We have been having problems with our youngest child, who is 16, for the past 18 months. She is always angry and argumentative and talks very disrespectfully, mainly to me: we can’t even have a decent conversation any more. At first, my husband wasn’t that supportive and I felt I was fighting a lonely battle, but he has become more supportive and together we do try talking to her about her behaviour. We discipline her sometimes by taking her phone away, but nothing seems to make her behaviour improve.
I have asked if she is having any difficulties, but she says she isn’t. She has lots of nice friends and socialises a lot. I try to talk to her and show affection but she pushes me away. I ask her to do things with me, but she always declines.
I have found her behaviour increasingly difficult and it is making me feel very down. I feel almost bereaved, as if I have lost my daughter, because we used to be so close and do a lot together and laugh a lot. I don’t know what to do. All I want is to have a relationship with her again. I love her so much.
You do still have a relationship with your daughter, but, for whatever reason, it has changed. In your longer letter, you said you had lifesaving surgery a few years ago, after being chronically ill for most of your daughter’s life. I think this may be significant.
I spoke to psychotherapist Frances Basset, a member of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (bacp.co.uk), about your letter. The word that stood out for both of us was “bereaved”. Your longer letter reads as if you are in the grip of a massive loss and I want to try to help you see this as more of a stage, a bridge (a shaky one, perhaps) to a different part of you and your daughter’s life.
Basset thinks it really comes across how low you feel, and how you have taken your daughter’s anger very much upon yourself, even though, in your longer letter, you say she is rude to the wider family, too. Basset suggests: “You might want to explore your sense of loss in your own life and what that means. With change, comes loss.”
Basset wants to make sure you have ruled out external issues such as drugs and alcohol, as they may be a factor. I know we have this stereotypical idea of teenagers being grumpy and non-communicative – they are the most demonised section of society and, incredibly, this seems acceptable. As I said in the past, teenagers may be big, but inside they often feel very small.
First, have you got some support for yourself, outside the family? Basset thinks this will be really helpful (your GP should be able to refer you for at least a few counselling sessions, so do look into this). Second, try to show you care, but back off. You want answers and intimacy, but you are likely to get neither by pushing for them. Keep suggesting little trips out – not every day, but occasionally – but be breezy if she doesn’t accept – don’t approach it as if your life depended on them.
“Anger,” explains Basset, “is often connected to fear.” What do you think your daughter might be afraid of?
Basset thinks that, although your daughter is going through a transition (adolescence), she may also be acting something else out. It is very hard to know what, but it could be some dysfunction within the family (that sounds dreadful, but most families have some dysfunction!). Or she may be angry with you for being ill and only able to express it now she feels you are safe and well. “What was your relationship like when you were ill?” asks Basset. “Your relationship with her may have been very intense when you were ill.”
I felt a certain pressure from you, too, about her growing up – as if without her you didn’t know who you were. Are you defined through your family? Is she picking up on your fear, your need for her to fill some gap in your life? This could lead to resentment. I suggest you find something just for yourself outside of the house – what makes you feel confident and good about yourself? Don’t talk to your daughter about “what’s wrong”, but about more general things (a tip: children tend to talk more if you are side to side with them and doing something else, a walk, cooking, or driving). Don’t be afraid of silence, or of a row. I would counsel against taking her phone away. I know it is not a popular view but I think you get further by being authoritative and confident, but understanding, rather than just confiscating stuff.
“Don’t be afraid of this [stage],” says Basset. “Don’t crumple. Give your child space to grow.”
It would be interesting to know what, when your daughter talks, she is saying – is there a repeated refrain? Are you listening to it?
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 27 March 2015.