Dear Dr. Nagpal,
Our 16 year old daughter is becoming increasingly distant from our family, spending most of her time with her boyfriend. She has lost interest in athletics (at which she once excelled) and her schoolwork and grades are deteriorating. Now she wants to get a tattoo but my wife and I think she's too young. Do you have any
suggestions? Thank you,Geoff
Thank you for your question. Sixteen is a significant time in a young person’s life. Much of identity development takes place in the adolescent years, with teenagers often trying to answer the basic question, “Who am I?” Not surprisingly, many teens start figuring this out by trying out new things that seem “unlike” them – much to the chagrin of their parents! It seems that your daughter may be going through such a phase in her identity development – a phase where she has rejected an identity she once had – athlete and good student, and is trying out a new one – poor student with boyfriend and tattoo.
It is great that you are reaching out for some answers or on how to deal with the changes in your daughter’s (understandably) worrisome behaviors. It can be very trying for parents to deal with such changes and many parents tend to become reactive due to the emotions these types of behaviors set off in them. They may try to restrict their child by setting new & stricter rules and taking away privileges, or they may try to make the teenager see reason by lecturing them. Many of us have heard these lectures in our teenage years that usually begin with, “when I was your age….” You get the point. None of these attempts are likely to have the desired effect. In fact, it is quite typical for such well-meaning but developmentally-inappropriate strategies to result in a “push-back” and have the opposite effect than is intended. The tone of your question suggests that you may have already tried some or all of these ways.
In figuring out a response that is more likely to be effective, it is a good idea to rule out any underlying causes (besides identity development in process) for her behaviors. Keep in mind that the rates of depression and suicide among adolescents are significant. Over 8% of adolescents, ages 12 to 17, will experience a major depressive episode (SAMHSA, 2008. Moreover, almost 17 percent of high school students have seriously considered suicide, 16.5% have made suicide plans, and 8.5% had tried to kill themselves at least once (CDC, 2003). Some of the behaviors you have mentioned e.g. distancing from family, drop in grades, can be suggestive of depression.
I don’t mean to alarm you, but they can also be suggestive of drug use – which many adolescents use as a means of coping with emotional difficulties, depression, or stress. It is important to find out if any of these things are going on with your daughter. One way to do this is to speak to her yourself, but this conversation must be one where it is clear to her that your intent is to help not punish. Another way to get a sense for underlying causes is to take her to see a professional counselor or psychologist, and participate with her in any therapy that is suggested.
Whatever your decision regarding seeing a professional, your approach to your daughter at this stage of her life can make a significant difference to the outcome. One of the more positive things you can do is to find activities (even activities you would not normally do) that she enjoys, and plan to do them with her. If you can have a calm conversation and express your concerns, but not tell her what to do, that is also a good idea.
This can include expressing your concerns about schoolwork and grades and the time she is spending with her boyfriend. But at the end of the conversation you must make it clear that she “owns” her homework and grades.
You will love her no matter what choices she makes, you will feel sad if she “fails” in her life, but you will not spend the family money getting her out of any holes she digs for herself.
As for the tattoo, as parents of adolescents and young adults we have to realize the limits of what we can control, but also understand that we may have avenues for influence if we are able to maintain a loving relationship and express our thoughts calmly and non-reactively. For instance, many parents set an “age rule” - and explain that the reason for this is they want their child to be a certain age before deciding to permanently alter their body. Beyond explaining your thoughts non-reactively and calmly, and letting her know you realize you can’t stop her if this is what she wants to do, the less said the better, in my opinion. Good luck and please let us know how it goes.
Disclaimer: My responses in this column are for educational purposes only and do not imply a professional relationship. Any contact you have with me through this column does not constitute a client-therapist relationship. It is not possible for me to know your personal situation from the question/s you ask, and therefore the information provided by me should not be considered psychotherapy. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding any mental health symptom or medical condition. Never disregard professional psychological or medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read in Q&A with Dr. Nagpal. Neither myself nor Still Waters Counseling, LLC, or any other entity involved in the creation, support, maintenance, or provision of this column will be liable for any incidental, consequential, or punitive damages arising out of your access to, or use of, this column.