My 17 year old daughter’s boyfriend is 21.

Q. I am writing to you in connection with my teenage daughter. She is 17 years old and is doing her final year at school. She is dating a guy who has just turned 21. While her father and I don’t agree with this we’re not sure how to go about it as we are afraid we will push her towards him even more if we tell her we don’t want her seeing him. He is not from our area and we don’t know much about him except that he works and, according to her, he has a good job. She is very cautious when we ask for information about him. She seems to think because he has done his Leaving Certificate and got six honours and has a good job, that’s all that matters. But her dad and I are concerned about the age difference. As she is in her final year in school we want her to concentrate on her studies. She doesn’t need any distraction as the guy is at a different stage in life. We have said if she were 21 and he was 25 it wouldn’t matter as much because as you get older, age levels out and the stages are more or less the same.

A. A lot of parents would be worried about their teenage daughter going out with an older boyfriend and many of the concerns you have are valid. You do have a responsibility to ensure she is safe and not in a relationship she can’t handle, as well as encouraging her to attend to her studies in her final year. However, at 17 it is also important to support your daughter making some of her own decisions about her own life and this is the balance you have to achieve.

As children become older teenagers, it is important to negotiate more with them and to reduce the number of blanket rules you have. This is especially the case about life decisions such as relationships and career choices, when your job as a parent is to prepare them to think through these issues themselves.

Rather than letting them suddenly make all decisions at age 18, the ideal is to start sooner and to begin helping them make their own choices at a younger age, gradually giving them responsibility as they grow older. Indeed, the age 18 is an arbitrary figure and some young people can make important decisions at a younger age. Most continue to benefit from their parents’ guidance and support until much older.

While the principle of gradually letting teenagers make their own decisions is a clear one, it is less clear at what age and what decisions to hand over. For example, at what age can your daughter or son have a boyfriend or girlfriend or is it okay for a 17-year-old to have an older boyfriend when doing her Leaving Certificate?

These are individual family decisions that you have to work out for yourselves. A lot depends on your values as parents, what age you feel boyfriends are okay, and how much time you feel your daughter should spend studying, and so on.

Much also depends on your daughter: some teenage girls are very mature and responsible, and can be trusted to make a decision to go out with a boyfriend while also managing their studies. Other girls are less able to handle the relationship and may need their parents to make a firmer decision. Some teenagers are even reassured when a parent makes a definite rule in this area even though they may protest loudly.

However, for other teenagers a blanket ban may not be effective and could be even counterproductive if it drives a wedge between you and your daughter and pushes her towards her boyfriend. So in deciding how to proceed you need to take a moment to reflect about your own values and also your daughter’s needs and personality – then you can make a judgment call as a parent about what to do.

They key in all this is communication. From your question it is great to see that you are taking time to talk through all the issues with your daughter. Keep the lines of communication open and make sure to listen to her, as well as stating your own preferences. Take time to understand her point of view. How come this relationship is important to her? What does it mean to her? How important are her studies to her? How much support does she need with school work?

Try to respect and understand her choice of this boyfriend – even if you have some reservations. Then also make sure to express your own concerns and issues: your worry about the age gap and whether she is able to handle this, your concern that she might be distracted from her studies, and so on. It is also important to discuss safety and sexuality in a frank and open way with her and to use the conversation to explore your worries and to help her think though the issues – how can she convince you she won’t be exploited by him or how can she get her studies done and not be distracted?

Take plenty of time to communicate to see if you can find a win-win solution– a way forward that you are both happy with (for example, she sees him at certain times at the weekend and makes sure to work at her studies during the week). Or is there a workable compromise that she might reluctantly accept – she takes a break from the relationship until the exams are over and, in return, you provide her with rewards or incentives (weekend trips, etc).

You can, of course, as a parent be definite about a rule in this area, but it is important to discuss it and try to get agreement and to take lots of time to communicate if your daughter feels strongly. Remember, though stressful, this dilemma represents an opportunity to deepen your relationship with your daughter as well as supporting her in thinking through issues and in learning to make responsible decisions for herself.

Dr. John Sharry, Irish Times, September 2010.  John writes in the Irish Times Health Plus every Tuesday.