Q&A with Geoff: How do I help my angry and isolated teen daughter?

q&a with geoff Jun 08, 2022

Question

My daughter doesn’t know how to be honest. She’s a performer and wants to do things perfectly. She puts a lot of pressure on herself. She told me, “I just never feel like I’m good enough.” That sounds like shame to me although I don’t know for sure. 

I wonder if she’s got secret behavior that troubles her. I’ve picked up on some clues. She has said things like, “You don’t really know me,” and “I want to solve my problems by myself,” along with, “I don’t trust you.” To me it’s like she’s carrying a burden of some kind. 

Also, she self isolates, is very angry and has lost interest in things she used to love. We have tried to talk to her but that isn’t going very well. She’s very closed off. 

Answer

I agree that you have reason to be concerned about these changes in your daughter. While we always want to make room for our children to experience the highs and lows of life, staying stuck in a downward spiral requires more responsiveness. While I can’t formally diagnose someone I’ve never met, there are warning signs of depression that need to be addressed.

You’re wise to reach out for support, so let’s talk about some ways you can help her.

When dealing with a teenager who appears depressed, you’re going to get a lot of pushback when you try and enter their world. It’s normal to stop pushing and stop asking questions out of respect for their requests to back off. Plus, it’s impossible to pry information out of somebody without doing more damage to them or the relationship.

However, I don’t think that pulling away is the best option, especially when you are worried about their mental health and possibly their safety.

Even if you don’t know what else to do, I recommend you err on the side of closeness. Contact is more important than consent when trying to connect to a troubled teen. In other words, your daughter may want you as far away as possible, but it’s critical that you keep as much contact with her as possible so she can have that assurance that someone is still there for her.

Pulling away when she’s in a condition like this will only diminish her mental health and possibly confirm to her the worst things she thinks about herself.

I’m not suggesting you become intrusive and require her to talk to you, but I am suggesting that you stay accessible and responsive to her. For example, you could invite her along to do things with you while reassuring her that you won’t ask a bunch of questions or require her to talk. You can rearrange your schedule and the family routines so there’s more presence.

While you don’t need to single her out, especially in front of her siblings, it’s important that she has a lot of contact with other people in the family, especially her parents.

If she has depression, she will naturally want to isolate and hide. In the same way we wouldn’t allow someone with hypothermia to try and warm themselves, keeping close contact and involvement in her life may feel annoying to her, but it will soothe a deep attachment longing to know she’s not alone in her overwhelmed state.

I understand that you are anxious about what might be going on. However, without any evidence, you can only guess. It’s tempting to turn into a detective to try and protect your daughter, but that will only strain your relationship. Instead, this is a good opportunity to revisit your relationship with her. Are you a good listener? Do you make space for her to share what’s going on with her?

Do you interrupt and criticize? Are you placing unrealistic expectations on her with school or extracurricular activities? If your approach with her in the past hasn’t been helpful, this is a good opportunity to let her know you want to do better so she can get the support she needs. It’s not easy being a parent and we make plenty of mistakes.

Our children will feel safer with us when we admit our shortcomings.

I also believe it’s helpful to educate our children about what might be happening to them. Don’t be afraid to use words like “depression,” “shame,” “perfectionism,” and other descriptions of what you are observing. Normalize these things and let her know that she’s not failing or bad if she’s experiencing them. Share some of your own struggles with these challenges and let her know she’s not alone.

As you educate yourself, you can share short snippets with her and let her think about what you’re teaching her. She might not give you any indication that what you are doing is helping, but it will most likely signal to her at a deep level that you care and are interested in her well-being. Obviously, if she’s struggling with suicidal thoughts, you have to address this directly and get her immediate help.

She has already told you that you don’t know her very well. I would take this as an invitation to learn more about her. Ask her if she is willing to share more about what she’s experiencing so you can better understand her. Stay open and curious and let her know that you want her to teach you about what’s changing for her.

This is not going to happen in one conversation, so be proactive and make regular time with her so she has open-ended opportunities to share her world with you.

If none of this helps, then it’s important to set up professional counseling where she can have a place to start working through these things in a supportive and neutral environment. Even though you are trying to respect her autonomy, if she really has depression or is harboring secret behaviors she’s ashamed to reveal, she won’t know how to free herself without your help.

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