Q: My sixteen-year-old daughter is having a hard time this year in school. She is not the best student, and she has talents, but she doesn’t excel in any one thing. She does have some friends, but has been quieter than usual in recent weeks — at home, at least. I worry about her, because when I try to talk to her, she never wants to talk to me. How can I possibly reach her?
A: Adolescence is the stage of life when children separate from their parents. At this time, a child attempts to incorporate into her emerging personality what she sees as positive about her parents, and rejects what she feels is undesirable. As in all periods of transition, the process of change is not usually a smooth one. A parent’s character trait that may seem positive and desirable to a teenager one day, may be “discarded” tomorrow as undesirable. This emerging adult person is often a complex one.
Adolescents sometimes need to be alone. However, if a usually communicative child begins to withdraw for prolonged periods of time, a parent needs to clarify whether this behavior reflects depression or introspection. You did not mention if you had a close relationship with your daughter before this time period. If her sleeping or eating habits have drastically changed, and she seems more isolated from her peers as well as from adults, you need to talk to her, bearing in mind the serious concern about possible depression.
Clearly, attempting to communicate is not simple, and choosing the right time is essential. Perhaps when your daughter seems somewhat more open to conversation, or has to speak to you about scheduling
activities, you can express your concern. Some heartfelt words might be: “I know that you’ve wanted to be alone more in recent weeks, and I can accept that this is what you want. But I’m concerned that you seem upset. Can you reassure me that if something is seriously wrong, you will talk to me about it? You mean so much to me.”
Parents can also speak of their own experiences, and challenges that they have endured in their lives. These opening words can lead to “mutual storytelling,” where a child may feel more comfortable sharing her feelings after hearing her parents share their thoughts and feelings. Even if the child remains reticent, she will at least feel that her parents are attempting to reach out to her. A child may feel that her parent’s “issue” is nothing like hers, and may dismiss it as irrelevant. However, the attempt at reaching out is usually appreciated on some level.
If an adolescent is experiencing a sense of self-doubt and is questioning her general self-worth, suggesting new ideas and new activities to help develop her potential talents can sometimes be helpful — if the child is open to it. However, often parents are ignored, and concrete suggestions seem superficial in light of the great discomfort this child is feeling. Most certainly, if signs of depression seem apparent, going for professional help is the direction to take.
A parent’s “never give up” attitude, and belief in her child, is usually reassuring to a troubled teenager. The possible sources and treatment of adolescent depression cannot be covered in these few
paragraphs, as there is a wide spectrum of depression — from the most temporary to the most acute. Adolescence can be a turbulent time, when children question themselves and their self-worth. Only careful monitoring can determine if a child’s behavior merely reflects a passing stage of adolescence or signals a serious problem that needs to be addressed.