How Do I Get Through to My Withdrawn Teenager?

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Teenagers have a reputation as being a little moody or withdrawn, particularly with their parents. The teenage years should have their fair share of eye-rolling and door-slamming at one’s clueless, annoying parents. It’s a rite of passage; what goes around, comes around, etc. But what do you do when it seems like your child is almost totally withdrawing from the family and wants little-to-nothing to do with you?

That’s the question one dad wrote in to Parental Advisory:

I would like advice on how to deal with my 14-year-old daughter. There is a lot to unpack. Overall, she is a great, cool kid, very smart and athletic and personable. However, when it comes to me and (to a lesser extent) my wife, she is tough to deal with. She spends probably 18-20 hours/day in her room with the door closed, playing Fortnite and following social media, and only coming out to interact with us occasionally (and usually after a lot of cajoling). She only grudgingly does her schoolwork (her grades are pretty good for being in mostly G&T classes) but she can’t be bothered to work at her soccer game; she is also quite good at soccer and the message I have tried to push to her is that I only want her to work hard at whatever she chooses to do, I am less interested in results than effort. She does enjoy being around her teammates but that’s it.

She is almost always grumpy especially when we ask her to do chores. She asks deliberately provocative questions (examples include “can I get a piercing? can I become a satanist?”) and we have noticed the only time she acts nice is when she wants something, like a piece of clothing she has seen, and when we tell her no she reverts back to her “old self.” She has told my wife that she is gay and she appears to have a girlfriend but hasn’t “come out” to me, and I’m unsure why, I wouldn’t object to that.

Last year we had convinced her to go to therapy but after one introductory session she adamantly refused to return (because she claims she didn’t like the therapist, but when we offered to find another therapist she still didn’t want to do it), and when I have asked my wife to push her to reconsider (because my daughter and the therapist both acknowledged she has clear signs of depression and anxiety), my wife conveniently forgets to ask.

In general, her cranky demeanour makes it tough to want to be around her. Can you suggest a path for improving her demeanour and our relationship? Because most of the time she looks at me with utter contempt and I hope that isn’t the new normal. I have an older daughter so I know it’s common for teenagers to be like this but her situation seems different and more intense than my older daughter’s situation.

Sincerely,

Not sure what to do

Dear “Not Sure What to Do,”

I can feel your frustration and your concern throughout your letter. Your daughter is withdrawn from you and is acting consistently disagreeable. She’s asking high-shock-value questions. She’s possibly battling anxiety and/or depression but she doesn’t want to see a therapist or spend more time with you. You love your daughter, you want a better relationship with her and you want her to be happy and healthy but it feels like she’s walled herself off. And she has. Because she is very angry with you.

That was the emphatic reaction from Dr. Barbara Greenberg, a clinical psychologist who specialises in the treatment of adolescents, when I shared your letter with her to get her expert input. “There’s clearly a lot of anger here,” Greenberg told me. “There’s lots of avoidance, and when there’s a lot of avoidance, that’s usually synonymous with a lot of anger.”

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Greenberg suggests you start by asking yourself two questions: What is she avoiding? And what does she want you and your wife to know, understand and accept about her? The thing about anger, she points out, is that it’s not necessarily a bad thing, and it’s not something that should be ignored or avoided. There is something that needs to be said right now that isn’t being said.

“My guess is she assumes that they’re clueless about her life,” she says. “And kids don’t want their parents to be clueless. My guess is she wants to talk, she has a lot to say, but they’re not talking; everyone is avoiding each other.”

In many ways, your daughter actually is trying to get your attention. She probably already knows your answer to “Can I get a piercing?” and can guess your response to “Can I become a satanist?” She’s baiting you. And she may feel comfortable doing that because she has too much control and not enough limits right now. You don’t like that she closes herself off in her room for the majority of the day, playing video games and scrolling through social media, but it doesn’t sound like you’ve put specific limits on that. That’s a good place to start.

“There’s a lack of limit-setting, and she may interpret it as a lack of caring,” Greenberg says. “She has too much control and kids don’t want that much control … they’re not comfortable with it.”

Will she be angry when you respond to her behaviour by setting additional limits? Yes. Yes, she will. But again, the anger is already there, it’s just simmering beneath the surface. You see it every time she looks at you. And it’s ok for her to be angry and to voice that anger.

You write in your letter that you’d like “a path for improving her demeanour and our relationship.” That implies that she is the problem that needs fixing. That if we can fix her demeanour, the relationship will be better. But the inverse is true — if you want to fix her demeanour, you have to fix the relationship. And not just her relationship with you but the relationships among the entire family. You should all, Greenberg suggests, go to family therapy together.

If you also want to pursue finding her own therapist, that’s fine, too. But try getting her more involved in the selection-process this time. Research potential options online together. Let her pick a few people to interview and then let her choose the person she best connects with. That can certainly be beneficial; but for now, Greenberg says, the need for family therapy is more pressing.

And finally, you mention smaller things like her lack of interest in working on her soccer skills, her crankiness over chores or her reluctance to do schoolwork. Put those things on the back burner for now. Even the — much more important — fact that she has come out as gay to your wife (but not you) and hasn’t told you about her girlfriend.

“Resolving the family issues should come first,” Greenberg says, “and then everything else will follow.”

Comments

  • My impression is that this gentleman’s daughter may be reading a lot of online information about satanism which has a cult following. Having been involved in a cult myself for over 10 years, members recruit vulnerable people and essentially brainwash them and separate them from their friends and family and the real world. This could explain her withdrawing and spending a lot of time in her room and perhaps letting relationships with her friends as well as her parents lapse. She could perceive the online environment as her group of friends now. Being gay, she may feel vulnerable and be communicating this online and bring preyed upon. It’s a heavy possibility to consider, but as a parent I would check what she has been reading and viewing online as the first step. Cults are recruiting more heavily and successfully now due to COVID-19 and isolation.

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