May 03, 2011 | Updated Nov 17, 2011
Elizabeth Berkley Actress; author and founder of Ask-Elizabeth
Whether it's a new boyfriend who seems like he's bad news or a friend who sets off that little warning light in your brain, deciding how to handle these kinds of situations is one of the biggest struggles I've heard moms talk about. On the one hand, because you're such a protective and loving mom, you probably want to barricade the front door and not let that person within 10 feet of your precious girl (believe me, when I've heard girls in workshops talk about bad news boyfriends or mean friends, I've felt the exact same way!). But at the same time, you don't want to go too far and drive a wedge between the two of you. So how do you find the right balance?
When I received this question from a HuffPost reader, it took me back to two particular times when my own mom and I were facing this issue. The first time had to do with a close girlfriend, and the other involved a toxic ex-boyfriend (whom she and everyone else who loved me tried every which way to get me to walk away from). My mom and I have always had an amazing closeness -- we can share almost anything -- but I'll admit these were two times that we had some serious tension between us. If you're reading this, I'm guessing you know exactly the kind of tension I'm talking about! It can be so painful and frustrating, and even if your daughter knows deep down that her mom is right (like I did), she often still needs to experience the relationship and its consequences herself before she'll admit it.
I know you probably want to pull your hair out knowing your daughter's friend doesn't deserve her, or are wishing that her boyfriend would just move to another city (or country. or planet). Unfortunately, there's no magic dust I can send you to make that person go away, but I can give you some suggestions from our amazing Ask Elizabeth girls and experts on how to deal with the situation.
There's no one-size-fits-all answer; every situation is different, and only you can know which approach is right for your specific dynamic. But hopefully at least one of these ideas will resonate for you.
1) Try to see what your daughter sees in this person.
Eighteen year-old Taryn shared, "I became friends with this girl a couple of years ago that my mom never liked. She was flaky and would often cancel plans that I'd been looking forward to, but I had so much fun with her and felt like she really 'got' me in a way that no other friend ever had before."
What is it that your daughter likes/loves about this person? While your instincts about him or her may not be wrong, you may not know the full picture. A lot of girls have said they appreciated their moms taking the time to understand why that person was important to her. Not to mention that for the moms, viewing the person through their daughters' eyes helped ease some of their concerns.
Teen counselor Suzanne Bonfiglio Bauman is one of the trusted go-to experts in the Ask Elizabeth world. She works with hundreds of teen girls each week, as well as their families; when it comes to mother/daughter relationships, she's seen it all! Here's her advice about getting the 411 that you might be missing:
Ask your daughter, "Can you tell me a little about_____? What does he/she give you as a friend? How do you feel around him/her?" These open questions allow you to gather information about the new person in your daughter's life without placing her on the defensive. If she starts to go there, state clearly that you are truly interested (you are, aren't you?) in knowing about anyone or anything that matters so much to her. As you listen, you may discover that the person you've dismissed has a fabulous sense of humor, is kind to your daughter, puts her at ease, or otherwise surprises you and satisfies your need to see your daughter treated well.
Some girls have talked about feeling relieved that their moms finally came out and asked what they wanted to know, instead of implying disapproval (which, by the way, they always pick up on -- your girls can read you like a book!). Fifteen-year-old Jill shared, "My mom always talked about my friend with a sort of question in her voice. I could tell that she was trying to get more information out of me about her. I wish she had just come out and asked me what she wanted to know."
And moms, while getting what you need to bring you some ease and clarity, I have heard firsthand how this can shed new light for both of you. Even if this step doesn't fully erase the concerns from within that intuitive, great mom radar of yours, you can at least know that you shared a conscious, clear dialogue that also benefits your daughter. Without hitting her over the head with it, your asking questions in this way allows her to also take inventory of what makes her feel drawn to this person and may bring to light a new awareness for her.
2) Give her the benefit of the doubt.
What are your worries based on? Suzanne points out, "Sometimes, our problems with the relationships of loved ones have much more to do with us and our own values, fears, and experiences than with the values, wants, and needs of our loved ones."
I can't begin to tell you how many girls have come to me asking for advice on how to show their moms that the fears the moms are experiencing seem to be based on the moms' past stories, not what's actually going on in the present. It makes so much sense that you would want to protect your daughter from going through any of the pain you've been through in your life. But just like I saw in the situation with that toxic ex-boyfriend, we sometimes need to walk through the fire ourselves to really own the lessons deep in our bones.
Bottom line: your girls want you to give them the benefit of the doubt and trust that they'll make good decisions. And yes, part of this means giving them space to make their own mistakes!
Child and family psychotherapist Dr. Beverly Berg, Ph.D. says:
Unless your daughter is hanging out with someone who is actually a true danger to her life, remember that you cannot really control who she is or isn't involved with. If your daughter comes to you and wants your opinion or advice on this person, use the opportunity to empower her by saying, "I'm not in love with this friend of yours, but I trust that you will figure out how to deal with them. You're a very smart girl." This helps your daughter feel confident that she can wend her way through her relationships and that she can trust you to be the loving, non-judgmental parent that you are. Expressing your disapproval over your daughter's choices, on the other hand, may only serve to alienate her -- and we all know no mother wants that.
