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Question: Our daughter will date any guy that will pay attention to her. Many of her “boyfriends” were nothing but boys she talked to online. At least I hope they were boys and not weird older men. It’s not all bad news. The silver lining is that as far as I know, she has never really been serious with a boy. She has never kissed a boy, let alone had sex or any other risky behavior. For that, we are very grateful.

But she gets seriously emotionally attached to boys and she always gets disappointed. It breaks my heart that she is so needy. She has liked a couple of really nice boys that were actually flesh and blood interests and not just boys online. We actually felt pretty good about those two. But they lost interest in her because she wears them out with her neediness.

At her age, she hasn’t really done much actual dating, but she will go to college soon and she is so immature in this regard. How can we help our daughter learn to take it easy, not get so obsessed, and date in healthier way?

Answer: I’m afraid you’ve asked about one of the most difficult therapeutic issues I’ve seen in contemporary adolescent culture. I have seen, in my practice, a scary increase in the number of girls who are near hopelessly co-dependent on boys and attention and validation; and they will not be dissuaded from their obsessions. The intensity of their fixation is astounding.

The key to helping your daughter is to help her process relationships as they happen and setting healthy boundaries for her. Lastly, you must understand that, unfortunately, some of her progress will only come from experience.

Teens compete for attention and validation in a way never seen before in human history. Sure, kids have always thrived on popularity and suffered from insecurities, but never like this. Reputation used to be earned on the sports field, in the class room, with humor, or kindness, or achievement. Now, reputation is created, posted — even fabricated.

Teens are plugged into social networks online where image is finely tuned to perfection, where everyone’s life can be made to look so interesting, so cool. Self-esteem once derived from internal validation from one’s accomplishments is now bolstered or destroyed by the number of “likes” a teen gets from their Instagram or Facebook posts.

It is cutthroat. Teens are removed entirely from the consequences of their comments. They are mean to each other, emboldened and belligerent behind the safety of their computer screen or smart phone or iPad. They are increasingly addicted to validation and act sexually, immaturely and with much bravado in order to secure and defend their online status.

Your daughter is just trying to stay in the race. Thank God she hasn’t yet resorted to the most foolproof method of obtaining popularity for a girl — selling out sexually online and or in person to get the boys’ attention.

She will learn one way or another. One hollow relationship after another will help her understand the futility in trying to gain validation through superficial relationships. She has no standards. That isn’t to say that she only dates losers. Cast a wide enough net and you’ll get all sorts. But the only boys (or scary, sick older men) who want a weak, insecure, needy girl are those who would use her or who are themselves weak, insecure, and needy. Experience is harsh teach. But it is the only one many co-dependent girls will have. She is likely to improve over time, but at what cost?

You can help minimize the damage by processing these relationships as the happen. Talk to her about her ideal boyfriend and husband. Keep her talking about the boys she likes. Work with her to compare where she is compromising her standards with the boys she pursues. Or, when she is interested in a good boy, help her understand that if she’s too needy or smothering the poor fellow, she will push him away.

Teach boundaries. Teach appropriate expectations and values about dating — and hold her accountable to these standards. If she fails to manage herself effectively, you might have to step in. Privileges can be seized. Of course, with technology being what it is, you can never really hope to cut her off entirely from social media. Eventually, the only expectations that will matter are those she holds dear to herself.

So many kids in this phase of life are obsessed with attention. If she’s really chasing every boy that likes her, she will fail to create any meaningful, rewarding dating relationships that she can really thrive on. Help her understand this, especially as it happens. She will learn life’s lessons. She will learn what real relationships are. Sometimes as a parent, you can only teach your child what’s right and hope they will take you up on it.