Q My 13-year-old is stuck in her bedroom all the time. She has good friends at her new school and is always on her phone to them, but she never goes out with them.
I met her dad when I was travelling abroad and I had her very young. We separated when she was four. It was a horrible break-up and I got sole custody, but he’s made no effort to contact her. Those years were really hard as I tried to support her. We moved around a lot and were homeless for a while.
When she was six, I came back to Ireland to be with my family who have been amazing. They all spoil her and she is her grandparent’s favourite. She has me wrapped around her finger and we are more like best friends than mother and daughter. Since she started secondary school, she comes into my bed some nights when I’m asleep. Whenever I try to get her to go out or to try something new, she always finds a way to avoid it or talks me around.
Answer: I was saddened to hear about all that you and your daughter have been through. Now that your life has calmed down, it’s understandable that you want to put the past behind you and start anew. You want her to be able to separate from you and to leave her childlike ways behind her, but it seems to me that confused hurt child is very much alive inside your daughter.
From what you’ve told me, she has experienced chaos, disruption, hostility and the traumatic loss of her father. These experiences negatively impact how teenagers view themselves, how they regulate their emotions and how they manage in their social environments. All of these unresolved fragments from her childhood may block her transition into adolescence. They will limit her ability to increase her life-space and move out into the wider world.
The impulse to develop into a teenager means that children need to leave the familiar world of childhood and family. This is where they start rebelling, wearing makeup, wanting a tattoo or piercing, or refusing to go to family events. This forbidden behaviour helps them to create a boundary between teenagers and adults.
It is from this boundary that they can work out ‘Who is me and who is not me?’ It is through this experimentation that they begin to develop an authentic self. If your daughter is not able to begin that journey towards separation, then she may be feeling overwhelmed and anxious about new experiences.
I imagine she’s able to be with her friends in school because their day is structured and she doesn’t have to face the demands of interpersonal contact.
Instead of worrying why she won’t go out with her friends, let’s explore what might be going on inside her. Here are some of the thoughts I imagine your daughter may be having: ‘Why am I different from all of my friends?’ ‘Why doesn’t my dad want to see me?’ ‘Does he hate me?’ ‘Why does he hate me?’ ‘Does he hate my mum?’ ‘Why did they break up?’ ‘Was it my fault?’ ‘I don’t want to go to my friends’ houses.’ ‘I wish I was normal like them.’ ‘I hate when they talk about their dads because it makes me feel weird and uncomfortable.’ ‘I don’t know how to talk about my dad.’
She may be experiencing feelings of shame and isolation because she feels so different from her peers. At this age, she just wants to be like everyone else.
You say you are more like friends than mother and daughter. Sometimes when mothers have their daughters young, they can end up acting more like their friends than parents — but by being this way, the message is that her power is equal to yours. This means that you can’t be accountable and set limits or give consequences if she breaks the rules. It also means there is no boundary that she can push away from.
Imagine if your friend told you that she was taking your phone off you because you didn’t come home on time. Would you take her seriously? If you are always seeking her approval, she won’t see you as a responsible adult who can set limits and follow through on negotiated plans.
As parents, we need to have authority in order to set boundaries and to make our children feel contained. It would be worth asking yourself why you need to be her friend? Are you overcompensating out of misplaced guilt for the difficult past that you both endured? Or are you reacting against how you were parented?
When teenagers need to sleep in their parent’s bed at night, it signals an insecure or anxious attachment. This makes sense to me given that for much of her life, it was just you and her alone in the world. Now that she has started a new secondary school, she has to manage yet another transition. Not to mention school timetables, 13 subjects, new teachers and peer acceptance. Make no mistake she is also being exposed to sex and drugs on her iPhone, which can really frighten young people.
I would recommend that you find an accredited therapist who will work with both of you. Once a relationship has been established, you could start to gently discuss the impact of her past. This way, you could safely explore her confusion and fears about growing up. You could also support her with the multiple issues around starting secondary school.
With enough psychological support, she can begin to get to know herself so that she can move out of this frozen way of being in the world.
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