Q: My daughter, 17, and I are very close. As a child, she had cancer. Hugh and I supported her through painful and traumatic procedures, which welded us together. Sophie recovered, but, five years ago, her Dad died suddenly, making us even closer. Last week, Sophie went out with her friends Kat and Ben. As the car drove away, I saw there was another young man with them. When I asked about this she clammed up. She won’t tell me anything, and gets defensive if I suggest she brings any male friends home. I sense a widening gap between us and am terrified of losing her.
A: I am sorry to hear about the challenging times that you have all been through. Sharing trauma can form a close bond between people, but part of the recovery involves rediscovering and embracing one’s individuality and autonomy.
Sophie is at an age when it is important she becomes her own person. How you respond to her transition into adulthood will shape the nature of your future relationship. Do not allow your fear and neediness to drive a wedge between you.
You have been through hell, and I understand that you are reluctant to experience more pain, but you need to be brave. Step back, and give Sophie space to grow, trusting that, in time, you will evolve a healthier closeness with your daughter. Trust and respect are key right now.
It is natural and desirable for Sophie to blossom into a sexual adult, and you cannot be too closely involved in the process.
You could, through a combination of guilt trips, emotional blackmail, and bullying, bind her to you, and isolate her from her peers, but this could result in resentment, or could cripple her, making her incapable of forming healthy adult relationships. What do you want for her future? Surely you hope that she will end up happily partnered, and would love to have grandchildren? If so, try to let go.
Consider the incident you describe. Maybe the mystery man was just a friend. Maybe Sophie’s friends were matchmaking. Maybe Sophie has a huge crush on him, but does not know if he likes her. Maybe they are connecting, but she fears that suggesting he meet her mother might scare him off. There are any number of reasons why she is unwilling to go into it with you.
The drive to become an autonomous individual is primal and ruthless. Just as a plant will lift a paving stone to get to the light, so too a young person who feels trapped or constrained can be brutal in pursuit of freedom. Sophie’s history demonstrates that she is a fighter and a survivor. Do not stand in her way.
She needs to believe that you trust her, are willing to let her go, and that you will respect her privacy, and her ability to make her own decisions. If you have the courage to release your grip it is more likely that she will come back to you. Your relationship cannot remain unchanged, but it can develop into a mature and healthy mother-daughter connection.
This change in Sophie is a sign that you too need to make some changes in your life. You can no longer depend on your daughter alone for friendship, companionship, support and intimacy. If you try to maintain the status quo you could lose Sophie’s respect, and cause her to resent and despise a clinging vine that binds her to her past.
Lead by example. Start to organise activities that you do on your own. Try to build up a network of friends to supply some of what you get from Sophie. This is never easy, but be proactive – enrol in a class, join a Meetup group (meetup.com), join a gym or a sporting team, cultivate the friends you have, go on an organised tour.
When your daughter sees you getting a life, it will give her a role model for her own journey. She will no longer feel guilt or pity about you, two toxic emotions. Handled well, you will be able to look back on this scary transition with pride, enjoying a happy relationship with your daughter and, perhaps, your grandchildren.
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