Ask an Expert – We caught our daughter with a boy, and it has destroyed our trust

We caught our teen with a boy; it has destroyed our trust

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Our 16-year-old daughter has always been a strong minded, independent girl. She has a small group of close girlfriends, good kids, no drugs, minimal experiences with alcohol, have been to maybe five parties this year.

She is reasonably confident, though has an attitude of I know everything and everything will be fine attitude.

We have tried to encourage extra-curricular activities in her growing up years and have spent thousands ‘forcing’ her to continue.

We thought we were on a positive track.

Last Wednesday she asked to stay home to study and finish off some assignments. I went home from work at 1.30pm to find her with her door shut with a boy we had not met before and they had the music playing loudly. She was in a t-shirt and undies, he was dressed, and she was sitting on top of him.

Needless to say I was shocked, shaking, heart racing, breathing quickly. I then lost it, shouting and swearing. We have talked about sexual activity before. She is not on contraception and I was not even aware she liked any boys.

We eventually all talked on the Friday night. She feels ashamed, guilty and regretful. She says she knows it is her decisions that have resulted in her consequences. She accepts we have a right to be angry and sad. I am still recovering from what I saw and the emotional roller coaster. We said to her how can we believe what she has told us in the past is true. We want to believe her but we are finding it really hard.

She is grounded indefinitely. We have taken her phone away. She has no computer access and must be supervised at all times.

She was going to be changing schools next year to a senior college that treats students more like adults. We have told her that this is in jeopardy as it involves trust. At least with a traditional school we know where she is.

She has been mellow, pensive and sad, spending more time than ever with her sister. She has been saying that she was looking forward to the college and being in an environment where kids want to do well.  

This morning she is expressing anger, she tells us we will stuff up her life if we send her to a different school. She says she can’t be bothered trying anymore, she may as well just give up. She says it our fault if she turns into an alcoholic and druggie. She wants to know why we are being so mean.

We are heartbroken at the breach of trust, the deceit and dishonesty. We see this as a positive in terms of learning and we know we are at a crossroads.

We believe we will still send her to the senior college next year but we want her to understand that she as a young adult makes decisions and that there are consequences to every decision we make. We will support her no matter what.

The plan was to get through exams and then start reflection writing and more talking. She says it’s hard to concentrate and has indicated she wants to stop trying.

It’s so nice to know that other parents flip out too! Thank you for sharing your concerns, and I am sure there are countless other parents who are hanging out for strategies to navigate what I believe, is just a speed bump that you will all get through.  I’ll break this down into several key areas, because although they are connected, each requires a purposeful response depending on how things roll in your home.

First, let’s unpack the incident. She was at home with a boy, and putting herself in a situation where (whilst it may have seemed like fun at the time) she and her guy friend were up close and personal.

It’s completely understandable you were upset.  On impact, this seems huge – but in actual fact, what you’re seeing is normal boundary-pushing.  Therefore, it’s important to individually unpack the main reasons it triggered such a strong reaction.  Perhaps it was your daughter lying about why she wanted to be home? Perhaps it was feeling betrayed that she had a boyfriend you weren’t aware of? Or maybe it’s the ‘one step away from sex’ that you don’t feel she is sufficiently prepared her for – either practically or within herself emotionally.  Pin pointing triggers will help you stay calm if (when) situations such as this arise in the future.

Whatever the reason, it’s important that your daughter is aware why her behaviour conflicts with your family values. If there was a moment of ranting and you’re sure you’ve covered it, this might have been around the time she glazed over and heard nothing but ‘blah, blah, blah’.  Unpacking this calmly without the ‘heat of the moment’ may be helpful.

It’s also essential that you take the time to understand why your daughters’ actions are outside your expectations. This may not be a conversation, but just a reflection on your part. Consider how many of her friends are already dating at 16, how many may (or may not be) whispering about how they’ve had sex or given oral sex, the pressures to fit in with peers, and the cultural demands to be sexual.  These messages are often way louder than the occasional conversations at home. Top this off with a dose of hormones, a brain that is still developing to make decisions with forethought, and the enticing mystery of the unknown… it’s no wonder that fooling around in private seems more appealing than school work.  It’s a tough gig to realize that our kids may not hold the same values as us, or process things in a logical way; understanding these complexities is important.

Perhaps there’s another a conversation to have around the shame, guilt and regret that your daughter is feeling. Closely tied to the above reflections, it’s vital that your daughter understands that whilst there’s nothing shameful about experimenting, perhaps it’s the timing and circumstances which are most troubling for all involved. It may be worthwhile sharing with her how much you hope that at the right time, with the right person and under the right circumstances, that she will be able to enjoy sexual experiences. Your daughter needs to find her own set of reasons as to why she may be choosing to wait; but she also needs to know that her self-worth or the love you have for her does not change if this expectation is not met.

At 16, your daughter is more than capable of visiting the doctors or health clinic without parental approval. Although it may seem counterintuitive to make sure she understands this, it says to your daughter that you want to equip her to make an informed decision rather than a sneaky heat-of-the-moment choice.  It will help to rebuild communication and actually empower her to realise that the responsibility for a sexual decision rests on her and her boyfriend – as would pregnancy or treatment for Sexually Transmitted Infections.

Whilst your daughter may have initially agreed with you in relation to the consequences, the reality of uncertainty may now be taking its toll. With teens spending so much of their time online with peers, an indefinite ban on technology may be making her feel like a social outcast. This uncertainty coupled with the overwhelming thought of her ‘scholastic independence’ dreams crumbling, may be making life seem unbearable.  She may also feel broken-hearted about the loss of relationship with her guy friend and there’s even the possibility that he’s moved on to someone else, making her feel even more isolated. It seems reasonable that she is reacting with anger, sadness and feels like giving up.

