Dear Mr. Dad: I’m a single dad and need some advice about my teenage daughter. She’s 13 and it’s just been me and her for the past five years. She is extremely smart and independent and even helps me with household decisions. I admit that I am very laid back in my parenting and our relationship is more of friends and equals than father and daughter. I feel guilty because she does not have the ideal two-parent household and I often work long hours, so I let her get and do pretty much whatever she wants. To complicate things even more, I will be remarrying within the next year to a woman that I have had a long distance relationship with. I am concerned that when she comes to live with us, the new family dynamic will be too much of a change for my daughter. I want to try and restructure our relationship and instill boundaries now before it is too late. Where do I start?
A: The good news is that you’ve already taken the first step: you recognize that there’s a problem and you’ve asked for help. The bad news is that you’ve got a huge amount of catching up to do.
The relationship you have with your daughter is incredibly common among single parents: they feel guilty about putting their children through a divorce and, as you say, for depriving them of the perfect two-parent family. And they feel guilty about working long hours and depriving them of having more time with even one loving parent. As a result these guilt-ridden single moms and dads do exactly what you’re doing: try to make themselves feel better – and make amends to their kids – by backing off on discipline and letting them get away with whatever they want. Big mistake.
While that may be an effective short-term way of reducing guilt, in the long run, it can have the exact opposite effect. You’ll end up with one more thing to feel guilty about (not being the parent you know your daughter needs you to be), and your daughter will suffer by not having the boundaries she needs you to provide. When you’re your daughter’s friend, she doesn’t respect you as a strong authority figure. Instead, she sees you as weak – and in her mind, that’s pretty scary.
Your daughter may be very smart, but she’s not able to earn a living and get herself where she needs to be and learn what she needs to learn. Without boundaries – and without being held accountable for her behavior and her choices – she’ll never develop the self-confidence that comes from taking on responsibilities, meeting challenges, making mistakes, and suffering the consequences. As a result, instead of growing into a mature, independent, capable young woman, she’ll be immature, overly dependent, and irresponsible. I’m sure that’s not what either of you really wants.
You’re right when you say that your upcoming remarriage makes things complicated. By treating your daughter as your equal and by letting her make household decisions, you’ve essentially given her veto power over your relationships. And I can guarantee you right now that she’ll use it the moment your new bride steps into your house.
There’s really only one way to re-establish yourself as the authority in your house: start establishing rules, boundaries and consequences. Even more important, you’ll need to stand your ground and enforce them. It’s not going to be easy – and your daughter will definitely rebel – but you’d better get moving; every day you wait, it’s going to be harder.