After last week’s webinar, Understanding Your Teenagers, I answered some questions in this post. Today, I’m answering the others. Apologies for the delay: I’m struggling to keep on top of work. I promised to answer all the questions, whether or not I did so at the webinar. Silly me!
By the way, if you missed the first webinar, Teenagers in a Pandemic, or if you know anyone who would have been interested, a recording is now available on Vimeo, to buy or rent, and gives access to the handouts and PowerPoint. The recording of Understanding Your Teenagers is in process. Unfortunately, it’s a lengthy process, not least because Vimeo insists on a trailer, which is not my skillset!
Of course, don’t forget The Power of Sleep next Thursday. Earlybird price ends TOMORROW.
Please excuse any typos in this – in a rush. Will correct later.
Your questions in blue
I find it hard to distinguish between normal teenage girl behaviour and actual depression. I was a very outdoorsy teenager but my daughter doesn’t want to leave her room. Often refusing to come downstairs to engage in family life or exercise with one friend. I feel like she has withdrawn from life.
It can be hard to tell the difference, yes. In general, what I’d say is that any of the following are reasons to seek expert help, as they can be signs of mental illness (but it’s not necessarily the case). It’s always best to ask unnecessarily than to ignore wrongly.
- She is like this consistently, rather than having some days which are fine
- She is not getting enjoyment from things she used to enjoy and from things you think she would be likely to enjoy
- This is stopping her engaging with school and friends
- It has been going on for more than 2-3 weeks
“Withdrawn from life” is a big concept. If it’s true, and she is not connecting with the world around her, I would definitely ask you to get help. How you do this depends on whether your daughter sees the need. (See the next two questions for answers about this, too.) The ideal is that she asks for help or accepts your suggestion that she might get help. If she doesn’t, I recommend you look at the help for parents on Young Minds.
However, it can often look as though teenagers have “withdrawn from life” when they have only withdrawn from parents! The crucial thing is that she has good relationships with good people, of her age and adults such as teachers. If she hasn’t, this is a worry and I suggest you ask for help from the experts at Young Minds.
As I know you know, you being outdoorsy does not mean she has to be. However, going outside and getting fresh air and exercise definitely are healthy and useful things to do, both in cases of low mood and of depression. So if you are able to persuade her to go for a walk or take up any form of exercise this would be great. Exercise doesn’t have to be formal sport and it’s not necessary to get sweaty or to wear body-revealing clothes (which is an issue for many teenagers.)
The most important thing is to keep the lines of communication open and to make sure she knows that there is help out there for her, whether from you or someone else. Keep letting her know that she’s loved, that you are worried, that you know the stage she’s at can be hard and you want to make it better. Can you write this down for her?
Can you address the topic of self-harm? Also, so much advice centres on talking with teenagers—what if they slam the door on you and refuse to engage about any issue? My child is 16.
Let me focus on self-harm first. It must be one of the most awful experiences for a parent to discover that their child is self-harming. I don’t know if the questioner knows that this is happening, or suspects or simply wants advice for what to do if it does happen. This is a situation for expert help – as with eating disorders. I’m not an expert though I know a little. One of the things I do know is that it is not a good idea simply to remove the tools of self-harm, as this can lead the harmer to want to do it even more. They need to learn how to address the feelings that make them want to do it and to find positive coping strategies instead of the negative one that self-harm is.
The best advice is on the Young Minds website here.
Then the thorny issue of teenagers who won’t let you talk to them. In this case, with a teenager who isn’t engaging on any issue (leaving aside needing help, which I’ll address in the next question and answer) I think it’s helpful to differentiate between issues where they need to engage for their own health and issues that are more domestic, routine issues of sociability and becoming articulate. I’m suggesting that for the former you try a lot harder than for the latter, which you might more often let go. But you can’t make someone talk to you. All you can do is show incredible patience and not close the door on them. They need to want to engage with you and they will if they think they’ll be listened to by someone who wants to hear properly and who won’t immediately go into lecture mode. (I’m not suggesting you do but I am suggesting they may think you do because that’s a mistake teenagers often make! AND…it is sometimes not a mistake!)
So the advice is to stay calm, strong and patient when they won’t talk. Carry on being there. Of course, if they are rude or abusive, you should say that’s not acceptable but be aware that they are likely either using it as a tool or else aren’t in control at that moment. Calmly state that it is not acceptable and that you will not listen to them while they are shouting (or whatever) but that you absolutely will listen when they speak more calmly. Because people who are angry can’t hear.
And if it’s something you are really worried about, see my next answer.
What do you do if your child needs help but refuses it?
I am only assuming that you mean for some kind of psychological or mental illness symptoms (rather than for something like schoolwork).
When we are hurting, we want help. But we might be scared of what that help might entail or scared of some aspect of the process. Or we might not believe help could be possible. My suggestion is to try to unpick, with gentle questioning, why your child doesn’t want help. CAUTION: make sure you don’t plant a new fear that wasn’t there. Do they think they don’t need it? (Could they be right?) What are they worried about? Have they heard something about a treatment that worries them? Do they think things will be taken out of their hands?
