My 14-year-old daughter reads voraciously and has had problems once or twice in the past with reading inappropriate sexual books without telling me. Eventually, I found out and talked to her about it, although she wasn’t very open. We came up with the rule that I would read any young adult books she checked out first to make sure they were okay, since it seems many books in that category have sexual and other inappropriate stuff.
Recently, she checked out a bunch of books she had found recommended online (which were young adult) and I’m pretty sure she read them all the way through before I did, but then told me they weren’t appropriate “because of swearing” and that she’d stopped reading them. When I skimmed thru them, there was NOT just swearing, there was also disturbing sexual stuff like rape, attempted rape, groping, casual sex, drinking, eating disorders, suicide, etc. I feel sick just having skimmed thru them!
I have talked with her multiple times about being able to talk to me about anything, but she remains fairly private and closed except in rare instances. I find it especially frightening that it seems she is hiding this. How do I respond so she will not be shamed and will trust me while at the same time help keep her safe? Do I tell her she’s earned a consequence for checking out those books and even starting to read them before I did? Do I tell her I know what was in those books and talk to her about it? Do I ignore it and continue to remind her she can talk to me?
This battle of the books has reached a stalemate and the biggest casualty is going to be the loss of your relationship with your daughter. I recommend you slow things down and approach things in a different way.
First, there is nothing wrong with you having concerns about the content of the books. Parents have the right to protect their children from material that isn’t age-appropriate and contradicts the values they’re trying to instill in their children. We do this all the time with movies, television, and the Internet. Books are no exception.
Second, what if it’s less about the books and more about an adolescent testing boundaries? This is nothing abnormal or to be feared, just something to consider and take care that the boundaries are reasonable and not needlessly exasperating – at least in your first responses to her on the subject.
Your daughter clearly finds these books engaging and interesting. They may do something for her and it’s your job as her mother to help her make sense of the experience she’s having while at the same time working to enforce standards to protect her and your other children. That she told you there was swearing in the books may simply be that she was uncomfortable talking with you about the more serious and disturbing subjects covered in the books.
Sit down with her and acknowledge that you’ve read over them. Let her know that you see how much she wants to read these books and that you want to understand more about what draws her to them. This isn’t an interrogation. It’s a way to understand the emotional world of your daughter.
It may be that she is seeking out things that are sexually explicit, or things that are taboo in your home, because she is not getting answers with candor from a safe resource. Consider that she may be embarrassed to talk about these things with you; often teenagers see their parents as beings from another planet who can’t possibly understand the world around them.
Your daughter may be observing friends who seem to be maturing faster than she is, she may see her “first kiss” on the horizon and be anxious about it, she may have friends that are weight conscious finding their own remedy in bulimia. The point is, these can be very real concerns to a 14-year-old girl and it presents you with a prime opportunity to open the door to some real nuts-and-bolts conversations that can help her navigate “teenagerdom.”
If you can demystify the subjects rather than just place them off limits, the secret discoveries she is coming across in the pages of a book will lose their power.
If it is a matter of your daughter testing limits, you could most certainly punish her for hiding the books from you, but I think it’s a better use of your parental authority in this case to look beyond the hiding to see why these books are so important to her that she was willing to break an agreement. You’re still addressing the breaking of the agreement and sending a message that you’re not okay with it. You’re just going beyond the punishment to get to the bottom of this issue. Finding out what is really going on with her would be more difficult if you simply punished her and ended the discussion.
You can normalize the fact that these themes bring up powerful emotions and physical reactions that may be new for her. She’s not doing anything wrong by feeling these emotions. Just let her know that you’re concerned that you’re not able to help her make sense of these things when you don’t know what she’s thinking or wondering or maybe even going through.
Also, her curiosity and attraction to these themes doesn’t mean there is something wrong with her. It just means she’s having a reaction and needs help to make sense of out it. I wonder if she’s hiding these from you because she believes you’ll think less of her if you know she enjoys reading them. Then again, she may not have been seeking out these themes at all – but she came across them.
Instead of just shutting her down with her book list, use it as a chance to connect with her about what she’s worried you’ll think of her if you see her reading these books and, more importantly, if you see she has questions about these topics. You can still impart your values to her as you discuss what she’s going through, but I would start with listening. Make the environment safe for her to talk about what draws her to these kinds of books, is it the content or is it more about crossing the limits you have set?
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, Utah. He specializes in working with couples in all stages of their relationships. The opinions stated in this article are solely his and not those of St. George News.
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