Care and Feeding

I Think My Teenager Might Be in a Polyamorous Relationship

I’m worried she’s too young for this sort of thing. Should I talk to her about it?

Two teen boys and one girl in a composite illustration against a pink background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Care and Feeding,

Before the era of COVID-19, my almost 17-year-old daughter was spending a lot of time with a set of (male) best friends. They all played a sport together and saw each other socially. One evening when they were all at our house, on the way to our basement laundry room I found all three of them flushed and rapidly disentangling on the rec room couch. (I didn’t say anything to her afterwards because I felt very awkward, though otherwise we have been able to communicate fairly openly about her emotional/romantic situations.) There was another occasion in which the boys dropped off a jointly purchased gift for her.

Now, as we have expanded our social bubble, she has started to spend more time with one of these boys again (so far, no sign of the other). I feel really uncomfortable and unsure if I need to do or say something, or what that should be. Our family’s values are quite progressive and queer-friendly, but a potential romantic triad (or the aftermath of one) seems like a lot for an adolescent to handle. Maybe I am blowing things out of proportion and whatever I saw was a one-time thing—but even if it was, should I provide some guidance about ethics and sexual health with managing multiple partners? Would that seem like I am encouraging it? I know teenagers today are living in a world in which they are exposed to so much and see a variety of choices they can make for their lives. I want to support that, but also make sure she has the resources to navigate her choices and keep herself safe. Teenagers being as they are, it seems like addressing this directly or offering unasked-for advice might be a fast way to slam the door shut. This feels like advanced placement parenting, and I would love some insight.

—Liberal but Maybe Not That Liberal

Dear LbMNTL,

The best perk of my day job teaching at a large public university (and in particular teaching classes in which my students write candidly about their lives, then sit around in a seminar room talking about what they’ve written) is that I have a unique, on-the-front-lines view into the way older teenagers and young adults experience the world. And let me tell you: It is sometimes downright perplexing to an adult whose sense of how things work and are supposed to work was shaped by another generation’s customs, ideas, and understanding of pretty much everything.

But it’s also a privilege, and it’s immensely useful. It’s thanks to this experience that I was comfortable with the singular “they/them” long before others my age (which, by the way, is 65) and that I came relatively quickly to an understanding of gender identity and expression that was a universe away from how I thought about these matters before my students educated me. Thanks to them, I’ve learned about the many variations of sexual identity, too. (The first time one of my students casually announced that they were “asexual but not aromantic,” I was flummoxed; now I am able to nod sagely.) So I am here, speaking from the trenches, to tell you that multipartnered romantic relationships among young people only a year or two older than your daughter are ever more common. I know this is astonishing (frankly, I am still astonished, and I’ve been seeing this for the last five or six years), but even in Ohio, where I teach, young people will casually mention their (plural) “partners.” And if I’m hearing this from 18- and 19-year-olds, some of whom declare their relationships to be long-term ones, I’m not surprised that it’s happening among kids still in high school. The times they are a-changin’. And if you have a teenager who is (or was) trying out a polyamorous relationship, the time has come for you to gather some information. Try this article in Teen Vogue for starters and this polyamory primer. (You say you want to advise her, but you won’t be able to do that if you don’t know anything about what she’s up to—or why she might be up to it.)

None of this is to say that you’re out of line to be shocked or upset—or that your daughter, at not quite 17, is a committed polyamorist. It is to say that, although a relationship such as the one you describe (sort of) witnessing between her and her two boyfriends may be shocking to you, chances are pretty good it doesn’t seem that strange to her. I mention this because I get the sense that at least part of your concern is that she is (or was) navigating something that might be scary or confusing to her. And, of course, it might be. She might be the only kid in her entire friend group who is experimenting in this way. And she might be troubled by it. But you don’t mention seeing any signs of that. Does she seem anxious, unhappy, scared, or depressed?