Is there someone else they could talk to? It’s quite normal for teenagers to be able to tell someone else (perhaps anonymously using an online chat with a good organisation) but not to want to tell their parents. Don’t be upset if this is the case.
I suggest you try to get them either to talk to a trusted teacher or other adult or to see the help that Young Minds offer. But after they’ve been on a website like that, open up a conversation: “What did you think about what you read?”
How do you get your teenage son (aged 14) to open up and talk. We are not convinced that he’s talking to anyone. How do we prevent this potentially insular characteristic?
In terms of being insular, there’s “preferring being alone”, which is fine, and also “being alone because making friends is too hard”, which is not fine. And I’m not sure whether this is a new thing for your son or part of his personality. It’s also worth mentioning that teenagers – particularly boys – can find it very difficult to be articulate. They might hate the sound of their voice, not feel they have anything valuable to say, and/or have experienced teasing or discomfort when they’ve spoken up at school.
“Not talking to anyone” can also be part of a depressive illness, so you should look at whether his other behaviours fit that.
You might mean talking in the sense of talking about specific problems, which is something many people feel uncomfortable doing. If you think he has something particular he should (you believe) talk about, can you make sure he knows how he can do this confidentially? Childline, for example. Childline is not only for a young person to phone if they have a problem: it’s also full of great information.
The most important thing is that he knows that problems are almost always better when shared and that he has a lot of options about who to share with.
If it’s about general communication, face-to-face chatting and sociability:
- Think about whether he fits the profile of a social anxiety
- Recognise (and make sure he knows) that many people of all ages find chat difficult and that it takes practice
- See if you can very gradually introduce situations where there’s someone he can chat to in a non eye-contact setting – in the car, on a walk, playing a game, watching a TV programme. Ask his opinion about things in a casual way and listen to the answer.
I mentioned that “preferring to be alone” is fine, but I didn’t mean it’s fine to be always alone. Everyone, even naturally introverted people need to make the effort to make friends. And sometimes it is an effort. But it can also be fun and it gets easier once you know your best settings: for me, for example, not pubs, groups and noisy places, but one-to-one chats over coffee or a meal.
It’s likely that this issue will remain in play for a while yet, as he’s right at the start of the most typically difficult stage. But keep his confidence up and make sure he knows you’re there and he will get through. And so will you!
My daughter is dyslexic, given the amount of bandwidth processing takes up, any top tips as to how to help her with / manage that?
You are absolutely right that she will be using a LOT of brain bandwidth just to read or do various similar things that other students use less bandwidth (processing power/attention) for. So, here are my suggestions:
- Make sure she acknowledges and is very proud of how hard her buzzing brain works to process the words she’s reading and writing
- Make sure she recognises that when she feels tired, there’s good reason, and if she can take a break for fresh air and a breather that will help
- Make sure all her teachers understand how dyslexia affects her – and this will include more than literacy or numeracy tasks. Different people have different deficits. Planning and organisation very often suffers.
- Make sure she has access to whatever dyslexia-friendly aids are available
- Make sure she knows that dyslexic people can go on to have brilliantly successful and fulfilling lives – it’s usually only at school that it’s really hard.
- Help her find time to spend on things she enjoys, too
You probably already have links with a dyslexia organisation. If not, check out Dyslexia Scotland. I’m an Ambassador and they are great. You don’t have to live in Scotland. But also check out local dyslexia organisations.
Finally, you might be interested to know that adolescence can help girls who are dyslexic because oestrogen helps build language skills!
Similar to the question about dyslexia, do you have any tips or resources for supporting teenagers with ADHD or autism? I’m very aware when I’m supporting these teenagers that their brains will be operating differently to others, and I’d really like to have a greater understanding of it, and what I can do to help
You’re right: their brains will often be operating differently. Adolescence can also be different: delayed, lengthened, more difficult. But it’s best to look at each teenager as an individual. So, “Here’s Jack – he has these manifestations of ADHD, these struggles and these strengths, and he’s also 15 so is bang in the middle of adolescence. This is how he seems to be coping/struggling. This is what might help him.”
I have a sections in both Exam Attack and The Teenage Guide to Stress on dealing with pre-existing conditions. You might also like the following:
A 14 year old girl I work with is skipping school to play on phone. Her parent is out at work. What should her mum do? Take away her phone or is this too much because it takes away social contact?
The person who asked this question has now given me some more detail and I have replied to her separately. The situation is complicated and I have said that it falls outside the scope of my knowledge and expertise because there are complex safeguarding issues. However, a couple of points:
- The questioner said in her email: “I would just like to know how to support her. Maybe just being a friend and a trusting adult is enough!” Yes, I think being the trusted adult, the calm, wise sounding board, just being there for her: those are the best things you can do. Be the person who will listen and reflect her feelings back. But be the adult, not the peer. So trying to show her that playing on her phone, while totally understandable and tempting, is not the way to improve her life.
- And to the general point about taking away a phone: always a risky and problematic thing to do and I don’t recommend her mum does this. Removing social contact is a very very tough punishment and likely to create problems even if ti removes the immediate ability to play on a phone. She needs to see the point of staying in school, not the point of skipping school. Her mum needs some professional help – including from you if you are able to give it – to help her support her daughter as well as possible and keep her safely in school.
