I have a 27-yr-old daughter who ventured out into the world two years ago and she is demonstrating some very dangerous behavior. She appears to be trying to make a statement by telling everyone, literally, that she is on her own now and makes her own decisions. Recently she started visiting not dating sites, but the most dangerous booty call sites. She is publishing suggestive videos (dressed provocatively) and refuses to acknowledge the dangers. I fear she might be flirting with horror to purposely get hurt, or worse. She won’t listen to anybody and acts as if she doesn’t care, because “you can’t tell me what to do.” What can a parent do if they think their adult child is going to end up getting hurt? What rights does a parent have to save a child from her bad choices?
Dear Daunted Dad,
Two things: I ventured out into the world when I was about your daughter’s age and tried to make a statement, refused to acknowledge dangers, flirted with horrors to the point of hurting myself, and let nobody tell me what to do. I am also, today, the father of three teenage daughters.
The point is I sympathize. When I first read your question I thought about my own path, my own daughters, and my own desires to influence them. So please know that what follows below is grounded in compassion.
This is what I hear you asking: How can I prevent my 27-year-old daughter from living her own life?
I know that sounds stark, and I’m sure you don’t intend to come across that way. You simply want to protect your daughter, not prevent her from living her life. And yet there is no way to “protect” an adult from making her own choices, that I know of, short of trying to control her.
I’m inclined to think you’ve been operating from this space for some time because, in my experience, a 27-year-old doesn’t go around bragging of her independence unless it is newly found. My guess is that you’ve been “protecting” your daughter from her own autonomy, or trying to, for about 27 years. She is now responding in a way you wish she wouldn’t.
Here’s what I suggest you do.
Give up trying to save her. Not because she is a lost cause, but because you can’t. Respect her autonomy and respect the limits of your influence.
Decide what you really want. Do you want to protect your daughter from making her own choices, or do you want a relationship with her? I’m not suggesting this is a dichotomy but rather a paradox. If you attempt to protect your daughter from her choices, you’ll likely hurt your relationship, drive her away, and lose influence. If, on the other hand, you focus on building a relationship, you may hold some influence in her life. That does not mean you’ll get to control her.
Make it safe. I’ll assume that what you really want is a place in her life. If you’re to salvage or strengthen whatever you currently have, you’ll need to connect, not protect or correct. So, no lecturing, no preaching, no condemning, no weighing in on her decisions—unless she asks. Make this your new mantra: “When inclined to correct, try to connect.” What does that look like for you? Dinner invitations? A shared activity? Listening?
Express yourself. You may not be able to protect your daughter from her choices, but you can tell her how you feel. If you choose to do so, ask for permission first. If granted, proceed by stating how you see things and expressing your concerns, not your wishes. Again, make connection your goal. This may require an unfamiliar and uncomfortable level of vulnerability.
Finally, go easy. You’re fallible just like your daughter is, and you’re also worthy of the same kind of compassion that she is. Remember that as you move forward.
I hope these suggestions help you increase what’s important here: not power over your daughter, but power over yourself and your ability to foster a connection with her.
The ideas expressed in this article are based on the skills and principles taught in Crucial Conversations. Learn more about Crucial Conversations