This week's email brought a complicated family problem:
From: A Worried Single Mom
My 15-year-old daughter has been very rude -- not just to me but other people. She is noncommunicative, surly and barely audible when she grunts two or three words.
Concerned that she was having trouble with someone in school, I confiscated her phone and forced her to show me her text messages. I was shocked and dumbfounded to discover that my daughter is cussing like a sailor (F-word, etc.). She claimed that everyone cusses at each other these days, that this is how kids talk to each other. I explained in no uncertain terms that I was very disappointed in her and that it is not acceptable for her to be using profanity.
She begged me not to tell her dad about her cussing because she was afraid he would yell at her. I told her that if I saw her attitude improve and I could see she was making an effort to turn herself around, I wouldn't tell her father.
Well, today that all changed. She is back to being noncommunicative, sassing me, copping an attitude and being disrespectful. So I took her phone away today, and plan to turn it off. And here's my question to you:
Should I tell her dad about the profanity? He and I barely talk as it is, but I am concerned that our daughter is becoming depressed and heading down a path where she shouldn't be going.
I told her that she would not be getting her phone back until she has seen a counselor. Something is not right with her, and I want to nip it in the bud. I told her again if she could prove to me that she wasn't cussing on her phone, I would not tell her father. She refused to give me her password and said, "Go ahead and tell him. I don't care anymore."
For her "not to care anymore" is sending up a red flag. Now I'm really worried.
You're right to be worried. Your daughter is sending up some common red flags -- dramatic changes in mood and behavior, becoming withdrawn, and acting indifferently all could be signals of a larger problem.
But here's another red flag: You're withholding information from her father about his daughter's behavior and well-being. Not OK. Threatening to tell her dad as a manipulative tool to control your daughter's behavior does no one any good. Dad is left out of the loop, and your daughter is led to believe that her father's love is conditional, based on her good behavior.
No kid is good all the time, and daughters need to learn that their dads love them even when they mess up. You have a great teachable moment to demonstrate that crucial life lesson. Assuming her father has a legal right to have input in the life of his minor child, you are doing her a huge disservice -- even potentially hurting her -- by excluding her father from his role in this situation.
We sometimes must choose our battles. Usually, I admonish parents to choose more of them, lest they lose the war entirely. But in your case, I think you're taking a stand on something (language) that is only clouding the bigger issue.
Rather than make a huge deal out of her cussing, a better tack would be to say, "I'm sure you know I don't approve of your language, but more importantly, the fact that you're behavior is out of character tells me there's something else going on. Even if you think I'll get upset, I need you to talk to me about it because I can't help you if I don't know what it is."
Then prepare yourself for whatever she tells you and by all means, don't freak out. Rather, be the force for calm. Be the one who shows her that she is loved no matter what, and that any mistakes she makes can be overcome.
Cussing is unpleasant, but shutting down the channels of communication can be tragic. Keep those communication lines open (or, as she might say, those effing communication lines), and connect her to the help she needs if it's more than you can handle on your own.
And by all means, call her father. Your broken relationship is your own issue. You keeping him out of her problems is an issue for everyone.
• Have a question about parenting in today's culture? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.