You are absolutely right that you are at a crossroads.  From this point on, your relationship will either build or deteriorate, depending on what you see as strengths or weaknesses. Yes, trust has been broken and that hurts. Take trust out of the equation for a minute though, and try not to use it as a benchmark for dishing out ‘golden points’.  Parents need to expect that their teens will break trust – this is a natural process of development. Instead of setting the goal that “when we can see that we can trust you again you can have X, Y, Z”, try building on other great factors as rewards, such as the improved relationship with her sister, the little benchmarks for getting through an exam, or the willingness to help out around the house. By encouraging her in these areas and removing trust from the bargain bin, you’re setting an expectation of building quality character traits.  Trust will return eventually, but using it is a bargaining tool may leave you both feeling like losers.

With school coming to a close there will be less peer pressures for your daughter to deal with. Perhaps set a date now for the week after school breaks up, to negotiate the things you are willing to let her do during the holidays – such as having a few friends around who you think will be a good influence. Whilst the environment may be contained if the grounding is still in full effect, small wins such as chilling with friends will seem like big victories given her current feelings of isolation.  Set a clear date for the end of her social media fast, so she can let her friends know that she won’t be ostracised forever.

Telling your daughter that there’s a timeline on her grounding may just be the help she needs to give her added motivation to get through the final few weeks of school. She also needs to know that you won’t keep punishing her – she feels bad enough and has tested the boundaries to find out how you will respond. Dragging out consequences may seem overwhelming and trigger blatant and open rebellion, rather than creating an understanding of the types of circumstances where you will say yes to her enjoying the playfulness and young love of a relationship.

Right before your eyes over the past few years, your daughter has gone from the stage of dependence – where everything mum says is gold; to independence – where nothing you say matters right now; and hopefully she’ll successfully transition to interdependence – where she values your insight but still wants the opportunity to figure things out for herself and the space to learn to fail. This speed bump is one that she probably doesn’t need reminding of over and over again. As much as a mother’s heart is to protect (particularly when it comes to sexual relationships), at the end of the day we need to ask ourselves if we are raising a teen – where the focus is control; or raising a responsible young adult – where the focus is shifted to knowing that she will fail occasionally, yet empowering her to learn from this and mature with responsibility.

Liz Walker, sex educator and founder of Youth Wellbeing Project,

Our Ask an Expert Week panelists are all qualified professionals in their field. However, advice given on The Kids Are All Right website is not a substitute for direct, personal, professional counselling or psychological care, medical care and diagnosis.

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  1. Excellent advice.. for me in particular it is a useful reminder to take trust off the table (since it has shattered in my relationship with my teen) and instead to focus on the small things that are working.

    • I think trust is one of those really difficult things in the teen years. I am not sure it really exists when your teen’s wants are so different to their parents.

  2. Wow. Such amazing advice from Liz. There are so many elements here I can relate to my own teen self and the issues I had with my mother. She was having a hard time herself – my father had just walked out, we had a new mortgage and her kids had just started new schools so you can image the pressure everyone was under. It didn’t take long for the 14 year old me to start pushing boundaries. I kept making mistakes and my mum kept using the “you have to regain my trust” thing. Because I was such a mess, I couldn’t focus on what I saw as an unattainable, long term solution. Each time I got in trouble, the goal post moved even further away and I really can remember wondering how the heck I’d be able to get back that trust now. So I would literally zone out – I stopped trying.
    My mum grew up in the 50s and wouldn’t dare speak to her mother like that so couldn’t understand how her own daughter could. All she was armed with in the 80s was “earn back my trust” which I absolutely should have done. But we were drowning so it was counter-productive and just made everybody feel awful. If we had some clear guidelines like Liz has suggested, especially the short term, attainable goals to build back up the relationship, things would have been really different. As it was, we floundered around for 4 years – my mother walking around bewildered by this disrespectful, alien girl-creature and me having given up trying to regain her trust. It was a really tough, avoidable time in our lives.

    • What I have found in parenting a teen is that anytime there’s been a transgression of trust, we’ve actually adjusted our rules to broaden the boundaries. Which kind of seems like we are rewarding bad behaviour! But what it really feels like is give and take, and it’s balanced the ‘earn back our trust’ demand.

  3. I too have recently started dealing with my 17yo daughter’s newfound sexuality. She has had a couple of previous boy/girl relationships that have essentially been playmate based – they game together, go to pictures in groups, engage over social media, visit each other at home with adults present. Now she has a more grown up boyfriend and they are very touchy, she is discovering the joy of being kissed and touched. I remember how this was dealt with in my teens – yelling, grounding, made to feel awful for any small intimacy. I have raised a young woman who is confident, well informed, a good student with a strong focus on her continuing education and the goal of being a lawyer. I have chosen to step back, maintain our talks and cuddles and accept that this boy/young man is indeed very charming, at university, well spoken and they must all begin somewhere. My daughter may get her heart broken or break his but this is her time to be allowed to make her own choices from as well informed a position as I can provide. They are both clever and as long as neither of them does anything out of malice I can only watch her becoming the adult I raised her to be and support her if/when she needs. I know she will ask for help or advice if she wants it and my trust in her is important in helping her reach her potential. Doesn’t mean I don’t worry but this is all part of my role as a parent. I love her more than anything or anyone!



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