Q: I am really struggling with my 15-year-old daughter. Anytime I talk to her, or even ask her a question, she just mumbles at me.
Her room looks like a pigsty, with dirty plates under the bed, dirty clothes stuffed back in her wardrobe, smelly socks stuffed under her bedclothes. When I ask her to tidy her room, she gets angry, accusing me of always being on her back. Every day she seems to lose something and I have to keep replacing things. She never seems to have time to shower and her hair looks so greasy.
She is glued to her phone and spends most of the evening in her room on Snapchat or Instagram. Because she’s always late for school, I now have to drop her in each day and she sits in the car with her headphones on ignoring me.
I am ashamed to say this but I’m starting to really dislike her and I dread her coming home from school. Is this normal teenage behaviour? She has lots of friends and is doing well in her studies.
Answer: As your daughter is showing no signs of social or school withdrawal, her behaviour sounds absolutely normal. She is suffering from a bad case of teenage brain remodelling. Because her brain is still growing she hasn’t yet acquired the skills to regulate her emotions or to prioritise and plan ahead.
The highest part of your brain, just under your scalp is called the cortex. We think, reflect, perceive, make decisions and plan with this part of the brain. The front of the cortex is the master control centre and that is why it’s called the executive region. Our self awareness comes from this area. The cortex in the teenage brain is not fully developed. When your daughter is overwhelmed or making poor choices, she is operating from the lower part of her brain, the limbic area. This area is more active in adolescents than in children or adults. This is why her emotions can rise rapidly without the calming influence of the undeveloped upper cortex.
A study found that when teenagers were shown photographs of neutral non smiling faces, a part of their limbic emotional brain became activated. They were convinced that these neutral faces were hostile and not to be trusted. This is why so many of the teenagers I work with tell me that their teachers don’t like them or that their school principal has a problem with them.
So when you make an innocent comment, your daughter perceives it as a personal affront or attack. It’s why she has difficulty making decisions and is over reactive. And why she keeps forgetting to prioritise her shower or to tidy her room. This is also why she loses her jacket or leaves her belongings behind in school.
You say that you are starting to dislike her and that you dread her coming back from school. I wonder what her chaos and overwhelm brings up in you? What happens inside you when you feel rejected? Does it make you panic and want to run away? How did your parents communicate with you when you were disobedient or overwhelmed? Were you ever allowed to make a mess or to leave dirty clothes lying on the bedroom floor?
When we can go inside and take a moment to see what’s happening for us, then we can be present with our children. When we can be present, then we can be with them. The way to do this is to listen with your heart, not with your head. The next time she is angry with you, I want you to ignore the content of what she is saying and look at her physical body language. I want you to look under her behaviour. Look at her eye contact, facial expression, tone of voice and her posture.
If you sense that she is scared or angry, make good eye contact with her and reach out to hug her or touch her shoulder. Then I want you to gently reflect back to her what you are experiencing. You can say “it sounds as if you are really hurt that I keep picking on you”.
By doing this, you are attuning to the frightened part of her lower brain. Or what we call “name it to tame it”. We all know the healing effect of being met when we are distressed and we also know the impact of not being met. By being calm and trying to attune with her, you can actually help her to build connections in her brain. This will help to develop her executive control centre so that, as she grows, she can become more self aware, make better decisions and not be so controlled by her emotions.
On a practical level, I would use negotiation tactics to get her to agree to tidy her room one day a week. All she has to do is have a tidy room one day a week. She can even send you a photo! If she does that, you are not allowed to comment on her room for the rest of the week. If she doesn’t tidy it once a week, you are free to complain and pester her.
I am not in favour of teenagers having their phones in their bedrooms, especially during the evenings. This is the time when they are most likely to be bullied or to receive inappropriate content without parental supervision. It may be worth having a chat with her about putting boundaries in place around her phone use.
When she’s in a calm mood and not racing to go out somewhere, tell her that you can’t afford to keep replacing her lost things. Negotiate with her that the next time she loses something, you will pay for half of it and she can cover the cost of the other half.
In terms of the school run, I would sit down with her and work out how much time she needs to get ready in the morning and what time she needs to leave at in order to be on time for school. Make sure you are up in the morning with her. Prepare a nice breakfast and have it calmly together. Keep giving her positive, gentle reminders when she needs to leave to be on time. By doing this, you are giving her ample support to be responsible without bringing her into the school yard.
The next time you are in the car together and she puts on her headphones, gently touch her shoulder and ask her not to wear them. Say that you like to talk to her in the car and that you feel pushed away and sad when she does that. This will show her how much you value her presence.
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