Sixteen-year-old Lisa shared:
I know my mom trusts me to do the right things and make the right choices. Even if my mom doesn't fully approve of one of my friends, she lets me still at least be friends with the person for a while. I think she wants me to realize for myself if the people around me are good friends and good influences. I appreciate that she lets me learn from my own mistakes instead of her making my decisions for me.
3) Communicate with love.
If you read the first Ask Elizabeth column, you already know that the number-one thing that girls want you to know about how to create open dialogue with them is to come to them from a place of love, respect and acceptance. And that's especially true when we're dealing with a tricky situation like you not loving someone that they are hanging out with. For teen girls, their friends are their entire universe, and how you approach or question their choices about their friends can either open up a deeper dialogue between you or cause them to shut down completely.
I get how hard it must be not to want to yell, "This person isn't worthy of you! " or to unilaterally ban the person from your daughter's life. But this kind of absolute approach almost always backfires.
I remember one story that a mom shared during a workshop that broke my heart. She and her daughter had always been very close -- that is, until her daughter's boyfriend Dan came into the picture. This mom explained how she felt that Dan wasn't good enough for her daughter and that he didn't treat her daughter with respect. Hoping to discourage the relationship, she imposed a new rule that Dan wasn't allowed to come into their home. While she clearly wanted to protect her daughter, setting that hard boundary drove a huge wedge between her and her girl. Her daughter was still seeing Dan outside her home, so it didn't actually serve anyone. The worst part was that all of this happened just months before her daughter was leaving for college, which meant that her last months living at home were filled with tension and stress.
Don't get me wrong: I'm definitely not saying you should give your daughter free rein to hang out with whomever she wants! She needs you to guide her toward making good decisions, and you'll know in your heart what is right for your specific situation. What we're talking about here is how you approach this. Girls consistently say that when their moms speak to them from their heart in a respectful way that doesn't make them feel ashamed or threatened (or powerless, like they are being commanded without explanation), they're much more likely to hear you and really take it in. And they're also less likely to shut you out.
Here's 18-year-old Danielle's story:
I made friends with this one girl two years ago who my parents couldn't stand. After several months of my new friend coming over and hanging out a lot, my mom came to my room one night and very calmly brought to my attention the reasons she
and my dad didn't want her to hang out with me. My mom came at the conversation form such a place of concern, and was so free of judgment, that we were able to talk about it honestly without me feeling defensive.
4) Tell her what your concerned about -- specifically.
A great Ask Elizabeth tool I want to share with you, which we talk about a lot in workshops, is that being specific (rather than general) about what's concerning or bothering you can make huge difference. When girls are having trouble getting through to their moms, we practice changing the familiar, "You never let me do anything!" (which, as we all know, almost never gets the conversation anywhere good!) to something more concrete that shows their moms how they're feeling, like, "It makes me feel frustrated when you say no all the time, and I'd like the chance to understand why and talk to you about it."
So from your end, it might be worth trying to get really exact about your concerns, so your daughter understands the "why" behind what you're saying. If it's the fact that you're worried that this friend is a bad influence, explain that to her -- and tell her why. As bestselling author and psychologist Dr. Gail Saltz suggests:
Stay away from saying things like, "I don't like her" and instead try, "I am concerned that what she is doing is dangerous and would not want you to do any of those things." This is not invasive; this is parenting. She may appear not to listen at times, but she is absorbing the value system you are teaching her, as long as you communicate it clearly.
5) Gently steer her in other directions.
I love this creative tip, which 17-year-old Olivia shared with us, as a way her mom helped their relationship when Olivia was enmeshed in a not-so-healthy friendship:
My mom voiced how she was feeling when she didn't like one of my friends, not by controlling my life or preventing me from seeing my friend, but by always offering other things to do in place of seeing her. She wanted me to regain touch with lost friends and make as many new ones as I possibly could.
Here's another angle on this. If your daughter's friend or boyfriend is involved in drugs or other damaging behavior, Dr. Saltz suggests trying to direct your daughter toward being true to her own moral compass. She adds, "You might even speak to her about this friend (or boyfriend) needing some help, and that your daughter could be a positive influence."
Eighteen-year-old Angela experienced this firsthand:
My best friend of many years got involved with drugs and alcohol when we were in high school. After watching me take care of this friend time and time again, my mother sat down and told me that she didn't mind the fact that I was helping a friend in need, she just didn't want me to change who I am as a result of my involvement. She told me that she was proud of me for standing by my friend, and encouraged me to come to her if I had any questions about how to handle her antics, or approach the possibility of seeking help for her or support for myself. I realized then that my mom was just trying to advise me and was initially reticent of me helping because she didn't want me to get beaten down in the process.
