How To Handle The “Bad” Girlfriend
Got tweens/teens? We’re trying a new advice column here at Alpha Mom to address your questions for the older-kid crowd. We hope you enjoy! And if you have a question to submit, hit me up at alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.
Warning: This is a long one.
My son “Gus” [name has been changed] is now 13 and in the 7th grade. He got his phone in sixth grade and in the beginning we had no problems, though at the time he did not have a girlfriend. We told him up front that we reserved the right to read any/all of his texts and emails, that a phone was a privilege, not a right, etc. But, spot-checks didn’t really reveal any problems and so I kind of let it go.
About 4 months ago, he mentioned that he and a girl that he liked were “going out,” but aside from seeing each other at school (and they way their school was set up they rarely even saw each other then), their “relationship” consisted completely of texting or messaging each other on Instagram.
I started spot checking again and saw a lot of cussing on her part, language that I thought was inappropriate for a girl her age, but Gus wasn’t using it, so I had a talk with him about how I wasn’t crazy about the language she was using, but I wasn’t going to make a big deal out of it.
I continued to spot check and noticed that the things she was saying to him began to be very sexual in nature. Not explicit, but definitely sexual and not appropriate for two 13 year old kids (he was actually still 12 at the time). We had a long conversation about how we understood that his hormones were ramping up and that it was normal to have those feelings, but that that type of talk was not appropriate for their age. I’m not trying to cast blame on her (I am very sensitive to not labeling girls as sluts, etc. for a wide variety of reasons), but most of the sexual talk was initiated by her. We told him it had to stop and that if it didn’t, we would take his phone. (Parents: you may want to note that much of their conversations were taking place via direct message in Instagram, which I didn’t even know was possible, initially.)
There’s also the issue that she calls herself the Queen of Hell and talks about darkness and ruling hell. He has begun talking about things like this too and I find it very disturbing and distressing. He’s a good kid and I don’t want him to get sucked into this way of thinking. She gets depressed fairly regularly and talks of cutting herself and, on occasion, of killing herself. Like, last night his girlfriend was upset because she’d gotten him in trouble. She texted him a couple of times and said she was going to kill herself. He was eating dinner and didn’t answer right away, so she texted saying, “Are you going to respond or are you just going to let me die.” Gus feels very helpless when she talks like this and I told him that while I certainly understand his desire to want to help her, he is not mentally or emotionally equipped to solve problems of this nature. When she gets like this she is also often very verbally abusive to Gus. I struggle with not wanting to dismiss her depression, but I had a long talk with him about not letting people emotionally manipulate him and about having a sense of self worth and understanding that she should not be talking to him like that.
He did tell her to stop treating him like that and for a while things were better, but this morning we found another sexually inappropriate text from her and the wording made it seem as though she has sent others but Gus has deleted them. (He and I had a good conversation in the car today about the fact that when they talk in person they don’t talk about sex. I asked him why and he said it was too embarrassing. I said, “If you’re not mature enough to talk in person about it, then you’re not mature enough to be texting about it.”)
There is not one thing I like about this girl and I’ve told him that. We have thus far not refused to allow them to “date” because we don’t want to push him away or cause him to rebel, but then I think about the fact that they only communicate via text, and because he just changed schools, they won’t even see each other at school anymore. It would be so easy to end it. I also think that he’s only 13 and that it’s my job to keep him safe and make smart decisions and maybe sometimes he needs me to make a decision for him.
So that’s it in a pretty large nutshell. I’m probably leaving some stuff out.
I know this is a really long one (and believe it or not, I edited it down, some), but I think it’s all important and there’s a lot going on here. I’ll do my best to hit everything, point by point.
