Dear Doctor George...

Our 17-year-old daughter recently got her driver’s license. Now she drives to her girlfriends’ for overnights on the weekends and, really, we don’t see as much of her as we used to. I want her to get used to being independent, yet I’m not sure how much freedom is too much. My wife feels okay with it, but I’m worried we’re being too permissive.

... Father of a Vanishing Teen




Dear Father...

Your family is in the transitional stage called “launching,” preparing for a teenager’s imminent departure from home. Your daughter is filled with excitement about getting more independence, but you may feel like you’re losing your “baby.” She pushes for more and more freedom. You say, “Be home at eleven.” She says, “How about midnight?”

At this stage of development, parents need to find a good balance between freedom and control: being fully involved without dominating. If a teen doesn’t have enough freedom, she will stay at an immature level of dependency on her parents, or she will rebel. She may openly rebel by arguing and breaking rules, or covertly rebel by sneaking, using lies, deception and not communicating in a desperate effort to create the autonomy that is essential for her individuality. On the other hand, if she is granted too much freedom, then she doesn’t get the structure she needs to help her control her impulses.

The paradox is that parents need to give their teens freedom so the teens will develop the independence needed to handle freedom, and thus be ready to eventually go it on their own. To determine how much a teen is ready for, parents should assess the teen’s general level of maturity and responsibility—does she fulfill her school and work responsibilities, maintaining good grades, for example? When she does come home, is it at the time agreed upon? Does she call if she’s going to be late? Does she tell you where she’s going? Do you know and trust her friends and her friends’ parents? When she is at home, do you feel you have good quality interactions with her? Do you feel you know what is going on in her life, how she’s feeling, and what’s important to her? You’d also want to look at her overall physical and emotional health. Does she frequently get sick and have difficulty getting over illness (which can be a sign of exhaustion from too much activity and not enough rest)? How are her moods? Is she often irritable and difficult? Do you have any reason to suspect that drugs or alcohol are involved? Are you concerned about boyfriends and sex and have you discussed the subject with her?

You mentioned that you and your wife have differing opinions about your daughter’s behavior. It’s important to discuss this because both parents need to be on the same page so they can support each other. This avoids the divisive situation of the teen and one parent taking sides against the other parent, causing resentment between the parents.

If your teen is in fact responsible, then your worries that your daughter can’t handle so much freedom may actually stem from your sadness and grief about her growing up and leaving home and the changes that will mean for everyone in your family. You, instead of your wife, may be the one going through the “empty nest syndrome”. If so, your wife might have more objectivity about your daughter’s needs, right now, than you do.

Once you and your wife have assessed your daughter’s ability to handle it, giving her more freedom to go with her friends gives you the opportunity to experience how it will be when she eventually leaves home. You and your wife will need to get accustomed to having more time with each other. Your daughter’s increasing reliance on peers also helps the separation process so she can become her own person in relation to others outside the family. Any way you look at it, this stage of parenting and child development is a major life adjustment for all of you and needs to be handled with care.

   Doctor George