January 29, 2020
It was a regular well visit for a young girl. She was 14 and there was clearly some tension in the room between mother and daughter. It is nothing unusual. The teen years often come with a lot of eye-rolling and resistance as the battle for independence is in full gear. This young girl was a little over weight and had some acne on her face. The mother pointed out that she was concerned about her acne, her weight and said her hair was brittle and thin. We proceeded with the physical exam and then I was able to speak to the young girl alone. In the office, I have the opportunity to speak to both parents and teens separately which is always something I find insightful. Usually the parents and the child are worried about very different things. It is frustrating. It is normal.
If you have a teen, you have experienced the eye-rolls, the quick short answer responses to your questions and the seemingly aloof attitude. It is as if nothing that you say really means anything or matters. I suppose over time this frustration can lead to a sort of “giving up” on talking or giving advice. These feelings can leave a parent worried about their teen and what he/she may not be telling them. Battles for even the silliest of things ensue and the distance grows larger.
The sad thing is that most teens feel alone as they navigate what can be a new and scary world. They are trying so hard to fit in and they are not sure of who they are and what they stand for. Some seem to cruise through the teen years without a bump and others struggle. It is a time of self-doubt and self-exploration. Who am I? Who are my real friends? What is life really about? Teens live in the now. The present consumes them and they think if a certain group of kids doesn’t like them or they are not cool their world is essentially over. Some become obsessed with how they look, their weight or their “persona” on social media.
Parents on the other hand are looking at the overall picture. They have experienced life and want so desperately to protect their teens from the evils in the world. It can become all-consuming. The internet has become a quick resource for teens and they have access to much more information (with videos and images) than most parents have ever had in their lifetime. It is hard to keep up. It is also hard for some parents to remember what it is really like to be a teen. They are so focused on their role as a parent that they do not really stop to put themselves in the place of their teen. This is exactly what was happening with my patient.
When I sat in the room with the young girl, the first thing she said to me was, “my mom hates me”. I paused. She continued and explained that her mother was always telling her that she needed to lose weight, that her skin looked horrible and that her hair looked awful and thin. She told me that her mother was always yelling at her and proceeded to cry.
In the next room the mother was waiting. When I went into the room she started to cry. She explained that she was a single mom and was trying her best to work and provide for her family. She felt alone and worried and didn’t know what to do. She went on to tell me that she was worried about her daughter who was often crying and refusing to leave her room.
This scenario is not uncommon. This the perfect time to bring up the possibility of therapy. Explaining to a family that sometimes what we really need is a neutral person to talk to. Someone that will not judge you and will provide a safe place to speak your mind. I try to explain to teens that there is nothing wrong with them if they see a therapist. There are times in life when we can all use a person to really talk to without the worry of being judged or yelled at. It is also a wonderful time to learn about coping skills and how to find productive and useful ways to manage stress and difficult situations. Often these therapy sessions can also involve the parents when the teen is ready and can prove very useful in helping communication. The earlier intervention begins the better. Studies show that the earlier we provide help the better the outcome.
Do not be afraid to ask for help and do not let your teens lack of attention to your advice stop you from giving it. This is when they need it the most. Even though it seems that they are not listening, they are. Be careful of the words you use and remind your teen that the best way to get through the teen years is to stay true to themselves. Encourage them to find friends that are like them (even if it is only one) and to focus their energy on what makes them truly happy and feels genuine to them.
However, more often than not the best approach is just listening. When you feel like you just can’t find the right words to say, say nothing. When you are considering giving advice but feel that the moment just is not right, say nothing. Many times in life what we all need is just to know that someone really cares. Be that one person for your child.
Have a wonderful week!
Elizabeth Vainder, M.D.