Your support is wonderful and commendable. I hope you can continue to give it.
How do you manage when they are taking risky behaviours and that balance of still allowing them to have their experiences and not becoming a controlling parent because of not trusting their choices
My daughter is struggling with her mental health and currently seeing a specialist. she will continuously asks us not to put pressure on her (like expecting to be up and to school on time or complete her work) as it makes her anxiety and feelings worse. What is the right balance?
I am so sorry to hear this but I’m glad she’s seeing a specialist. I don’t know what lines of communication you have with the specialist but at the very least you should be able to ask what they would like you to do in terms of supporting your daughter, and specifically what expectations you can and can’t have of your daughter. It would seem to me (without knowing anything of the details) that having mental health problems does not mean no one can expect anything of you: routines, goals and structure are really important for mental stability. And in deed often people need help with those things – help to achieve them, not help to avoid them. And it would seem to me that being at school on time would normally be a very sensible goal to aim for. But, as I say, it’s important to work with the specialist on this so that you know how to support her.
My son hasn’t found a hobby or thing he loves yet apart from gaming. Is this normal? He also doesn’t try and attempt activities if he thinks he is going to fail or not be brilliant at which is impossible. Also he doesn’t feel need to practise to get better at things – ie plumps for what he is brilliant at then coasts ?
Very normal, very understandable, but very frustrating for you! Gaming is his hobby at the moment and that’s not a problem on its own: gaming has various benefits. Obviously it can also become a problem and the biggest problem is how hard it is to stop and do something else. And he does need to do that: for physical exercise, for example. So, he needs his gaming AND physical activity. Your task is to help him see that and to find things he’d enjoy doing that would provide that really necessary running around time. It doesn’t matter if gaming remains his favourite activity as long as he has a balance. Everyone needs that, whatever their age.
It’s also normal to want to focus on the things we’re good at or we think we’ll be good at. I’d let him do that as much as he wants as long as there’s also at least ONE thing he’s prepared to challenge himself with. Something he thinks would be worth being able to do (even if not enjoy). “You’re doing A so well – carry on but now let’s try B. So you can build loads of skills not just one.”
My daughter is 12 in a couple of weeks, since going to secondary school back in September I have seen a significant change. She wishes to spend all her time in her room with her friends, on video call etc, she is always laughing and chatting but she wishes to spend absolutely no time with the rest of the family. I am assuming from the presentation that this is normal.
It is normal, yes. Really normal at exactly that time. She’s now surrounded by teenagers and is almost inevitably starting to conform (as I explained in the webinar) to what’s around her, as that is what she perceives as allowing her into the group(s). Try not to hold this back too much, as it will backfire, but try to make sure that family times such as meals are structured, happy, secure and find every opportunity to a) validate her new feelings and experiences and b) be that firm rock in the background, that safety net so that she can make mistakes and it’s not the end of the world. Keep setting boundaries but those boundaries need to be different from before. Friends are really important because she can’t take them for granted – she can and should be able to take you for granted.
How do we parents help change our son’s self perception if another child (friend) makes a defamatory remark about him to his peers – such as calling him dodgy, or telling him that he is ugly or overweight?
Can you help your son understand that sometimes people say silly and wrong things to go along with the crowd and that the fact this boy has done this only reflects badly on the so-called “friend”. It is the friend’s problem and your son should not have to suffer. Obviously he is suffering and that’s very understandable. Help him understand that the fact that one child said what he did does not make it true. People say mean things – adults do it, too, though they shouldn’t. (You only have to look at Twitter.) Perhaps the other boy is feeling ashamed of saying it. Does the other child know that your son knows? (And how did he find out anyway? Did someone else say so? in which case it might not be true…)
In theory, your son ought to be able to ask the friend why he said it and say that he’s hurt but this route is fraught with problems for your son and might well not be practical.
If it happened once, I’d be inclined simply to get your son to try to forget it and put it down to a silly remark that means nothing other than that the friend let himself down. If it happens again, I’d question the friendship: your son needs friends who don’t say nasty things about him behind his back.
Do you have any tips for how, as parents we can let it ‘wash over us a little more’?
It’s very difficult when you’re in the middle of it! I’ve been there… Everything seems so real and immense and often all-consuming. Remember that you have a fully-developed prefrontal cortex so you should be better able than your teenagers to look ahead and see the bigger picture. And if you find it hard, think how much harder that is for them
THANK YOU SO MUCH for coming to the webinar and asking your questions. I wish I had a magic wand to turn your teenagers into super-calm, focused, smooth-sailing young people – but then they’d be robots and no one wants that. As I said, we can’t change the weather and there will sometimes be storms, but we can help them build a strong boat to sail safely through whatever is thrown in their way. And to feel proud at the end that they did this. You can then feel proud, not that you did it for them but that you taught them to steer their own boat. (Quite enough extended metaphors…)
Don’t forget The Power of Sleep next Thursday. Earlybird price ends TOMORROW. Your teenagers can listen if they want to – they will be pleasantly surprised at how the messages are for their parents EQUALLY. They can ask questions, too – I’d love that.