wes: I have one simple rule on this subject: The older they are, the more perfect they have to be. It’s one thing for your daughter to date unwisely when her partner is an age mate. When the difference is five years, two things have to be in sync. First, the guy needs to be interested in her because she is a remarkably mature young woman. The worst thing I ever hear in these cases is a girl who says, “Don’t worry, he doesn’t act like he’s 21.” Somehow that’s supposed to equal things out — that a guy of 21 is so childlike that he fits in perfectly in the sophomore class. Instead, what you want to see and hear is that your daughter is so sophisticated that — just as Samantha proposes — she actually fits in better with the college-age crowd. I realize that’s hard to gauge, but you have to figure it out before knowing what’s going on with this guy. Truth be known, I’ve advised more than one 17-year-old who was simply too old for high school to look for dating partners 19 to 20, as long as they stick with the rule. While 16 and 21 is cutting it a lot closer, I’ve also seen dating in that range that worked out fine.
Second, the guy has to be near-perfect in a lot of other ways. He’d better be working consistently in a decent job or doing well in college or trade school. Again, those things don’t matter as much if he’s 17. They are everything in a young adult.
Finally, after you’ve exhausted all of Samantha’s excellent suggestions and determined that this guy is OK, sit down and have dinner and get some big issues out on the table: birth control, substance abuse and rules. Young adults have easy access to a great many things that teenagers should not. Your daughter must keep following basic rules (like curfew, grades, etc.), and her boyfriend needs to support that WITHOUT FAIL. He should be especially aware that he faces serious charges if he’s furnishing her with legal or illegal substances. Again, teens may be foolish about some of these issues. Adults had better not be. If he can support and follow your rules, you may find that he is actually a safer bet than some of your daughter’s peers, who have all the same problems and (hopefully) less maturity. If your daughter wants to play in his league she needs to play a lot smarter than her girlfriends who are dating age mates, or else this will turn out to be a really bad idea.
Let me close by reminding young readers and parents that the age of consent for sex in Kansas is 16. NOTHING we have discussed today applies to anyone under the age of 16, and especially below 15 where the “Romeo and Juliet” statute does not pertain. It is extraordinarily easy for older teens and young adults to end up as sex offenders in Kansas and most states right now. Unless you’ve studied this more closely than the average citizen, you’ve no idea how damaging it will be for a son or daughter who gets caught up with an underage partner. It can literally destroy their foreseeable future in 90 seconds.
We’ll talk more about that next week, in fact, as we consider how to brief teenagers on this important topic.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.