Monday 22 May 2017

Our teenage daughter is cutting us out of her life

I'm a mam to a beautiful 15-year-old girl and I love her very much. We recently had another baby girl, who is now six months. However, my eldest has deep periods of depression and this has been really noticeable since this time last year. She even started to cut herself last summer.

She has had ear problems since she was 11 and she lost her hearing in 2009 for a brief period although we never found out why. She tends to play on this now if she wants to miss school, which she hates. I struggle to help her positively as all of my efforts are returned with a cynical, rejecting attitude. She will do nothing to help us or to bond with her new sister. She won't even come out of her room most of the time. She is so talented but she seems to hate our company and has no motivation to do anything with us; she'll only spend time with her friends.

We do try to keep her moods high but I would say that respect has been lost on both sides. We have been attending an HSE therapy service but the doctors keep changing and progress seems very slow.

She wants for nothing even though there is no income coming into the family and we are at a loss as to what to do to help her.

Your daughter sounds quite distressed about something. The extent of her withdrawal and the fact that she self-harmed suggests that she is very unhappy. It is a real shame that she can't open up to anyone about what is bothering her as this may really alleviate her upset.

The serious escalation of her depression seems to have coincided with your pregnancy with her sister. I wonder, too, if her self-harming occurred around the time of her sister's birth?

If so, then it is quite likely that a significant part of her upset is the arrival (after at least 14 years of being an only child!) of the new baby. I wonder if she really resents having a little sister and is angry with you and her dad for having the indecency (as she may see it) to get pregnant after all this time. She may have also been mortified by your sexuality being on display.

In those circumstances, it is natural that she wouldn't talk to you. She probably believes that you and her dad would not accept her being critical of her sister or her sister's birth, given that you seem hurt and upset that she won't bond with her sister.

Not bonding with her sister may be because she does feel sidelined by the baby. It may also be that she chooses not to get on with her sister as her way of showing you how angry she feels with you.

I recall a great phrase that I came across "not until the bad feelings come out can the good feelings return". The gist of this is that we have to facilitate the expression of bad feelings, even though they may be distressing for us to hear and for our children to express.

It is akin to needing to clean out a cut, perhaps with an antiseptic wipe.

Even though the cleansing stings and may hurt more, in the long run it allows better healing to occur.

I think you need to try to talk to her about her sister's birth and be prepared, and open, to hear some negative feelings from your daughter. You may find that you have to guess at, or suggest, some emotions that she may be feeling.

You may not get much of a response from her. That is okay, however, since you are at least creating the space to talk about these things.

She may well feel that you and her dad don't care about her as much since her sister was born. While this is undoubtedly not the case, her perception may be different. By opening up a discussion about these difficult topics you do show her that you care about her.

For now, though, I would guess that she feels you haven't a clue and can't understand her point of view or how she feels about anything.

This is one reason why teenagers' peer groups are so important to them.

They will often feel that only their friends can understand them and that us "old" people don't have a idea about what their lives are like. Of course in real life, she hasn't even given you a chance to understand her as she doesn't share anything of her inner world.

It is common for youngsters to have predetermined notions that we can't or won't understand and so they don't bother telling us anything as they have written us, and our ability to hear, off.

Nonetheless she does seem to have some issue about her sister's arrival. There is, I would say, more stuff to explore, too, about her hearing and the impact of her illness and temporary deafness.

I could imagine this was a terrifying experience for her and may be an as yet unprocessed trauma for her.

There is a reason she hates school, too, and this is worth trying to understand, even if you don't know what that is yet.

It is a challenge for you, her dad and her therapist to show that you can, or at least are willing to try to, understand her and how she feels about the world.

Empathising with her perspective, even if you don't agree with it, is the most effective way to show her this.

It may seem like more of a challenge if you feel you don't respect her any more. It can be hard to be empathic when we feel hard done by and disrespected ourselves.

If she has been rude and dismissive of you then it will require great patience and generosity of spirit to keep the lines of communication open.

Do keep pressure on the HSE to continue to provide a consistent counselling service for her. You and your daughter will need that support as you try to reconnect.

David Coleman is a clinical psychologist, broadcaster and author

Queries and issues can only be addressed through the column and David regrets he cannot enter into personal correspondence

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