He's twice her age!

Few parents are prepared for their teenage child to enter a romantic relationship with a much older man

Globe and Mail Update

Most parents have developed a game plan for disciplining a 13-year-old daughter who takes up smoking, gets her belly button pierced or starts a fight at school. But few moms and dads are in any way prepared for their teenage child to enter a romantic relationship with a much older man.

A trial in Medicine Hat, Alta., heard this week that a 13-year-old girl accused in the murder of her parents and younger brother had been seeing a 23-year-old man last year, when she was 12. Her parents had attempted to end the relationship, an effort prosecutors in the case have suggested led to their deaths.

While no parent could anticipate the violent reaction allegedly triggered in that case, ending an inappropriate relationship between a teenager and her adult suitor can be fraught for any family.

It can even drive some parents to extreme actions of their own.

Earlier this month, a Toronto man was charged with attempted murder after allegedly running over his 16-year-old daughter and her 18-year-old boyfriend, an act friends and family say was sparked by his disapproval of the relationship.

In January, 50-year-old Kim Joseph Walker of Yorkton, Sask., was sentenced to 10 years in jail after killing his 16-year-old daughter's 24-year-old boyfriend, a man he blamed for the teenager's drug addiction.

But Controlling a child's romantic choices is difficult, especially when it involves an inherently dysfunctional match.

"It's a tough situation," said Joan Bever, executive director of Calgary's Parent Support Association. "It's horrible because the more you restrict them the more they want to flee and push the limits."

Ms. Bever said parents who have approached her group for counselling and advice have often employed an "absolutely not" tactic, forbidding their child from continuing the relationship.

But that usually backfires, she said, and can actually encourage young girls to go against their parents' wishes.

"A lot of times what parents say is, 'We can't control what you do out of the house, but we can control what you do here and he's not allowed in the home,' " she said.

Instead, Ms. Bever said parents should sit down and talk to both their child and her boyfriend in an effort to better understand the relationship and decide whether or not it is inappropriate.

"Maybe if the person's four years older, it doesn't mean they have the worst intentions," she said. "But what kind of relationship does a male 27-year-old want with a 13-year-old?"

Vancouver-based parenting speaker Kathy Lynn, author of Who's in Charge Anyway?, agrees that concerned families must get over their fear and revulsion, and address the relationship directly.

"The first reaction from a parent is why is somebody that old interested in my child?" Ms. Lynn said. "I mean, she's not a woman, she's barely a teenager."

She suggests that parents invite the man to their home for dinner, because seeing him interacting with adults can often illustrate the mismatch to a teenage girl.

And while having dinner with your teenager's twentysomething boyfriend probably ranks somewhere between self-flagellation and electric shock therapy on most parents' list of things they'd like to do, it may help to know that you don't necessarily have to be nice.

Ms. Lynn suggests using the dinner to ask the man about his life, his interests and his goals. She says it is completely acceptable for a parent to take the man aside and lay down the law. "Say 'Look, you're a nice guy and my daughter's a nice girl and if you want to come back in 10 years when she's an adult, fine, but she's a little girl and this is really inappropriate and could quickly become illegal.' "

The threat of legal intervention is not an empty one. The age of consent in Canada is 14, and police involvement is an option, Ms. Lynn said.

But parents who worry about their child's romantic entanglements should first consider therapy, either for the teen or the entire family.

"It's not true with every child," she said. "But, typically, if a child is behaving that way, there's something else going on."