Caught in a Lie: How Can You Set Boundaries with a College-bound 18-year-old?


My sister Marie came to live with us when she was 9 years old and I was 23.  My parents had just ended their marriage and Marie was in limbo.  I wanted to “fix” it for her, give her a stable home while my parents had time to heal.  Six months after coming to live with us, she spent a summer with our mother on the West Coast and was miserable the entire time.  Prior to that she had tried weekends with our father but every Sunday night when I picked her up she was happy to come back home with me.  It just wasn’t working for her with either parent.  She needed a stable environment and neither my mother nor father could provide one.  So, at 23 years old, I decided to get custody of my little sister.

Over the years I’ve had to step out of the role of big sister and become a mother.  It was easier when she was younger, but now that she is a teenager and has recently turned 18, it isn’t always a piece of cake.

When she was younger, parents would be leery about letting their child spend the night at our house because Marie lived with her sister and brother-in-law.  I expected that to be more of a problem when she started high school, but surprisingly it wasn’t.  I was the one calling the parents to make sure we were all on the same page as far as where the girls were and what they were doing.  Eventually, I grew lax in that practice and decided to just trust her.  She’s a good kid, has never been in any trouble, everyone loves her and she gets good grades.  She was an honor student and involved in many activities at school.  She never broke her curfew even once, and oftentimes came home early.  We talked about parties, drinking, drugs and sex.  We’ve always had a very honest relationship and I believed her when she told me she wasn’t doing those things.

Imagine my surprise when I found out about 4 months into her senior year of high school that Marie had been smoking pot.  My heart sunk.  I went through the stages of grief – denial came first. As hard as I tried to find something to prove it was wrong, I only found more evidence to support what I didn’t want to know.  Next came anger.  Anger at myself for not keeping a better eye on her, asking more questions, calling more parents – basically controlling her life.  There was also anger at her.  After everything I gave up to give her a better life, how could she do this to me?  And finally, I had to accept it.  Of course there were consequences and we talked and things got better, but I had to accept that she had done this. Things went back to “normal” after a month or so of the pot discovery.

Marie turned 18 this past winter and has just graduated from high school.  I’ve been afraid of this day since the first day of school last year.  She’s an adult now.  She has the right to make her own choices.  I might not like them.  She’s made some friends this past school year that I consider to be less than desirable.  I don’t want her out partying every night and I don’t want her to get hurt.  I can’t control her life though.  It is hers to live and she is not here to please me.  I can set expectations, house rules and limits, though.  She still lives in my house and drives a car in my name.  I pay for her cell phone.  And I can take those things away if she doesn’t meet the expectations or breaks the rules.

The expectation is that she is to be honest with us about where she is going and who she is with.  The rules include that she will not drive while under the influence of any substance, nor will she get into a vehicle with anyone who is.  Sunday-Thursday she is to be home by 11 pm.  My husband and I get up early for work and we don’t want to be awakened when she stumbles in at 2 am.  Friday and Saturday are her nights, but again, we expect her to be honest with us.  This past weekend when she told me, “There’s a party tonight at the river” I took a deep breath, counted to 10 and responded, “Okay, have fun and be careful.  Call me if you or anyone else needs a ride.”  (This was of course after I asked “what river” and some other geographical questions.)

I realize the danger of “letting” her go to the party.  What choice do I have, though?  I can try to control her and keep her home all summer and end up with a miserable teenager who won’t talk to me, who may rebel and go anyway, and who will most certainly lie to me the next time I ask her where she’s going.  As hard as this is for me to do, I have to realize that she isn’t a little girl anymore and she has the right to make her own choices, whether I agree with them or not.  Personally, I would rather know the truth about where she is and (silently) disagree with it than believe that she is having a sleepover with her girlfriends and they’re painting each other’s nails when they aren’t.  And sometimes, they will still have sleepovers and talk about boys.  And when those times come, I can take comfort in the fact that it’s the truth.


Christina Dott is raising her teenage sister. She lives in New England.

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