ask dr-robert

ask dr-robert ask psychologist todos santos ask psychologist dr robert saltzman


I have a 12 1/2 year old daughter. A year ago I remarried and we moved from NC to IN. My daughter has a very outgoing personality and seems to have adapted well to her new environment. I left her father for various reasons one of which was alcoholism. He's in AA now and doing great but my daughter doesn't get to see him very often. Now that was all just a little background. I'm concerned about my daughter because she seems to think she "has" to have a boyfriend. Every time she meets a new guy she thinks is cute she starts working on how to make him her boyfriend. This usually pushes the guys away and then she ends up losing their friendship. I think she is an extrovert and sometimes comes across too strongly, even to her female friends. She says things without thinking of the possibility of hurting someone's feelings because I don't think she sees what she's saying as hurtful. I know this is a tough age and I want to help her but I'm her mom and I seem to fail so often. We have a great relationship but I don't know how to make her understand that she needs to take it really slow with boys and be more considerate of others' feelings. Her self esteem seems to be fine, I just don't know how to help her, or if she might have a co-dependent personality. I hate seeing her get hurt over and over because of her "need" to have a boyfriend in her life.

Thanks for any help you can offer and for your great website which I just discovered today!

Trish Benson

Dear Trish--

First, thanks for your kind words about this website. I have been receiving letters and comments from all over the world, so apparently there is a need everywhere for an honest, well-informed "ask the psychologist" page, and I am pleased to be of service.

Repeat visitors to my site will know that I do not mince words; in other words, complete honesty is the policy here. I do endeavor not to offend unnecessarily, but since this site dispenses nothing but information, I feel obligated to make sure that whatever information I offer is frank, honest, complete, and accurate. That said, the first thing that jumps out at me from your letter is the profusion of pop-psych terminology such as "extrovert", "self-esteem", and, worst of all "co-dependent." Your using this jargon tells me that you have been psychoanalyzing your daughter--in my view a no-no for any family member--and doing an amateurish job of it besides.

Let me explain. In psychological parlance an "extrovert" is simply someone whose center of attention is more directed outwardly towards other people and worldly matters, while an "introvert" is someone who tends to spend more time and energy looking inward. One is not better than another. Indeed, any one of us will fall somewhere on a spectrum with pure introversion at one end and pure extraversion on the other. And a person at any point on that spectrum will have strengths and weaknesses pertaining to where one's habitual focus of attention falls.

The extrovert, for example, will enjoy a cocktail party, and might spend the evening getting to know strangers, and speaking with everyone at least for a while. His or her conversation at this gathering will probably consist of "cocktail party chatter", usually of no real importance or deep meaning. The introvert at the same party might feel relieved to find a friend with who he or she can speak for a long time, perhaps about matters which seem personal and important, and might end up having spoken to only a few people at the gathering, but perhaps more deeply than any of the extrovert's conversations. But none of this has much to do with coming on too strong or seeming too desperate to form friendships. In fact, an introverted sort of person is just as likely to be clumsy in trying to make friends as an extroverted sort. In other words, judging from your description, I have imagined a picture of your daughter as someone who is a bit too desperate to have friends, and I have no idea, nor does it matter, whether her real attention is focused inwardly--on her feelings, that is--or outwardly on the feelings of others.

I make a point of this, Trish, because calling your daughter "extrovert" does nothing to help understand her situation, while seeing the apparent desperation does. There is a lesson in this for all of us--even us psychologists: See clearly, listen deeply, and empathize with what is in front of you. Naming, particularly if one uses the terminology carelessly or incorrectly, just gets in the way of clear seeing, deep listening, and empathic attunement.

"Codependency" is another term which is misunderstood and misused almost always by people untrained in psychology, and even many psychologists abuse this terminology habitually. Now, the original concept of codependency referred to the attitudes, responses and behaviors which develop from living with an alcoholic or substance abuser. However, over the years, the meaning of "codependency" has broadened into a definition which describes a dysfunctional pattern of living and problem solving developed during childhood by having to adjust to maladaptive family rules, either spoken or implicit, such as:

And psychologists have noticed that having grown up in such a family, one may display a greater tendency to get involved in relationships with people who are perhaps unreliable, emotionally unavailable, or needy. Then, having gotten so involved, one may try to control various aspects of the situation so as to "fix" or take care of the unreliable, emotionally unavailable, or needy person. Meanwhile, the real needs of the so-called "codependent" person go largely unnoticed or at least unaddressed.