6) Take a hard line when necessary.
Having said all this, of course, if your mom-radar is blinking Code Red and you sense that your girl is in emotional or physical danger, even the girls agree that it's time for you to step in.
Suzanne Bonfiglio Bauman offers this smart advice on what to do if you find yourself in this kind of difficult position:
If your daughter's friend truly does have the potential to harm your daughter or to influence her in a way that you feel is inappropriate or unhealthy, then by all means, discuss your concerns with her and if the situation calls for it, limit her interactions with this person. Just as teens yearn for independence and approval, they also absolutely rely on adults to construct limits and boundaries to keep them safe. Share with her that you have listened to her, observed her and her friend, and spent time thinking carefully about the situation. Tell her about the sorts of relationships you want to see her develop ("I want so much for your friendships to leave you feeling confident, safe, and cared for, unconditionally"). Give her the real reasons why this relationship doesn't appear to offer her that. And give her a chance to be angry with you and hurt by your decision. State that you anticipated anger and you want to give her space to be mad and to express herself more, as well. Let her know you can tolerate her anger and you will still be on the other side of her door, ready to talk and listen and comfort whenever she is, as well.
A vital part of parenting that many parents today struggle to master has to do with embracing our roles as responsible adults and tolerating our kids' anger and resistance when we exercise our parental responsibility. We get so swayed by their mood swings and intense reactions to us that we forget to see them in the context of their own development. It's their job to be emotional, reactive, and passionate. And it's our job to be still, to breathe, care, and try not to take what they say or do personally. So when your daughter tells you she hates you for ruining her social life and taking her friend away, near her out, share that you are sorry that you've upset her so much, and they you really wouldn't do what you've done if you didn't know that it was the healthy and correct thing to do as her parent. Then call your partner, your best friend, or some other adult confidant and vent to your heart's delight.
And please know that while they may not be happy about it for a while, so many of the girls say that eventually they come around. Take it from 17-year-old Kylie:
It wasn't like this friendship completely killed my relationship with my mom, but at first we wouldn't talk like we had in the past. After my friend and I stopped talking though, it became easier to talk to my mom again because there wasn't that tension tied to our relationship. Gradually it sort of repaired itself naturally once that other person was out of the picture.
7) Give it time.
Here's the truth: deep down, most of the time, your girls know you're right. And if they don't now, they'll see the light -- eventually!
You don't just have to take my word for it. Here's input straight from the source:
I knew my mom was right all along. I realized that this girl I'd been hanging out with was not a good friend and that she didn't care much about her friendship with me. When I finally saw the awful way she treated me and ended it, my mom was there for me. I could not ask for a more supportive mother. (Christy, 16)
My mom disapproved of my being friends with my ex-boyfriend at first. I was frustrated with her at the time, but looking back I realized that she saw me crying and devastated about this guy and the stuff he put me through. I know now she was just protecting me. (Tina, 17)
From the first time I met my new best friend in high school, I didn't want to bring her around to meet my family. Deep down, I knew right away that this was a bad sign, and sure enough, when my mom met her, she didn't like her at all. We stayed friends for a little over a year, and sometimes my mom would try to talk to me about why she didn't like her, but I wouldn't listen. When the friendship eventually ended (for all the reasons my mom said it would), my mom didn't give me the old 'I told you so.' I appreciate that both she and I know she was right all along, but have never had to actually say that. (Riley, 17)
A lot of times, it seems that going through difficult patches like this can actually bring you and your daughter closer together; it just takes time, love and patience. As 19-year-old Trista shared:
It definitely took some time after my break-up for my mom and I to get back into a good rhythm with each other. Any time I mentioned my ex, or said I was sad about the break-up, she would roll her eyes or sigh, like "Just get over it." Eventually, I broke down crying one day and explained to her that while she didn't like my ex, I had been in love and that I really needed her to be supportive and loving while I was feeling so awful. That conversation brought a lot to light and we slowly made our way back to an even better place together from there.
In case you're wondering, my mom and I are now able to have a good laugh when I bring up the ex-boyfriend who caused so much strife. The girlfriend, on the other hand -- well, she's someone I stayed close to, and I must admit that even today it seems to be best if I don't bring her up too often. My mom's feelings toward her haven't changed, and as her daughter, I have to be OK with that. Have you have heard the expression "agree to disagree"? Well, that's what I mean. Sometimes these situations tie up neatly, and sometimes they don't. Sometimes the messy moments bring us closer, and other times, they show us that although we may not always be on the same page, we can each still love and respect the other for the choices they make.
I look forward to hearing your questions and am grateful to share the wisdom I've gained from being in the trenches with thousands of teens and moms. Let's take it one question at a time and arm you with all the information you need to help make your relationship with your girls everything that you -- and they -- want it to be.
Love, light and magic, X.O. Elizabeth Berkley