Dad Concerned About Preteen Girl’s Interest in Boys

Is twelve years old too young for a girl to be expressing a keen interest in boys? My husband and I have a difference of opinion on this point. Our daughter and her best friend like to talk about "cute" boys and often tease each other about who has a crush on whom. To me this seems like normal preteen behavior. My husband, on the other hand, feels that she is too young and that such activity will lead to worse behavior when she is older. I respect my husband very much and want to maintain solidarity with him. At the same time, I can't help wondering whether he's being too strict. What do you think?

In all honesty, we don’t think “strictness” is the issue here. As you probably know, father-daughter relationships can be tricky at the best of times, and the level of complexity only goes up with the onset of puberty, growing interest in the opposite sex, and questions about dating. There may be any number of reasons for your husband’s reaction to your daughter’s behavior. Without knowing more about him we can’t possibly tell you exactly what he’s thinking, but we’ll suggest a couple of possibilities on the assumption that you’re in a better position than we are to figure out which of them best fits the situation in your household.

Let’s begin by giving credit where credit is due. Your husband is absolutely right to point out that twelve years old is too young to be thinking about dating and serious boy-girl relationships. Perhaps he recognizes your daughter’s lack of readiness to move forward in that area and is simply stepping up to the plate and exercising his prerogative as head of the household and protector of his child’s best interests. It’s true that, at face value, your daughter’s behavior seems normal for a preteen, but it’s always possible that Dad is seeing some red flags that no one else has noticed. We think he deserves to be commended on taking his role so seriously, especially since so many contemporary fathers are emotionally absent and uninvolved in their children’s lives. His chivalrous and fatherly impulse to stand between his little girl and the negative outside influences of our overly sexualized culture is worthy of your respect. You’re wise to maintain solidarity with him in this regard.

On the other hand, your husband could be reacting out of fear. That’s not necessarily bad, of course. To the extent that his worry is an expression of love for his daughter, it’s completely natural and understandable. But if he’s primarily afraid for himself – afraid that his daughter is changing and growing up, that the joys of her childhood are slipping from his grasp, and that a cherished chapter of his own life is coming to an end – then he needs to recognize his anxiety for what it is and move beyond it. As you probably know, people rarely make wise decisions when they’re motivated by fear.

The question your husband needs to be asking at this point is not, “Is my daughter old enough to be interested in boys?” but rather, “How can I be a loving, caring, and effective father at this crucial stage in my daughter’s journey?” There are several things he can do to fulfill this objective.

He can begin by realizing that his primary job as a dad is to validate his daughter. At this stage of the game that means encouraging her to embrace and affirm the sexual aspects of her adolescent development. If he tries to squelch her feelings, silence her “boy talk,” or quarantine her from the outside world, he’ll only succeed in devaluing her as a woman. That will almost certainly “lead to worse behavior when she’s older.”

Instead of denying or attempting to cover up these first signs of your daughter’s impending transition into womanhood, your husband should help her understand that the feelings she’s experiencing are normal. This process of “normalization” will reduce everyone’s level of stress. You have an important role to play here as well, of course, but there’s a sense in which his input as a man is going to be invaluable to your daughter as she matures and begins to navigate the maze of male-female relationships. This is his chance to share his perspective on respectable behavior between the sexes and to explain the parameters of healthy relationships. This is the time when he can say, “Don’t be afraid. Every girl experiences these attractions and emotions at your age. You can always count on me to protect and guide you if you want my help. So don’t hesitate to ask if you have any questions.”

Meanwhile, though twelve years old is too early to begin talking about dating, that doesn’t mean that you and your husband can’t start laying the groundwork for that discussion and planting some healthy seeds for the years ahead. You can do this by talking openly with your daughter about her feelings. Ask her to tell you a little bit about the boys who have caught her attention. Let her know that you understand what it’s like to have a “crush” on someone. Help her define words such as “cute,” “love,” “dating,” “going with,” “going steady,” and some of the other terms she and her friend have been throwing around so freely. Lay everything out on the table and discuss it frankly and openly, just as you’d discuss grades or schoolwork. You’d be surprised what a difference it can make to “demystify” this entire subject and bring all these things out of the darkness and into the light.

Call our staff of trained family therapists for a free phone consultation if you’d like to discuss your situation further.


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