Your beautiful 16-year-old daughter has just confirmed your suspicions. She is in fact having a relationship with Keith, the 27-year-old cousin of her best friend. You could feel your head spinning and your legs turning to jelly and your hand reaching for the tranquillisers.
What is it about this situation that upsets parents so much? Are they overreacting or is there potential danger for your child?
“It is understandable that parents are worried in this situation,” says Cape Town psychologist, Ilse Terblanche. “There are a number of things about it that could be potentially harmful.”
Your child not an equal
"The first, and most important, is that your child is having a relationship with someone, who, because he is older, is more powerful and has more resources than the child or her peers. She is not in an equal decision-making position, and because of the age difference, will easily be dictated to, often assuming that her boyfriend is right, because he is older. He, because he has more money than people her own age, will also easily impress her by doing something as simple as buying her a movie ticket or a pair of shoes.”
He is not her peer
“Secondly, she will be exposed to the world of his friends, rather than that of her own peers and will have a tendency to try not to act her age, in order to try and fit in. Exposure to their drinking and possibly drugging habits, as well as to the sexual lifestyle accepted within this circle, could make this become the norm for her, rather than that of her own age group. She might very well be pressurised into a sexual relationship as a result of this. Her own age group, by comparison, will appear childish and dull, which subsequently might stop her from wanting to get involved with someone her own age.”
Older boyfriend a status symbol?
“Parents are worried about the fact that the process of exposure to the adult world becomes speeded up, and not on your daughter’s terms or at the pace she might have chosen. Having an older boyfriend is a status symbol amongst older adolescents, because it sends a message to her peers that she is grown-up and already part of a world they are merely fantasising about. It does seem a bit silly to be worrying about her Science test, when her boyfriend is agonising about a large contract he is negotiating. So, in a way, her reality becomes denigrated and downplayed, further reducing her power in the relationship.”
The power struggle with the parents
“Thirdly, there is the issue of the power struggle with the parents. Few parents will be happy with a situation like this, and these relationships often happen when a child is at that juncture between childhood and adulthood. This relationship challenges the parents’ power and their world view and perceptions, and the boyfriend becomes an ally for the child against the parents. He might also pressurise her to go against their wishes, which in a way, reduces both the child’s support structure and her parents’ hold on her. They look like old-fashioned party poopers, because they are objecting to this relationship, which further strengthens the boyfriend’s hold over their daughter,” according to Terblanche.
Why is he interested in a teenager?
"Fourthly, one has to ask why a man of almost thirty is interested in someone so many years his junior. Is this a pattern in his life? Does he perhaps have difficulty communicating with people his own age? Or does he need the age difference to put him in a position of authority in the relationship – a position he might not be able to pull off with a woman his own age?”
So what can parents do?
“This is very difficult as most parents instinctively want to lock up their daughters to protect them. This might not have the desired effect, as this makes the boyfriend and his world of freedom seem all the more desirable, and the parents are immediately cast into the role of villains”, says Terblanche.
“Ask yourself whether it is the fact that the boyfriend is so much older than your daughter, or whether it is the fact that she has one at all. If someone her own age would have evoked the same reaction in you, you need to look at issues you might have about accepting your child’s growing up.”
“However, parents should not be scared to lay down the law while their child is still at school and living with them. Explain your concerns, and stress that it is not a personal thing. Prepare yourself for some tantrums.”
“Talk to the boyfriend, and explain that you only have your child’s best interests at heart. If he is really serious about her, he will fall in with your rules, because, if he really does love her, he will also have her best interests at heart. And part of that should be not wanting to come between her and her parents.”
“These could include restricted contact, specific curfews, or, depending on the situation, no contact at all. A man who is serious about your daughter, will happily endure this state of affairs until she has left school and is looking after herself. If he is not, it says quite a lot about the reasons he went into this relationship in the first place,” adds Terblanche.
Susan Erasmus, Health24, updated April 2011