Care and Feeding

My Teen Daughter Is Dating Her Friend Who Practically Lives With Us

She’s part of the family. What happens when they break up?

Photo illustration of two young women with their backs facing toward the camera.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Roberto Nickerson/Upsplash.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. Have a question for Care and Feeding? Email careandfeeding@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

Dear Care and Feeding,

My 15-year-old daughter is best friends with “Emily,” whose family life is precarious at best. Emily is at our house so much that we basically have two daughters. Emily knew she was bi early on. Within the last year or so, my daughter came out as lesbian. Now they’re a couple, which I fully support. However, they’re young, and their plans to be romantically involved forever aren’t realistic. If, and presumably when, they break up, how do we navigate our lives as a family? Is it possible for them to go back to being pseudo-sisters?

—Mother of Dating “Daughters”

Dear MoDD,

This is a tough one, and I wish we could just pull parental strings, Geppetto-like, to make our kids avoid all potential difficulty. Sadly, that’s not how it works. What you’re really talking about is a classic “don’t date your friends” or “don’t shit where you eat” scenario. You and I know, because we’ve had experience, exactly how this can go wrong and how much regret there will be if (or when) it does. But all parenting is based on the fact that we can’t upload our consciousness to our kids’ brains, no matter how hard we try, so I don’t think you have a whole lot of options to manage this potentially painful situation.

Were I in your position, I would make it known to Emily that she will always be considered a part of the family, whether or not things work out. I would also think about bringing up my concerns with my own daughter in as succinct and non-judgmental a way as possible, something like: “I’m so glad you and Emily are dating, although I’m a little worried that if it doesn’t work out for some reason, your friendship will be damaged. What do you think about that?” It’s possible that she hasn’t fully thought that through, and it may be helpful for her to keep it in the back of her mind as she is navigating the difficult aspects of relationships and all their twists and turns. The reason I said “think about” is because only you know if your relationship with your daughter is such that she might hear this or might immediately become defensive and dismissive (or in the case of teens, usually an improbable combination of the two).

So, to put things in order, most important is letting Emily know that your love for her is not dependent on whether her romance with your daughter works out. Second is possibly and gently reminding your daughter to treat the situation with care. Other than that, stay out of it, hope for the best, and prepare for the worst. The good news is that even though you can imagine all the ways this could fall apart, there are probably many ways it can work out that you would never have thought of. Good luck!

Dear Care and Feeding,

I have two daughters, 7 and 5, who have gotten into fort-building. Practically every piece of furniture in our small combo living and dining room gets draped with blankets, and the little nooks are filled with toys, pillows, snacks, books, and art supplies. When I ask them to pick up before TV time, they’re agreeable about everything except the forts. Even getting them to tidy the forts is a battle. And the forts bleed into one another to create wall-length megaforts. I am torn between encouraging creative, self-directed, nondigital play and having my home look like someplace where sane adults live. I dismantle the forts, and they are all rebuilt at the first opportunity. I am thinking of a total ban on forts, except in their bedroom. Am I uptight? Too lenient? Or should I just wait out this phase?

—Adults Live Here Too

Dear ALHT,

Do not ban the forts. That is draconian and unnecessary. I think where you are is the perfect place to be. They make the forts. You reluctantly allow the forts. Then you disassemble the forts. Then they build the forts again. Life, uh, finds a way.

I’m saying this because I know that no matter what you do, they will soon stop making the forts altogether. It’s just how it is. If this were a lifelong thing, I’d advise that you have to set some boundaries because you can’t live like this. My kids used to move the living room furniture around to make “ships,” and it was maddening (they even broke a coffee table, which I’m still annoyed about). But then the day came when they just stopped doing that, and I got my adult living room back. It’s a phase, and it’s really a wonderful one if you let it be.

Allow me to quote something my daughter said when she was in elementary school, and I was complaining about the level of noise coming from the back of the car: “Dad, if you wanted it to be quiet, don’t have kids!”

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 14-year-old daughter is overweight, a size 14.

Her father and I went through an extremely high-conflict divorce. He had our two girls for two years. During this time both girls ran away often, and my 14-year-old didn’t go to school for a year. She also was contacting men online and arranging to meet them (she never followed through). She was often unsupervised and left alone with unhealthy food. Both girls are back to living with me.

We had raised our girls up to that point as vegetarians with very healthy food choices. I’m huge on no processed foods, treats in moderation, and home cooking. My other daughter, 16, and I are slim, with exercise being an important and fun part of our lives. My 14-year-old refuses to exercise, refuses to watch what she eats, hates to eat in front of others, and is primarily sedentary. (I did get her a puppy that she walks daily.) But she has her own money and can buy whatever she wants at school.

I have spoken with her, and she doesn’t think she’s overweight. She is gorgeous with amazing curves. She dresses beautifully and does her makeup with extreme skill and care. She looks amazing. But my concern is her lack of exercise, lack of portion control, and her food choices at school and at her dad’s. I have stopped speaking to her on this issue, as I can hear myself not being supportive. Rather than harm her emotionally, I have now shut up. But she’s getting bigger. Both girls have been in some counseling since being back with me. But how can I help without harm?

—First, Do No Harm

Dear FDNH,

You are handling a difficult situation exceedingly well. Your daughters have been through a lot, and you are right to note that a) they need help, and b) that help is not going to come from only you. I am also looking at how you are dealing with your feelings about your daughter’s exercise. You have stopped bringing it up, you have encouraged healthy behaviors like walking, and you have modeled what you believe is healthy behavior around food. So you’re checking all the boxes there. All you have left is an entire area of things in your daughter’s life that you cannot control: what she eats at her father’s house and with her own money, and what decisions she makes around her own body.

This widening overlap of things that are vitally important to you and things you can’t actually control is the most difficult part of parenting teenagers, and yet it does not change. Let me offer some words of encouragement: You are not solely responsible for what happens to her. It may go against instinct to suggest that, but it’s true. There are many forces at work, and you are but one of them. If your daughter has eyes and ears, I can assure you that she’s gotten the message that she “needs to lose weight” from literally everywhere and would have gotten that message even if you had never uttered a word on the subject. That messaging is so strong that when you talk about it, you may think you’re communicating something important, but what you’re doing, in her mind, is piling on. I will also take a moment to point out that your daughter sounds intelligent, directed, and self-assured for a 14-year-old. She is also dealing with what life has given her, and it sounds like it’s a lot. So kudos to her.

Therapy will be helpful, given what you’ve described of her past experiences. There are some red flags, and I would think that mental health services should be treated as a medicine rather than a vitamin. She needs someone other than you to talk with and work through whatever it is that she’s experienced. I might also suggest that you, too, could benefit from an outside perspective if you can afford it. You have also been through a great deal, and it is likely that you are experiencing strong emotional fallout as a result.

Teenagers need many things, but maybe the thing they need most is to feel like the people close to them believe in them and see the good in them, and that that never wavers as they fumble their way through their difficult lives. As a parent, your role slowly transforms into being that person during these years. In your mind, you are entirely aware of all the ways she needs your help, but more than anything right now, she needs you to be reminded of all the ways in which she’s got this. And maybe you do, too. My heart is with you.

—Carvell