On the outside, my daughter is nothing like me. Her complexion is tan, her eyes are so dark they’re nearly black, and she has hair and brows so incredible they’re Instagram famous. True story. On the inside, though, I see more of myself in her every day. Not the reckless teenager I was at her age, but the woman I am today. She’s a pain in the ass, and strong-willed to a fault. She has a dry wit and she’s very cautious, only allowing a select few inside of the walls that guard her emotions. She’s one tough cookie. But recently she met a new boy at school who managed to raise every fine hair on the back of my neck; a boy who brought out in her a darkness I’d known in myself. He was a boy whose intentions I recognized from my past.
At first it seemed as if he would be the one who would finally claim her young heart. He was a handsome mixture of African-American and French heritage, incredibly smart, admittedly sensitive, and the son of a retired NFL player who showed the promise of following in his father’s footsteps. And this kid, who sucked-up to me big-time, was head-over-heels crazy about my daughter. But after only a week of stolen moments at school and ridiculously long FaceTime calls, she began to change.
One evening, I came downstairs from my office to find her huddled in the corner of the sofa in tears, a vulnerability she hardly ever shows. When I asked her what was wrong, she said, “I feel like all I do is say ‘I’m sorry’ for things I don’t even think are my fault.”
Anxiety mushroomed in my chest as I remembered that same feeling. “They’re not your fault.”
She reminded me how irritated he’d been the night she didn’t reply to a text right away because she was driving. Other than how absurd he’d behaved, I didn’t think much of it at the time, but as she continued to talk, the reason for his impatience became clearer. She then said how he’d refused to talk to her for hours after she didn’t post a photograph of the two of them together on her Instagram account as he’d instructed. He’d also told her if she truly had feelings for him, she would be more supportive when he had a bad day. And he’d had a lot of bad days, apparently.
With each manipulative scenario she shared with me, red flags exploded through my brain like fireworks on the Fourth of July. “This is how it starts,” I said, but what I found unfathomable was how soon the breakdown began. They weren’t even officially dating, and he had already shown the tell-tale signs of a potential abuser.
I freaked out as memories from a life long ago filled the space around me. Had I passed a trait on to her that left her unprotected? Was she attracted to being controlled as I had been? Was it somehow my fault she’d entered into a dysfunctional relationship?
I shook my head, vehemently telling her to walk away from him, that nothing good and everything bad would come from dating him. “You have to trust me on this.” She swore she did trust me, but she felt the need to confront him, to tell him how bad he’d made her feel. For hours, she listened to him promise he would change. He swore he would never hurt her and begged for another chance to make things right between them. And before the night was through, he’d worn her down and she gave in to his pleas.
It was a move that left this mama on high alert.
My heart understood her desire to give him one more try, but my brain and past experience warned her that she would be watched closely, that I wouldn’t hesitate to step in and end it myself if I deemed it necessary. I enlisted her brother and her best friend, asking them to watch her behavior; listen to what she said, but more importantly, what she may not have said. Her bestie, who already had a gut feeling the guy was no good, was more than happy to take on the task of watch-dog. And her very sensitive, even-tempered younger brother wanted to kick the dude’s ass.
Every day for the next week, I observed my daughter’s moods and asked how things were, if he was following through with his promises to be a better person. She said he was and that things were okay, but when I asked again, she confessed that she was afraid of him. She felt like he tried to separate her from her friends, because according to him, she listened too much to them. She said he constantly touched her and hugged her, refusing to back off when she’d said it made her uncomfortable, and he wanted to switch phones during class to prove he wasn’t talking to anyone but her. But we both knew what he really wanted was to see who she was talking to and what was said about him. At the very least, the boy had major control issues.
My hackles immediately raised and I was ready to defend my young to the death. I was determined to do my damnedest to keep her from traveling the same painful path I had, but I didn’t have the chance to. To my surprise, she did something I wasn’t capable of doing at her age. She told him she didn’t like the way she felt when she was with him, shut down his pleas, and blocked his number. I’d never been so proud of her.
As we walked our little demon-dog that same afternoon, I told her how impressed I was with how she’d handled the entire situation from start to finish. She’d realized there was a problem, and she talked about it instead of hiding it. When she felt threatened, she took charge of her well-being and removed herself from the situation. I didn’t know many sixteen year old girls who were capable of analyzing an unhealthy situation as she had. I certainly wasn’t able to. But then she caught me off-guard again, saying I was the reason she knew something was wrong so early in the relationship.
“I don’t always ignore you,” she said.
And with those sarcasm-laden words, I did something that is super hard for me to do—I cried.