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When my son, Gabe, was in college, he invited his girlfriend (I’ll call her Tiffany) to our home in Vermont for Thanksgiving. Let’s just say it was stressful. For five days, Tiffany clung to Gabe, but she never piped up during family conversations or pitched in with housework. Instead, she seemed closed off, obsessively checking her social media feeds. I kept asking myself, Why is Gabe with her? I just didn’t see how someone like that could possibly be good for my son.
On the day of our holiday dinner, Gabe was in the kitchen tending the turkey, my husband was vacuuming and I was setting the table for a dozen guests. Where was Tiffany? On the couch, FaceTiming a friend. My worry and irritation got the better of me, and I stomped into the kitchen to confront Gabe: “Do you think she could help out?” He shot right back: “I don’t want to hear it!”
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Years later, I still regret my outburst. Everyone knows it’s bad form to criticize your child’s boyfriend or girlfriend. Scientific studies of the phenomenon are scarce, but anecdotal evidence suggests it’s quite common for a child to bring home a sweetheart who rubs parents the wrong way. One survey by a British newspaper found that 1 in 3 parents of teens had disapproved of someone their child was dating.
Sometimes a parent’s irritation can be a red flag for serious problems, including abuse. So there are times when it’s right to speak up. But how do you know when to say something and what to say? For insight, I interviewed experts in family dynamics. Here is their advice.
Figure out exactly what bothers you about the person, counsels psychotherapist Judith R. Smith, author of Difficult: Mothering Challenging Adult Children Through Conflict and Change. “Crystallize your concern in advance,” she says. Maybe you worry, as I did with Tiffany, that the person is taking advantage of your child’s good nature.