At 14, my daughter Lisa had two passions: ballet and theatre. So I wasn’t surprised when she started talking about this great guy she’d met while rehearsing for a play with our local community theatre group. I was a bit taken aback, though, to discover that he was 18 years old.
It’s not just the age gap. If she’d been 24 and he’d been 28, it wouldn’t have been such a big deal. Lisa pointed out that her grandparents were nine years apart in age — and it worked out well for them. But the difference in maturity between a 14-year-old and an 18-year-old is much more significant than between two people in their 20s.
Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a developmental psychologist and associate professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, points out several possible concerns:
• Sex is the big worry for many parents, and it’s certainly a realistic one. An 18-year-old is likely to be more ready for a sexual relationship than a 14-year-old. “Many 14-year-olds look very mature physically, especially the girls, but they’re still just 14 emotionally,” Schonert-Reichl says. If the older teen can drive, that gives the couple more opportunities for privacy and sexual activities.
• Drinking is another concern — again with good reason. In some provinces, 18-year-olds can legally drink; in others, although they’re technically not old enough, accessing alcohol may be fairly easy for a teen just under the legal age. Generally, the older the teen, the more likely he or she has tried alcohol, Schonert-Reichl says. The younger person in the relationship may feel a lot of pressure to start drinking to keep up.
• Uneven power dynamics put the younger person at a disadvantage. “When there is a big age gap, it sets up the position of the older one being more powerful, more dominant over the other,” Schonert-Reichl says.
In my situation with Lisa, I felt uncomfortable and wasn’t sure how to handle it, knowing that forbidding her to ever see him again was likely to make him seem even more attractive. What should parents do when their child gets involved with someone considerably older?
“Telling your child he or she can’t ever see this person again is not likely to work,” says Schonert-Reichl. “But you can take the opportunity to have a discussion about relationships and what makes a relationship work.” Don’t turn it into an interrogation, she cautions, but try to find out what’s going on.
There’s also the possibility that the younger teen may miss out on some important aspects of development by being involved in this relationship. “During the early teen years, young people are learning how to handle romantic relationships,” Schonert-Reichl explains. “It’s how they prepare for more serious relationships and ultimately for marriage or long-term commitments.” In a relationship with an older person, there’s less opportunity for the “learning to relate to others” aspects that are vital in early boy-girl relationships because, presumably, one party has already been through all that.
However, even with these potential concerns, Schonert-Reichl says there are always exceptions. “There are some 14-year-olds who are very mature and some 18-year-olds who aren’t, and if that’s the case with a couple, they may be a good match and psychologically in sync,” she says.
To minimize the risks, consider:
• encouraging your teen to be involved in activities with her peers — sports, school teams or clubs, and other events that keep her busy and involved with kids her own age
• ensuring your child knows he can call you if needed (a cellphone may be a good idea) and that you will come and pick him up at any time
• sticking to age-appropriate curfews (if you have them) and setting limits where you feel they are needed. You may feel, for example, that you are comfortable with your child and her friend visiting at your home, but not going for a drive in his car.
The best way to help ensure your child gets through this relationship in a healthy way, Schonert-Reichl advises, is to keep the lines of communication open. “You can even tell your child that you read an article, and the article said sometimes teens who are seeing older teens feel a lot of pressure to be drinking or having sex,” she suggests. “Ask what they think about that. Ask if your child feels he or she has power in the relationship — that saying no to something is OK, for example.”
As for my daughter Lisa, we found that giving her a curfew that was appropriate for a 14-year-old — but that seemed annoyingly early to the older boy — helped the relationship fade away.