If the answer is no, then what I’m going to suggest will probably sound scary to you. But if the channels of communication between the two of you have consistently been open, and she knows you to be a (genuinely) progressive and queer-friendly person, it would be wise to be direct with her. “Hey, I’ve noticed that only Jordan has been coming around lately, when it seemed like you were in a relationship with both Jordan and Jason. What happened?” If you can pull that off casually, it might lead to a real conversation. That is: If she doesn’t think it’s freaking you out, she might be willing to come out to you.

If, however, you have reason to believe that she is troubled—that this is a crisis for her—you’re going to have to take a different approach. Say something along the lines of: “I hope you know you can talk to me about anything. I have a feeling something’s worrying you/making you unhappy. Whatever it is, I’m here for you. There’s nothing you could tell me that would shock me, I promise. The only thing in the world that matters to me is your happiness and well-being.”

And work hard on meaning every word of that.

This is indeed Advanced Placement parenting. But it seems to me that every parent who is paying close attention will eventually get into AP Parenting in one subject or another. Good luck with this one—it’s a hard course, and you’ll need to study for it (but like nonmetaphorical AP classes, it gives you a leg up on the even harder courses to come).

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My daughter is 17, and has a public Instagram with about 5,000 followers, which is a little large, but she’s had it since she was 13 so it’s not like she’s famous—it’s just people she’s met over four years. Recently, she told us she’s gotten inquiries from several small brands asking if she could model clothing for them. They would pay her, and it’s basically just shirts and dresses, so I was OK with it, but my wife is freaked out. She modeled professionally for several years in her late teens/early 20s and was treated horribly in the industry—pressured to lose weight, withheld food during long photoshoots, and so on. She nearly developed an ED. Now she thinks that if we let our daughter promote these clothes, it’s basically inevitable that the same thing will happen to her. She’s trying to convince me to stage an “intervention” and make her shut down her account.

I think that’s crazy. First of all, it wouldn’t be a lingerie photoshoot like she used to do, it would be some mirror selfies in sunglasses and T-shirts. I’m also pretty certain the fashion/modeling industry has changed since the ’90s. Our daughter says she wants to save the money for college or in a savings account, and I think this is a great way for her to be able to earn money safely in quarantine. How can I talk to my wife about this? I’ve never seen her behave like this before—she’s completely irrational.

—Bad Model Memories

Dear BMM,

How can you talk to your wife about the traumatizing experiences she had in her late teens and early 20s? How about by supporting her and doing your best to understand her? Being compassionate and empathetic and kind and loving?

And what makes you so sure the fashion/modeling industry has changed? (Oh, you’re not sure? You’re only “pretty certain”—but that’s good enough for you?)

Whether the industry has changed enough to suit you isn’t really the point, though. Nor is exactly what it is your daughter would be modeling. Nor even whether or not this is a “great way” for your 17-year-old to earn money while in quarantine. (If you all were in danger of losing your home, or food-insecure, or otherwise in a deep crisis that your teenage daughter’s modeling might save you all from, I might be willing to consider this last item as a possible overriding factor—but you’ve given no indication of that.)

The point is that your wife knows more than you do about this, and that these invitations your daughter is getting are triggering her. So what’s more important: Your teenager’s “career” as an Instagram influencer, or your wife’s mental health?

Also: No one “just meets” 5,000 people in the four years between age 13 and age 17. I’m not sure why you are so invested in your daughter’s Instagram presence, or why you are simultaneously determined to underplay its truly public nature—or why you seem so excited about her being asked to shill for small fashion brands—but none of this seems to have anything to do with your kid’s health and happiness. And it seems downright antithetical to her mother’s.

By my lights, the reasonable compromise here would be to let the kid keep her Instagram account, which seems to be keeping her occupied during quarantine, and decline the offers to model. But only if your wife is on board with this compromise. My own instinct is that 5,000 followers is too many for someone who is not an actual public figure—that it isn’t healthy for your daughter to be performing her life in this way before a large crowd of strangers. But I guess this is where I may be out of step after all with Gen Z (maybe because my creative writing students, while open about all kinds of personal matters, are as a whole not that into Instagram celebrity?—i.e., my perspective may be limited).