Rights and privileges of underage device/Internet usage. L, you had the right idea at the outset, here, in that you set the stage for privilege-with-reasonable-boundaries in giving the phone to Gus but warning him that you had the right to check it from time to time (or perhaps more often, if you have concerns). Unfortunately, given the current situation, you’ve now discovered the limitation to this contract: Gus can delete messages he doesn’t want you to see, and while he may not always clean up after himself this way, there is no doubt even more happening than you’re able to “catch.” I can tell you from personal experience that once you know your kid is communicating in a way you disapprove of, it can quickly devolve into a game of “how do I get around Mom,” and trust me when I tell you there is always going to be a shortcut he knows about that you don’t. You can’t control what he chooses to say—though you can absolutely keep reinforcing what you find appropriate and safe, and bust him on evidence you do find—but what you “catch” on his phone is really a secondary issue, at this point. Short of him sexting or threatening someone else (both are illegal, of course), policing his phone is treating a symptom rather than the disease, as it were.
Sexual texting. I do want to say that I think you handled this one beautifully; having an open, non-shaming dialogue with your son about your concerns here was perfect. (And having that conversation in the car is perfect, too, because the lack of eye contact can be useful during a difficult topic.) You’re right that if they’re not talking about it in person because it’s too embarrassing, they’re not ready to text about it. I would add, the next time you talk about it (sorry, there will surely be a next time), a consideration of what it means for some things to be private, and how he would feel if they were not. Teens may brag about their sexual exploits (although, really, I’d argue that’s much less common than we think among most), but I doubt Gus is that kind of kid, and no teen wants their boyfriend or girlfriend’s parents coming across explicit texts like that. Apparently the girlfriend’s parents aren’t paying much attention to her, but what if they did? What if they saw what Gus said? How would he feel about that? How would he feel if teachers or administrators at school saw what he’d said? Our kids are going to make mistakes, no doubt, but making them in preservable, duplicate-able, black-and-white (or maybe that’s white and blue or green, on most phones?) can have unwanted repercussions. Gus doesn’t yet understand that texts/emails can be used against him, and if he rushes to assure you that his girlfriend would never, point out that you check his phone, and there’s no reason to believe his words couldn’t ultimately come back to make him very uncomfortable without his girlfriend even being involved.
The issue of “forbidding.” I can hear how conflicted you are, and I want to say that your reasoning here is sound, even if it’s uncomfortable. When you forbid a kid to communicate with a peer, that has a way of backfiring. So you’ve made a good choice in not telling him he can’t talk to her. On the other hand, by telling him “there is not one thing you like about this girl,” you’re still painting her as forbidden fruit. (Listen, I understand why you don’t like her, and I get that it has everything to do with trying to keep Gus safe. But Gus is 13, and he obviously cares for her, and if you keep telling him you don’t like her, you’re only reinforcing the notion that you “don’t understand” or don’t care.) When she tells him that he’s the only one who understands her or cares, if your voice is in the back of his head saying negative things, well, that’s going to push him right into her arms in agreement. So on this one: Yes, do not forbid contact (unless she does something illegal or otherwise truly dangerous, in which case I think you play the parent card), but work other angles and try—and this is hard—to soften any comments with compassion. “There’s not one thing I like about her,” is a very different statement than “I am worried about the way she treats you, because you deserve to be treated kindly. I understand that she’s hurting and that’s part of it, and that’s sad, but it’s not an excuse.”
Poor treatment. I would encourage any parent to step in if they believed their child was in any kind of danger, of course. If this girl was hitting Gus, no one would think twice about you dropping the hammer. Emotional abuse may be no less damaging, but it’s trickier to handle as a parent. Again, forbidden fruit is tempting and teenagers don’t always think clearly. All you can do directly with Gus at this point, I think, is reiterate that people who care about each other treat each other well. Model what good relationships look like and keep those lines of communication open. He stood up for himself once, so it’s working. He knows she shouldn’t be mean to him, he’s just cutting her a lot (read: too much) slack right now. Unless you see overall negative changes in him (falling grades, depression, etc.), as scary as it is, you have to give him some space to navigate this part of it on his own and reach his own conclusions about how he’d like to be treated.
