Tuesday 24 April 2018

Ask the expert: How can I help my 12-year-old who is very down in herself?

Illustration by Maisie McNeice
Illustration by Maisie McNeice
David Coleman

David Coleman

Advice from the clinical psychologist and parenting expert on how to support a 12-year-old dauther who seems very down and how to deal with upheaval caused in the family by a new job which involves travel for the dad.

Question: My 12-year-old daughter seems to be very down about things, mostly her friends and school. I don't think it is bullying or exclusion. She sees her friends as immature and as a result feels lonely. I worry that this 'low' feeling is something else. She was, and sometimes still is, a bubbly person. Academically she is average/normal but she is very mature in understanding other people's feelings. I hear so much about teenagers with problems, so I want to help her through this time, before it develops into something more entrenched.

David replies: From the tone of your query it seems like you are worried that your daughter may be depressed, or may be at risk of depression. While it is certainly possible that she is depressed, it may not necessarily be the first thing that you need to consider.

Don't discount the impact of hormonal changes, especially if those changes result in your daughter feeling out of step with her peers.

Research shows that girls who reach puberty earlier than their peers can have a negative experience. For example, they may be teased, feel self-conscious and have a poorer body image or lower self-image generally.

It can be very difficult for children to 'grow up'. They can feel the loss of their childhood and be reluctant to accept the inevitable march of their development. Many children yearn for the apparent simplicity and innocence of their childhood.

Reaching sixth class in primary school can be a mixed experience for children. For some it marks their ascent to the top of the school hierarchy and can be very positive. For others it heralds a big change on the horizon (secondary school), causing some anxiety and distress.

Many children feel upset that there are different expectations of them in their adolescence and that there are different (and usually greater) responsibilities laid at their door.

Of course, there will also be some children who charge into their teenage years, delighted to take on the role and responsibility associated with being older.

So, it may be worth your while talking with your daughter about her experience of growing up. You may be able to help her with any confusion or anxiety that she feels about the changes that are under way or are coming.

Rather than asking her lots of questions about how she feels, or how her relationships with her friends may have altered, you might find it is more productive to guess at what you think might be going on.

It can be more helpful for children when we suggest issues that we think might be relevant for them. This can help them to put the words on the experiences that have been, perhaps, unconsciously felt.

So, for your daughter, you could raise some of the issues that I have mentioned as possible experiences that she has had, or is having.

You will, hopefully, find that by prompting her to talk about the many possible impacts of puberty, the end of national school, the apparent immaturity of her friends and so on that she experiences the effect of 'a problem shared becomes a problem halved'.

Your understanding of the issues she faces may allow her to process them more effectively, allowing her to feel the upset that may be natural and expected. When you show that you can understand her difficulties it will also give you greater opportunity to advise and guide her.

Our wisdom and experience is valuable, but children often only accept it when they know that we properly understand their particular circumstances.

If, after trying to connect with your daughter in this way, you still find that she appears low, depressed, withdrawn or very down with no positive shift or change, then you could consider getting a recommendation from your GP of someone outside the family, with whom she can talk things through.

Counselling or guidance from a good child and adolescent therapist may help her to make sense of all that is going on.

Even if that person says exactly what you may have said, it can be heard or understood differently by your daughter.

Please help! My teenage daughters are not reacting well to my husband's travel with his new job

Question: My husband's new job means quite a bit of travelling, for up to two weeks at a time. My two daughters, aged 15 and 13, aren't taking this well and seem to be using it as an excuse to fight with him and themselves. It is like everyone is off-kilter. I try to be understanding but sometimes they are so unbearable I just end up cross and we have these almighty fights. It is really disrupting the atmosphere at home. I'm hoping that they'll adjust to the new routine, but is there anything I can do that might bring a bit more civility to the house?

David replies: Change of any kind, in a family, can create stress and anxiety. The routines and relationships that had seemed predictable (and consequently reassuring and comforting) become unpredictable and capricious.

When we don't know what to expect we will often worry about that, consciously or unconsciously. I have no doubt that your husband's new job has changed your family circumstances significantly.

I think your description of everyone being 'off-kilter' is a good one. It is, indeed, as if everyone is unbalanced or a little destabilised. Things that you may have been able to rely on, before this job (like your husband being around and available), are now less reliable.

Every time he goes away for work, the routines will change. Ensuring the girls get to and from school, organising their after-school activities, feeding them, staying in charge and so on, all fall to you.

I am sure that brings new stresses for you and for them.

I would imagine, too, that your daughters miss their dad. If they were used to him being there every evening and at weekends, then his absence will be felt keenly.

It is very hard to process all of the stress and distress of him being gone. I am sure that the girls (and even yourself) try to block some of it down, ignoring it. However, the pain of the loss of their dad is probably leaking out in angry outbursts.

I don't see this as an 'excuse' for the girls to be angry, but I do see their anger as a natural consequence of missing their dad and having to deal with the changes in the family circumstances that come from him being away for long stretches.

Given their closeness in age, the usual sibling rivalry may be intensified. You have even noticed that your own reaction to them is more intense, that you get angrier, leading to the 'almighty fights'.

I am sure that there is pressure and stress on their dad. While it may be different to yours, it is also understandable. He too is probably missing all of you. He is probably working longer hours while he is away and then is hoping for things to be just 'nice' or 'easy' when he comes home.

Of course, by the time he gets home, there may be a lot of pent-up stress and tension and while everyone is, hopefully, glad to see him, his return brings more change to the new routines and his presence could even give rise to some resentment from you or the girls.

I think the fights the girls have with him may be a deflection of their anger that he is gone, but it may be triggered by something small, when he returns.

The key to getting through the changes and accommodating to them is understanding. Understanding will increase the more you all talk about what it is like when your husband is away.

This is not about trying to establish who has the harder role in the family. It is not about comparing who has it worse now that he is away more. It is about talking honestly, each of you, about what it feels like when he is gone and when he comes back.

Because all of you may have different perspectives on the same experience of him being away, the more you can try to understand each other's perspectives, the more patient and kind you will feel towards each other.

These kinds of big family changes of circumstances are, almost always, difficult to negotiate. Adaptation, acceptance and accommodation to the new circumstances will take time but talking about what it feels like, for each of you, will help to make the process smoother.

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