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Anthony E. Wolf on parenting

My 13-year-old pierced her belly button. How can I trust her again? Add to ...

Dear Dr. Wolf,

My 13-year-old has been pestering me for permission to get her belly button pierced for the past year. My answer has always been no, she is too young.

Last night she revealed that she had gone ahead and done it without my permission. I had said no, and she went and did it anyway. There were good reasons why I said no.

Now it's a trust issue. She has to trust me, and I have to be able to trust her. (And if I had known she would do it anyway, I would have helped her research to make sure she was getting it done in a safe place.)

If she feels she can get away with this one, what next? I am stumped. This is a first-time thing for me.

Distressed Mum

Dear Distressed Mum,

First, let me address the two big issues: trust and control.

You say that there has to be mutual trust between you and your daughter. Welcome to adolescence. I agree that it is excellent when there's complete trust between parent and teenage child. But do not count on it.

Part of being the parent is understanding that you can trust your teen about some things, but not everything. Parents chronically underestimate the degree to which their teenage children engage in activities that you do not want them to. Too much focus on trust can miss the point that parenting a teenager often does mean making decisions based on not knowing for certain what your child is doing. (It would be easier if you could always trust them, but nobody said parenting a teenager was easy.)

About control: One instance of disobedience does not mean that the floodgates will now open. That's not the way it works. If you continue to make rules for your daughter, and if you have a good relationship with her - she knows that you love her, that you have her best interest at heart, that your rules exist to protect her - your rules will continue to have real power. Despite this instance of flat-out disobedience, she will obey - most of the time, usually, sort of, not exactly, somewhat differently than was your intent. That is, she will obey in the manner that most more or less good teenagers obey their loving and well-meaning parents: They obey, but imperfectly.

Many parents, when confronted with flat-out disobedience, feel they must do something to teach their child a lesson - administer a good strong dose of punishment. I believe that's a mistake. The idea, with punishment, is that your child will really learn that she'd better not disobey again. But since your child will disobey again - because that's what teenagers do - you get into a cycle of escalating punishments and escalating ill will between the two of you. What you don't necessarily get is better behaviour.

There's also a problem with getting in too much of a fight to undo the belly button piercing now that it has happened.

For one, it's her body. It gets tricky when you want to exert control over something about which a teen has strong feelings - namely, the control of her own body.

Second, she probably knows many teens - maybe not as young as her - who have all sorts of piercings, and the great majority of them don't seem to have a problem with it. It is dangerous, but not very dangerous. If you choose to get into a major battle with your teenager, you want to make sure that it is about something truly important, such as drug use, or driving in a car whose driver has been drinking. You have to decide whether, after the fact, belly button piercing is important enough for a major battle.

What do I suggest?

Tell her that you are very unhappy that she got her belly button pierced. Repeat your original reasons why you did not want her to do it. Say to her that you can't control everything that she does, but that you make rules for good reasons, and that you expect her to obey your rules.

If you feel you must bring in some kind of negative consequence, fine - but do not rely on it as your source of control. It doesn't work that way.

As you are learning, you cannot control everything with your daughter. But that does not mean that you still do not have control. You do - just not to the extent that you would like.

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