Q My 15-year-old daughter seems to be unhappy all the time, and my wife and I are worried about her. She seems down in the dumps and spends a lot of her time just moping around the house. This is something that has been slowly building over the past 12 months or so.
She seems to be doing well academically – she is on top of her homework and study – but she doesn't express any enthusiasm about going to school. She goes to an all-girls school and has some lovely friends there, but she seems to be spending less time with them.
Her mum and I would like her to go out more. At home she loves her dog and takes it for a walk every day.
When I ask her if there is anything wrong, she says she is fine and doesn't want to talk. If I push her to do things, she can get annoyed and tells me to back off.
I am worried that something might have happened, such as bullying, but she assures me and her mum that nothing is wrong. What should we do?
A There may or may not be something specific that is causing your daughter to appear unhappy or it could be a cluster of things or it could be in the context of her being 15 years old and in the height of adolescence.
During the teenage years young people go through massive hormonal changes and can become increasingly self-aware and self-conscious. Alongside this, they are dealing with the many trials of growing up such as making and keeping friends, pressure to fit in with peers, as well as concerns about the future and what to do with their life.
In response to these pressures and changes, many young people experience a rollercoaster of emotions that can be expressed externally as anger, defiance and rebellion. Internally, it can result in depression, anxiety or being withdrawn.
In addition, many young people become more private and stop telling their parents everything that is going on in their lives.
While a lot of this is appropriate on the road to independence, it can leave parents confused as they find it harder to reach out and support their teenagers.
While she may not yet be ready to talk to you about what is going on, or tell you all the details, generally it is very helpful for young people to be able to talk a little about what is going on for them or at least to receive an understanding and empathic response from their parents.
It is important, therefore, that you give her the message that you understand she might be going through a tough time and that you are ready to listen if there is anything she wants to talk about. You might say, “I notice you seem a little down the past few months . . . if it is anything you want to talk about . . . we are here for you.” Then back off and let her come to you.
It is important that you keep daily conversations going between you. These do not have to be heavy or serious conversations – simple chit chat on a daily basis, maybe in the context of shared interests, is often the best way to stay connected. If these times aren’t happening at the moment, try to build them. For example, you could join her on some of her daily dog walks or take an interest in a TV show she likes. If possible, try to have a couple of fun activities that you share with her in a week as this will keep the lines of communication open between you.
Once you have a daily chatting time, this gives the space for your daughter to initiate other important conversations when she needs to.
It is useful for both you and her mother to think about how to reach out to her separately. Children usually have different relationships with both parents and when both are involved it gives them two different sources of support.
The ideal is that you both have regular one-to-one times with your daughter which gives her two separate opportunities to talk.
Encourage her gently
When dealing with a withdrawn teenager as a parent, you have to get a balance between letting her make her own decisions and encouraging her to engage and do things that you think might be beneficial for her.
This might mean that you set a rule that she can only watch TV in her room if she has had dinner downstairs with the family. You can take steps to support her doing activities and hobbies that get her out to meet friends (even though she might not initially feel like this).
When you push her like this, it might provoke a negative reaction such as her getting angry, but this may not be all bad because it could be the start of communication between the two of you.
For example, if she says, “Just leave me alone,” you could just listen. Or respond with: “You seem upset about something,” or ask a question: “How come you want to be alone?” Or say how you feel: “I’m sorry to be on your back, I just want what is best for you.” The key is to be both understanding and empathic as well as gently encouraging her to take action at the same time.
Get further help if needed
If you feel your daughter gets more withdrawn or shows more signs of being depressed, seek help and consult with a mental health professional as needed.
Your GP or your daughter’s school should have ideas on what services are available in your area and there may be a designated school counsellor who can help.
Dr John Sharry is a family psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus programmes. He will be delivering a one-day Positive Parenting course for 3-9 year olds in the Rochestown Park Hotel in Cork on Saturday, January 30th (10am-4pm). See solutiontalk.ie for details.