What to do if you don’t approve of the person your child is dating

Couple kissing, hidden behind hat

If your child is of dating or marrying age, you may relate to the impact that their choice of partner has on you. If you’re a fan of the Indian or Jewish matchmaking shows on Netflix, for example, you will have seen the way in which some parents arrange and are heavily involved in the process of their adult child choosing a mate, especially within certain cultures or sects of religion. In less traditional or devout families, parents may play more of a peripheral role in their child’s journey towards finding love.

If your children are just beginning to date, you may or not hear about their love interests until later in the game. Sometimes, it’s a chance happening when you catch a text or a heart emoji out of the corner of your eye, that sparks a conversation between you and your child. Even then, most children are quite reluctant about sharing details. You may feel that despite clandestine texting conversations between your child and another, that it’s still within your parental responsibilities to know exactly with whom your 15-year-old is hanging out with and where. However, even at this relatively young age, many teens would prefer that their parents not come within a certain radius of their “date” and know as little as possible. It’s often a fine line to walk – a time when the umbilical cord is stretching further – but still a time during which your teen doesn’t have the life experience or brain maturity to make sound decisions all the time. And what if, when you do hear that your teen is going on a date with someone 5 years older than them, or that they are parented more liberally, or follow a different religion than yours, what can you do about it?

Even at this young age, you know that you run the risk of pushing the relationship “underground” if you come on too strong, ask too many questions or forbid your child from seeing their crush. And so, even when there are red flags, it’s important to handle the situation delicately.

And then, when your child is older, their brain is more mature, they have several years of dating and life experience, and you don’t approve of their choice, then what? As they grow into young adults and the threat or promise of a long term, even lifetime commitment, is more imminent, you may feel even more of a profound sense of urgency to intervene. If you can read the writing on the wall, feel that your child is making a big mistake and want to intervene before it’s too late, should you?

Here are some ideas you may want to consider before intervening:

  1. Reflect on what it is about the person your child is interested in – regardless of whether they are 15 or 23, that is concerning you. Is your reaction based on personal bias? Judgement? Too little information? If you realize that your child is selecting someone who doesn’t line up with your values or is different to who you would choose, then you may want to rethink an intervention before giving their partner a chance first.
  2. Rather than coming on too strong by refusing to have their partner come over, or trying to stop your child from seeing them, have a discussion with your child first. If you have concerns and are able to back them up based on life experience or things you’ve seen or heard, let your child know. Try not to point fingers or lay blame. Rather, share what you’re seeing and feeling. For example, if your child is a young adult, saying something like: “When you date someone whose religious upbringing is so different to yours, I worry that you will be challenged by so many differences now and especially if you decide to have children.” Compare this to: “I won’t allow that person into our home. Their religious upbringing is too different than yours and I don’t want to feel uncomfortable in my home watching everything I say or do.” Of course, the second response creates animosity and conflict between you and your child, it drives your child away from you and makes them feel caught in the middle. The first response allows you to communicate your feelings and then to listen to what your child is feeling and what they might have already discussed with their partner.
    Even if you’ve noticed interactions between your child and their partner that cause you to feel a certain way, you can communicate this with something like: “I’ve noticed that when you say something that (partners name) doesn’t agree with, they laugh at you or say something derogatory. It’s difficult to see you treated this way. Have you noticed this too?” This again invites discussion.
  3. Consider what might happen if you forbid your child from seeing someone they are interested in. Teens will find ways to see their love interest behind your back. If they’ve met at school, there is ample opportunity for connection. If they want to meet after school, they can use visiting a friend as an alibi. Forbidding typically doesn’t lead to compliance and even when it does, consider if you really want your child to grow into an adult that complies even when they’d rather not.
    As your teen grows into an adult, and especially if they can’t live alone because of financial constraints, for example, they might comply out of necessity. However, your relationship will likely be changed long term. If they feel that they have missed out on marrying the love of their lives, for example, they might forever silently or outwardly blame you, and may not ever be able to give themselves fully to another person or forgive you.
  4. Consider that, especially if your child is a young adult, or even an older adult, you have likely given them the tools and they have gained experience to make good decisions. If you establish and maintain open communication, you will likely be able to engage in conversations that enable both you and them to share inner feelings and thoughts.

The bottom line is that although, even after conversations and voicing of concerns, your child may still date or even marry someone you wish they hadn’t. They may even find themselves in a situation that you predicted would occur. Even then, try to refrain from “I told you so” but rather allow them to learn from their own mistakes. The only time I would caution against sharing but then standing back to allow your child to make their own decisions, is when you observe your child being treated or talked to in an abusive manner. In this case, even though you may not forbid, as discussed earlier, you may want to state your case more strongly and with greater concern.