He’s My Daughter’s ‘First Love,’ but I Think He’s Toxic. What Should I Do?

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“I don’t like my daughter’s boyfriend. With a storied history of dating tons of toxic manipulators when I was around her age (24), I think she’s falling for someone who’s going to break her heart. He’s dripping in red flags—disappearing for entire weekends without a word, showing little regard for meeting her friends or family and always contacting her at the last minute to spend time together. But this is her first real ‘love.’ How do I express my concerns about her boyfriend while also being supportive of her?”

First off, props to you for realizing that confronting your daughter in a fit of motherly protectiveness is not the answer here. It’s refreshing to hear that you understand that she’s growing; she is going to make mistakes and will ultimately need to come to the revelation on her own that Mr. Toxic needs to go. 

Speaking personally, one of the most challenging parts of my early 20s was figuring out how to manifest the love I wanted. A huge part of that was determining the kind of love I very certainly did not want. Like you, I dated tons of guys who didn’t call me back, played games with my heart and disrespected my boundaries. My patience for that drama ran out right around the time I got to your daughter’s age. But of course, you could not have told me that until I independently decided it. 

You should not tell her what to do—unless you have reason to believe there’s emotional or physical abuse going on, in which case you should intervene. But if your daughter is safe, save for some future heartbreak, this may be one of the most critical learning periods for her when it comes to self-respect and self-love. But don’t worry, Mama Bear, you can still help ease her stress during this time with a few simple tactics. Friendly reminder: This will be easier if you have open lines of communication with each other, so resist the urge to be too condemning. 

Ask Her How His Behavior Make Her Feel.

If you witness something disappointing, like his refusal to respond to texts while you are together, don’t say anything. She will probably be feeling defensive in the moment. Wait for her to cool off and process her own feelings. Instead of telling her that Mr. Toxic’s forgetting her birthday was a crummy move, or that you cannot believe he’s never wanted to meet you, be a sounding board. Ask her how it makes her feel without passing judgment.  

If she says she doesn’t know or she’s not ready to talk about it, respect that boundary. She’ll definitely be thinking about it and hopefully coming to the conclusion that she doesn’t want to feel that way anymore. If she says it makes her feel terrible, then let her vent as long as she wants. Affirm her feelings are valid and remind her that she doesn’t have to put herself in a position to feel that way due to a guy’s poor behavior—ever. This doesn’t mean she’s opened the door for you to bash Mr. Toxic. Again, this is your time to listen and validate her feelings in the least judgmental way possible. Here’s an example:

What not to say: 

You: And how does that make you feel?
Your daughter: It makes me feel terrible.
You: Of course you feel terrible—he’s absolutely toxic. You need to break up right this second!
Your daughter: [Shuts down, runs to room, locks door.] 

What to say instead: 

You: And how does that make you feel?
Your daughter: It makes me feel terrible.
You: It never feels good to feel forgotten.
Your daughter: Yeah, and I’m really questioning whether this is the right relationship for me.

Well, in a dream scenario your daughter dumps him then and there. But that probably won’t happen. Remember: If you are too transparent in your dislike, she may be less inclined to tell you when she’s feeling hurt or when he’s done something shady. But you can convey your opinion of how is actions affected her.

Keep Reminding Her That She Has Good Instincts.

Instead of saying “Just break up with him,” keep reminding her to trust her gut. Remind her that she has a track record of making good decisions and knowing what she wants. Tell her that the emotions we sometimes feel for people we care about (“first loves” who aren’t so loving) can cloud what we want in the bigger picture (a happy home life, a supportive partner). Remind her that she has the power to go after what she wants. 

Toxic partners have a tendency to strip us of our self-worth. We start to believe we don’t deserve someone who shows up for us. You can start to numb yourself to the idea of leaving, because you have someone constantly telling you how good you have it (when, in actuality, you were happier single).  

It’s your job to continue affirming her instincts, rekindling her self-worth and loving her unconditionally as you already do. Pretty soon, I’ll bet, she will know what to do.

Jenna Birch is a journalist and author of The Love Gap: A Radical Plan to Win in Life and Love, a relationship-building guide for modern women, as well as a dating coach (accepting new clients for 2020). To ask her a question, which she may answer in a forthcoming PureWow column, email her at

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