Monday 23 October 2017

Ask Patricia: My daughter's terrors worry me

Patricia Redlich

Q MY daughter is now 19. When she was small, she was with me all the time -- shopping, visiting friends' houses, socialising with the extended family, going to Mass. This continued until she was in her second year at secondary school. Then she drifted away, became very independent and took a part-time job.

I was thrilled, but I was also lonely after having her company for so many years. But I never said anything to her, only encouraging her all the time. I had taken her to a psychologist when she was small because I couldn't sort out how to deal with her clinging to me. The couple of sessions didn't really help, and we got nowhere at the time. So I battled on. During those early years, she also went through a stage of waking up during the night feeling frightened and wanting to sleep with myself and my husband.

He was not very happy. But I had gone through all that myself when I was young, but could never tell my parents. Instead, I had to handle it on my own and didn't want the same fate for my daughter. She was also very phobic about getting sick, and panics to this day if, for example, she gets something like the vomiting bug.

Last week, she left to stay at a friend's house across the city and at about one o'clock in the morning she rang me asking me to come and get her. I knew she was upset, so my husband and I set off to bring her home. She said she was just sick, but she had been tearful on the phone.

I rang a good friend of hers and was told that my daughter had recently been out with a couple of friends, had gone to the ladies, and came out crying and saying that she wanted to go home. Her friend also told me that this had happened several times in the past. Apparently, she doesn't like crowds, and all the pushing and shoving.

What can I do? My daughter won't go to a counsellor. She says she is OK and that she forgets about the panic attacks very quickly. I myself suffer from depression, phobias and panic attacks -- although I never told her and always kept everything normal. I've tried everything in terms of my own problems, but to no avail. So I'm hoping to help my daughter before it gets too serious. That said, she doesn't suffer from depression, as far as I can see.

As I write this, she is getting ready for a night out with her friends at some club, and she's all bubbly and happy. As for her dad, he's at a loss as she often doesn't talk either to him or any of her brothers. I think it's moodiness, but I can't really figure her out and I worry for her future.

Reply:

YOU are clearly a very loving and devoted mother. You want to make things easier for your daughter than they were for you when you were young. And you have done everything you could think of. You have a kind and caring and gentle heart. Your daughter unquestionably loves you very much too. I want you to know that I see all that, because what I have to say is probably going to be painful for you to hear. I just believe that you deserve to hear it. You obviously want to do your best. How could I do otherwise than try to help you to do just that?

I don't think it is any accident that your daughter suffers from panic attacks. Without in any way meaning to, by keeping her so close, you encouraged her to identify with you. All children identify with their mothers. They feel the mother's pain, her anxiety, her vulnerability -- as well as her joy. You never told your daughter of your fears, of course not. But she felt them. And without in any way meaning to, you encouraged your daughter to identify with you -- and to feel your fears all the more keenly.

Please understand. She would have felt them anyway. Non-verbal communication is powerful. All I'm saying is that by taking her around everywhere with you, you reinforced that sense of close emotional togetherness.

Let me put it another way. You were concerned when you saw how clingy your daughter was as a young child, and took her to a psychologist. The reason you didn't get anywhere was because the real issue wasn't tackled. Your daughter felt your anxiety, and wanted to stay close because she feared for you. What she needed was for you to be all right. What you both needed was that you tackle your distress, your anxiety and depression. That way, she could stop worrying about you and free herself up emotionally. Do you understand? It was you who needed psychological help, not your daughter.

This identification process between children and mothers is not one-way. You saw your daughter in the light of your own painful past experiences. You gave her what you felt you needed, and didn't get, as a child. So when she had night-time fears, you took her into the bed with you, rather than cuddling and consoling her for a while and then putting her back in her own bed.

I hate saying it, because it sounds harsh, but you over-reacted to her distress. Because of your own anxiety, you magnified hers. You didn't see her as a totally separate human being. You over-identified with her. Unfortunately, that results in us reinforcing a child's fears, rather than alleviating them. If we give them too powerful a response when they are scared, they begin to believe they had a good reason to be scared. Can you see that?

The teenage years bring a new opportunity for emotional independence, not least because children become very self-absorbed -- and are old enough to do things on their own -- like that part-time job. You were wonderful when all that happened. You encouraged your daughter all the way, even though you felt lonely. You are a wonderfully loving mother. You didn't try to bind her to you. You did your best to set her free. Which is what you have to continue to do. For that to happen, two things are necessary. You must stop worrying about her. You must, as far as it is humanly possible, butt out of her life. And secondly, you should see a good therapist yourself.

Forget about whether your daughter needs a counsellor, which in time she'll sort out for herself. You need professional help. That anxiety and depression do not need to accompany you all your life. Start focusing on yourself. You deserve it.

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