On Healing 8/21/2006: A mother cannot, should not, protect a grown daughter

Dear Dr. Dan:
My 22-year-old daughter is a senior at a nearby university. She is beautiful, smart and well-rounded. But she seems to be taking one step forward and two steps back.

The people she befriends have had a negative effect on her. I am most concerned with her “boyfriends.” She gets into very short-lived and intense relationships with boys I consider of much lower quality than her high school friends.

Recently she admitted that she had been experimenting with drugs, but used her willpower and got out of that situation (and I believe her).

As a mother, how do I “protect” my daughter? Do I need to stay out of giving advice?

I want to have a good relationship with her and love her unconditionally, but it is painful to watch how these new friends are dragging her down.

When I try to get involved and “help,” she starts yelling and claiming that I criticize her.

Please help!
— Worried Mother
Dear Worried:
Those who specialize in working with children say that young children need a manager – someone who controls the environment and keeps them safe. Once they hit puberty and adolescence, they need more of a coach – someone who backs off and lets them find their own footing while staying very involved in their lives.

Parents of adolescents should create an environment that nurtures open dialogue about their choice in friends, about Internet sites, even the difficult issues of drugs and sex.

Parental love, involvement and genuine interest open the door for dialogue. Parental anxiety, judgment and criticism close the door.

Now, about your 22-year-old. At this point in most young people’s lives, they’re trying to figure out who they are. It’s not unusual for them to experiment with friends, drugs and sex. And many in this generation can be in their late 20s or early 30s before they find their footing.

I hear your anxiety about her taking one step forward and two steps back. But when you think about it, don’t we all? And what has been your most valuable education in life? Mine has come from the steps back, not the steps forward. In that regard, she sounds like she’s on track.

As for her friends, there are many possibilities. First, you may be seeing her friendships through your anxiety, which can be blinding. Second, she may see something in them you’re not able to see. Third, I would imagine she and her friends have something in common. So instead of judging them as “poor quality,” it might be constructive to have her tell you about her friends and why she’s attracted to them. And if she does, please don’t try to talk her out of these relationships. Unsolicited advice is not something people typically hear.

I am thrilled that she feels safe enough with you to talk about drugs. If you take this information with concern and compassion, she’ll continue to be open. If you respond with anxiety, anger or judgment, the door will probably close.

You cannot protect your daughter, nor should you. We all want our children to go forward having the tools to take care of themselves. I am sure you would rather have a resilient daughter who could handle adversity over a fragile daughter with a diligent mother.

And finally, the fact that your image of your daughter is about steps forward and back, and about friends who aren’t quite the quality of the ones you envision for her, suggests to me that you see a clear path for her with a clear goal. Whether it’s conscious or not, please keep in mind that is your path and not necessarily hers.

As our children age, they need our faith more than they need our management skills.

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