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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m the parent of a 4-year-old daughter I’ll call Em. While both her father and I use social media, we no longer post photos of Em and have made a point not to since she was 2 years old, in order to protect her privacy and to give her a clean slate when she reaches an age where she can decide to use social media on her own. While this is a decision my husband and I made, it’s not something we’ve tried to impose on my mother or his parents. Until now. My husband and I are at the opposite end of the political spectrum from my mother and my in-laws. The differences in our viewpoints have caused contention in our relationships with them for some time, and this has been exacerbated by the things our parents share on social media, with posts ranging from controversial to downright hateful. Things have been heating up of late, and I am finding it jarring to see my sweet girl’s photo right above a post by my FIL defending the Confederate flag as a symbol of “heritage.” I feel the time has come to extend the moratorium on photos of Em to the whole family. I would never dream of censoring my parents, but I also know the internet is forever and I just don’t feel it’s fair to let my child be tied to posts that don’t represent her. Am I being ridiculous? And if not, how do I even broach the subject? I just want to protect my daughter’s future.

—No Pictures Please in Portsmouth

Dear NPPiP,

You are not being ridiculous. I would hate this too. And I’m impressed that you’re not wasting your breath arguing with Em’s grandparents about their hateful posts on their own social media—and even more impressed that you have been managing to compartmentalize in the way you have so that a warm, if challenging, relationship endures. Honestly, I think if you made the decision two years ago not to feature Em on social media, you would have been well within the cone of reasonableness to tell all the grandparents then to please quit posting pictures of her. But since you don’t put up any photos of her (which surely they have noticed, even if you’ve never spoken to them about it?), you have excellent cover. You don’t have to go to war with them. I would take the political context off the table for this conversation. Just tell them, firmly and in the nicest voice you can muster (do it on the phone, not in a text or an email!), that you have made the decision that you don’t want your daughter’s image online and that you know they will respect that decision. I have said this before, but it cannot be said often enough: This particular construction helps a lot when one is asking people to do something they don’t want to do. It helps them step up.

If they tell you you’re being ridiculous , and ask why on earth you’re making such a bizarre/unfair request, tell them the truth (I mean the old truth, the one that led you to stop posting Em’s pictures). They can argue with you all they want about it, and you can keep saying, “I understand how you feel, but this is very important to us. When she’s old enough to make the decision herself, she can post all the pictures she wants. In the meantime, we are asking everyone we know to please stop posting her photograph. We know you’ll respect our decision.” If they flat-out refuse—which I think is unlikely (more likely, they’ll go along with it grudgingly, and keep complaining about it forever after)—you have a bigger problem than you think. Then you’ll have to bring out the big guns, including threats of limiting their access to their granddaughter and/or ending your personal sharing of photographs of her with them. But let’s assume that a straightforward request of this sort will be honored, given the relationship you’ve managed so far, in which you know you are not going to change their minds (and hearts) and you’ve all found a way to peacefully coexist. Save the weaponry for when you have absolutely no choice but to deploy it.

— Michelle

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I am a 26-year-old woman living in a quaint tech town. I have been a social worker since graduation, most recently with hospice patients, and the experience made me feel I was headed for a nervous breakdown. I saw terrible things with the families and the job filled me with deep sadness. I’m working on changing careers but struggling to find a field that interests me. I’m happiest in my quiet home, cleaning and making beautiful meals for my partner. I walk my dog, go to the gym, volunteer cleaning up a local forest and do things that promote tranquility. He makes enough at a tech firm to support the both of us, but I am paying my share of bills with my meager savings. We have no children and don’t see any on the horizon. He was supportive of my quitting, assuming I would quickly find another job. But social work now terrifies me, and I don’t know want to do for a career, if anything. Is it wrong to ask my partner to support my quiet at-home life for the sake of my mental health?