But the definition of codependency has now broadened to such a degree that its original meaning--a child forced into a kind of caretaker role that persists into adulthood--has become obscured, and even what I see as healthy, or at least normal, interdependency often is now demonized as "codependency." In other words, the codependency idea has become bastardized, and with each new self-help book (usually published only for profit, not really to help at all) the symptoms of codependency mount. It is literally impossible for anyone to finish one of these books and not consider the possibility that he or she is a codependent. What began as a term to help spouses of addicts not inadvertently enable the alcoholic to keep on drinking, has now become a word which makes normal caring seem pathological, and which encourages guilt and self-blame. Not only is all caring manifested by the spouse of an alcoholic deemed pathological, but the very act of compromising one's needs to aid a loved one is now deemed symptomatic of a progressive disease processes, a so-called "relationship addiction."

In fact, the term "codependent" is so often abused that I discourage its use altogether. I would prefer that instead of hanging a name on a complex set of attitudes and behaviors, one would try to see the behaviors for themselves as habits which originally developed from an attempt to survive in a dysfunctional family marked by such stressors as chemical dependency; chronic illness, either mental or physical; physical, sexual, or emotional abuse; chronic marital distress and/or divorce; hypercritical or non-loving environment. In other words, calling attention to the habits themselves--the maladaptive ways of coping, that is--may be useful, but calling someone "codependent" is, in my view, not at all useful, and may do real harm by imputing "illness" to someone who is not ill, thereby missing the real problem: the continuation of old habits of emotional survival which in the present do more harm than good.

Now you say that your daughter's "self esteem" is fine, but, judging from your description of her behavior, I cannot believe it. In psychology, the term "self-esteem" refers to an individual's sense of his or her intrinsic worth--the extent, that is, to which a person values, approves of, appreciates, prizes, or likes him or herself. Your daughter's apparent desperate need to form friendships suggests that her self-esteem, despite your view of it, is not in particularly good shape, and this is not surprising. Almost always, the children of divorce, particularly children around puberty, feel a deep sadness and a sense of irrevocable loss. And as teenagers and adults, almost without exception, children of divorce have at least some trouble with their own relationships and experience more or less severe problems with self-esteem.

You lost a husband who, to you, was an unsatisfactory mate "for various reasons" as you put it, but your daughter lost her father whom she had loved and idolized since birth. You have a new and presumably better mate, but your daughter does not have a new, better father. You have gained, she has lost. I say this not to cast blame on you, for I assume that you did what you needed to do in your own adult life, but to remind you that your daughter's behavior, no matter how well-adapted and outgoing it might seem, probably masks a deep mourning for the loss of her birth family. Indeed, in my clinical experience, this is almost always the case, even if the lost parent has been abusive or otherwise unsatisfactory, and this is particularly true--and particularly painful--around puberty, especially in regard to an opposite-sex parent.

Although you did not offer any details about your new husband or about your daughter's relationship with him, nor about her relationship with her father, I am going to suggest here that your daughter's desperation to have a boyfriend probably has its deepest roots in the loss of her father, and in the low regard in which you hold him. In other words, she wants an idealizable male figure whom she can love and by whom she can be loved. Very possibly she cannot use your new husband as this figure, no matter how nice a guy he may be, and no matter how much he tries to reach out to her (if he does), because she would feel that transferring her affections to him would be a betrayal of her father. Thus, she is forced to look elsewhere for male attention, and now that she is becoming sexually mature, it would be normal anyway to begin to transfer affections outwardly away from the family. But the loss of her father just hastens and makes more urgent this process--in this case to the point of apparent desperation. No wonder the boys feel overwhelmed!

There is no "cure" for this situation, but if possible your daughter should be able to spend time with her father--as much as can be managed--and you and your new husband should be very careful--extremely careful--not to say anything negative or disparaging about him. This is vital. Despite his problems with alcohol, and whatever other failures you see in him, your daughter must be allowed to respect and love him. If you already have disparaged your ex, and either by words or actions made your daughter feel that her father is not a worthwhile human being, now is the time to correct that error by having a conversation with her in which you explain that you spoke or acted hastily and wrongly, and ask that she forgive you for disrespecting her father whom you know is important to her.

I hope this will help.

Be well.

Tell a friend about this page!
Their Name:
Their Email:
Your Name:
Your Email:

return to ask dr-robert archives

page last modified March 28, 2006

copyright robert saltzman 2006 all rights reserved