How can we get our upset 13-year-old to talk to us?

Credit: John Sharry of the Irish Times
Q My 13-year-old daughter seems to be going through a hard time at the moment. She can fly off the handle and gets into big rows with me and especially her dad over the simplest things (like when he asks her to tidy her room) and then she says “everyone hates me”. Maybe it is just the hormones or there might be something going on with friends or something else, but she won’t tell me what.
She is on social media all day with her friends and is obsessed with being in touch with them. She also has these long sullen moods when I think she might be depressed – I found her crying on her bed the other day, but I asked her if anything was wrong she would not say. I just wish she would open up and talk to us. I am very worried about her.
Should we take her to see a professional to help her talk and who should this be?
A Becoming a young teenager is one of the hardest life stages to go through. Your body is growing at an alarming rate and is flooded by hormones. You experience large mood swings, including rage and upset as well as insecurity, anxiety and depression. You become very self-conscious as you struggle to fit in with friends and find your niche. And all this happens when there are increased pressures on you in school and you are pulling away from your parents who used to be your main supports.
As parents, it can be bewildering watching your child struggling with these issues especially when they might no longer confide in you and instead you bear the brunt of their emotional turmoil as they take it out on you. However, it is important to remember there is a lot you can do as a parent to help and that they still desperately need your support and presence as they go through this life stage. Below are some ideas on how to help your daughter open up and communicate better.

Listen During Conflict
When your daughter flies into a rage or has a meltdown, it is easy to become critical and defensive and to react by “fighting her back” or giving as good as you get. However, during these burst of emotions it can be helpful to listen a bit more. During these conflicts, if you listen you might get a sense of what is on her mind or what is troubling her.For example, if she says “everyone hates me”, you might acknowledge her feelings (“I’m sorry you feel like that”) and wait for her to say more. You can gently enquire as to what is behind her feelings (“What is upsetting you so much?”).
If you wait and listen she might reveal if something is troubling her at school or if she feels slighted by friends, or if there is something at home bothering her. Then you have made a start in helping her express herself. Sometimes in rows and conflicts you can get breakthroughs once you don’t react too defensively or dismissively.

Sometimes Just Support Her                                                                                                                 

Be very patient about getting her to “talk” or “open up”. Sometimes it is important just to support her without any expectation. For example, when you found her crying, you might simply soothe her and give her a big hug to reassure her before gently enquiring “is everything okay? I’m here to listen if you need to talk.” The key is to say you are there for her and ready to listen when she is ready.

Build connecting times
into the daily routine Good communication and relationships are built in everyday conversations and everyday routines. Try to make sure there are plenty of overlapping times in the day with your daughter when there is space to talk. This can be during the trip to school, when shopping together or even when you are watching a favourite TV programme together.
Having daily chatting times together is the key to creating the space for communication between you. Have a look at my website for other articles on building your relationship and communication with teenagers.
Use third-party conversations
You can also explore issues indirectly with your daughter. For example, if something comes up on the news or on TV about a depressed or withdrawn teenager, you can ask her what she thinks might be going on for that teenager.Ask her how she thinks her parents should try to help her and then say what you think. Third-party conversations are an excellent indirect way of sussing out where your teenager is at, while giving them the message that you are there for them.
Should you take her to see someone?
While lots of teenagers could benefit from talking to a third party such as a counsellor, they may not be interested in taking this offer up. If you are in conflict with them they can can perceive going to a counsellor as blaming them for family problems or indicating that there is something wrong with them personally. A lot depends on the context and how the help is offered. For example, a teenager might be happy to talk to a sports coach or a counsellor in school who they trust or even another adult in the extended family they are close to.
Whether your daughter is open to seeing someone or not, do seek help yourself as a parent. You could consult a professional or attend a parenting course with the goal of learning how best to communicate with your daughter and to manage her moods. Lots of therapists adopt a family centred approach and might see you with your daughter to facilitate communication. Do reach out and seek help from services to explore what options are open to you.
Dr John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology.
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