Q My 16-year-old daughter — the youngest of three children I adopted 10 years ago — has a really sad back-story, and her front story isn’t much better. ¶ These children, along with two other siblings, were taken from their mother’s care when they were very young. This mother moved away. ¶ The children’s birth family is still around, but let me be frank: I did not adopt these children so they could be with these people. The environment is not good. Instead, I wanted to care for them until they turned 18 and then let them decide whether they would like to know their birth family. ¶ Both the boy and his older sister left our home when they turned 18. Now, she lives from pillar to post, and he lives with his biological dad — a man who was incarcerated at 17, is now 30 or older and sleeps on a couch at his sister’s place. Neither has a job, and the boy doesn’t even have a high school diploma — although we sent him to a military academy to help him get one. He tells my 16-year-old daughter that he is so sorry that she has to spend two more years at home. ¶ Last summer, I let him and our 16-year-old go to a party at the home of their biological family. When I picked them up, the boy was drunk and vomiting. On another occasion, I took this daughter to a birthday party for her great-grandmother (by birth), and all of her relatives were there. It was a nice gathering, but my daughter’s personality began to shift afterward. Now, she wants to be with her birth family every weekend, sleeping on the floor and hanging out with a boy rather than living in a huge house in a nice neighborhood with her own bedroom, her own bathroom and a refrigerator that’s always full of food. ¶ Should I let her go back to her people? The idea of taking her there and picking her up is very stressful to me.
A You wouldn’t let a small child play in traffic or a parent with Alzheimer’s walk alone in the woods. By that same logic, you shouldn’t let your daughter visit this situation again and again. If you do, she might make the same mistakes her mother made.
Even at 16, she is too young to decide where she will live, even for a weekend. The impulse center of her brain won’t fully mature until she’s in her early- to mid-20s. This is the reason why an otherwise sensible teenager might not buckle his seat belt or why she gets into a car with a drunk driver. And if that didn’t get your attention, consider this: Your daughter’s impulse control center doesn’t work as well in her mid-teens as it did when she was 12.
As wonderful as teenagers can be — and they can be absolutely wonderful — they need responsible supervision or they may become isolated, depressed or, in rare cases, even dangerous to themselves or others. See that your daughter gets this supervision through chores, well-chaperoned parties and volunteer work rather than a lot of lectures from you. These activities are important for children at every age because they make them feel happier, safer, more self-sufficient and more respected than anything else.
With two previous leave-takings, you may find it hard to keep your feelings to yourself, but you really must. Your daughter doesn’t need you to tell her how lucky she is to live in such a fine house in such a good neighborhood and to have her own bedroom and bath and a full fridge.
You also may find it hard to say no to your daughter unless you also learn to sympathize with her. Tell her that you love her too much to let her do something that makes alarm bells ring in your ears.
You also need to see a family therapist who is patient and kind, who works well with teenagers and who has been recommended to you by people you trust, such as a school counselor or friends. This is especially true if you can’t take a strong stand without having it turn into a shouting match. Everyone needs guidance when times get tough. If they’re not all that tough for you, they sure sound tough for your daughter.
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Also at washingtonpost.com Read a transcript of a recent live Q&A hosted by Kelly at washingtonpost.com/advice , where you can also find past Family Almanac columns.