I suspect part of the reason he’s putting up with this is because he thinks he’s the only person who truly cares for her, and that can be weirdly exhilarating for a teen, and that brings us to the biggie, here:
Suicidal ideation and self-harm. I love that you have already talked to Gus about how he is not “mentally or emotionally equipped to solve problems of this nature.” Let’s go one further: No one is equipped to solve this for a partner, even adults. (Even mental health professionals don’t treat their own loved ones. That’s not how it works.) Furthermore, real love (or like, or whatever they’re calling it) precludes placing the burden of one’s own wellness on their partner. At best, she’s manipulating him, which is mean and awful; at worst, she is truly in trouble, and needs help well beyond anything he can offer. I suspect, and I know you suspect, that this is drama and manipulation. It might be, but that’s not a risk Gus or anyone else should take. When someone threatens to hurt themselves, protective action must be taken. In this case, because Gus is a child (sorry, Gus), he needs to understand that he is not doing his girlfriend any favors if he hides this information. If he cares for her, a threat must be taken seriously and reported to a responsible adult (either his parents or the school). Tell him that the girlfriend will likely be really angry but that’s okay, because safety trumps everything, and he can’t decide “she didn’t mean it” because there’s no good way to know, and how would he feel if she threatened something and he thought she didn’t mean it and then she hurt herself?? That’s the first thing: getting Gus to understand that any self-harm or threats thereof is a non-negotiable “report to an adult.” Hopefully he’ll listen and get it.
The second thing here is that now you know about this, and you need to report it immediately. (Again: how would you feel if you knew about this, figured she was bluffing, but it turned out she wasn’t?) This gets tricky because here we are on school break, headed into a holiday weekend. Ordinarily I’d say you need to either report this to the school or call her parents, and it sounds like you maybe don’t even know how to reach her parents. Unless you have a contact at the school you can reach right now, or you’re willing to do some detective work and get to her parents (and that also assumes you feel confident her parents will step in, which is a shaky assumption given her other behavior), I’m concerned about the time you’d have to wait to get the school involved. I know you’re not going to like this, L, but I think you need to call the police. I hope you have screen shots of those texts in your possession, but even if you don’t, you call and ask to speak to someone about a teenager you are worried might be in trouble. Let the authorities make the determination about what needs to happen next. They may make a house call, or send someone from DFCS out.
And yes, whatever you do here, she’s going to be mad, and Gus is going to feel betrayed, and you just need to be okay with that. Don’t argue. Don’t get exasperated with him or take his anger personally. Tell him, “I love you and I have a responsibility to intervene if I think one of your friends is in trouble. Whatever you think here, she’s in trouble. She needs help and I had to make sure she could get it. It’s okay that you’re mad at me. Be mad as long as you need to. It’s okay.”
Finally: filling your teen’s cup. Once the dust has settled from this specific situation, your family needs to spend some time brainstorming what Gus needs in terms of that metaphorical cup-filling we sometimes talk about. What feeds Gus? What makes him feel like his cup is full? Something about this very screwed up situation was filling his cup, somehow, and I don’t know if it was the attention, the feeling important, the notion of saving someone—I have no idea. Do you? If you don’t, you’ll want to think about it. As a family, the more you fill his cup with what he needs (through love and care, of course, but also activities he enjoys, time with friends who build him up rather than tear him down, etc.), the less likely he is to find himself in a similar situation later. Happy, fulfilled kids (heck, happy, fulfilled people) make good choices. I’m not saying there’s any big crisis here or there’s something wrong with Gus (beyond being a teen, which we all know is a malady in and of itself!), but once this is over, it’ll be time to think about what he felt was lacking that got him into this situation in the first place. That’s hard, but he sounds like a sensitive kid with great parents. I bet you’ll figure it out.
Good luck, L. I’m sorry you’re dealing with this.
Don’t forget that you can submit your own question to alphamomteens[at]gmail[dot]com.