Loner? An unhappy child

It wasn’t that he just wanted to be alone for a while, it was hours and hours in his room. I’d knock and open the door, and there he was, lying on his bed, staring at the ceiling. He stopped going out with friends, saying he was tired, and he did sleep an awful lot. But then I’d hear him moving around in the early hours of the morning. His appetite dropped off. He would also get really angry and shout and yell. He once punched the wall so hard he made his knuckles bleed. People said it was his age, teenagers are like that, let him be, give him some space. But I knew something was really wrong. I thought maybe he was taking drugs, but he just seemed awfully, constantly sad.

Finally I spoke to my doctor who said that parents usually know when there’s a problem, and she referred us to a local therapist specializing in adolescents. He is now having individual therapy and we are having some family meetings. He seems a little brighter and more hopeful.

Tearing out my hair Remind you of anyone?

Parenting my teenager was really getting me down, from getting her to clean her room to her negative attitude. It seemed like a fight every step of the way. I was tearing my hair out. One time, when I’d had an especially bad day, my mom took me aside and asked me if my daughter reminded me of anyone? Funnily enough, my automatic reaction was to smile and say “Yeah, me.” Mom and I sat there all evening, reminiscing about the things I did, laughing at my antics. It made me realize that sometimes, when I fight with my daughter, I could choose to help her instead. Even tough jobs like cleaning her room would be quicker if we did them together.

I feel more of a connection with my daughter knowing we both went through this phase and, if I hang in there with her, she’ll come through it, just like I did.

Dealing with emotions

Adolescence can be a time of intense and sudden bursts of emotion. Even the most everyday situations can be experienced with more extreme feelings than they were as a younger child. This can be very difficult for parents to deal with. Unlike toddlers, who can be easily cuddled, teens require a more complex response that does not always come naturally.

Listen, check, label

If your teenage daughter is winding herself up into a state of high anxiety and distress, stop what you are doing and pay attention to her. Listen to what she is saying. Try not to interrupt or contradict or instantly make her feel better. When she is finished, check that you have the story right, for example, who called who first, what exactly was said, and so on. Now try and put a name to her emotion and check whether you have got it right. You might try something like: “It sounds as though she has made you really angry.” This gives your daughter a chance to stop and think. She may adjust the label to match exactly how she feels: “I’m not angry, I’m furious.”

This careful listening, checking the story, and labeling the emotion can be very helpful. Now you can ask your daughter what she wants to do. If she is still angry, you might suggest some calming-down time and agree a time to talk later. She may want to talk now and get your help in coping with her feelings, or she may want to try and solve her dilemma herself. Together you can look at the problem and her possible options for a solution with their likely consequences, and she can decide, with your help and support, how she is going to proceed.

Teaching emotional intelligence Helping with adolescent worries

Over the last 30 years we have seen increases in emotional and behavioral problems in young people. Support agencies report dramatic rises in self-harming behavior. In the 11-to-16-year-old age range, 13 percent of boys and 10 percent of girls have a mental disorder.

Emotional intelligence

This fairly new concept is made up of three key areas: self-esteem, coping skills, and social support. Growing up in a stable and positive home and family might be enough to learn these skills. However, where poverty, illness, family dysfunction, or disability undermine emotional resilience, intervening through home or community programs to prevent emotional and behavioral problems is possible.


Reflecting an accurate and positive picture of your teen by using praise and positive feedback will help build her self-esteem. You might comment on a small act of kindness to an older person and how much it was appreciated or point out how funny she was at a family gathering. Use criticism rarely and constructively. Always focus on the behavior not the person. For example: “I was worried that you ignored Emily last night, she may have felt hurt by that.” This invites self-reflection and discussion rather than defensiveness.

Coping skills

Encourage her interests, activities, and social connections. You may not have chosen hip-hop music and street dancing, but give it a chance and seek out the talent and creativity that it brings out in her. Model an optimistic view of the world and her place within it. Each time you encounter a problem, you can show her that there is a way of overcoming it. A failed test is a learning experience and a wake-up call. A family illness or death brings people together and shows what can be endured when you support each other.


Encourage independence and autonomy through small steps of increasing responsibility. Get her to make her own hair, dental, and doctor’s appointments.

If you are angry or upset with her, tell her how you feel about her behavior: “I am angry with you for not letting me know where you were last night” is likely to produce an apology and a discussion about what she will do next time whereas, “You are so selfish, how could you do that to me?” will elicit a denial and a personal insult in return. Listen to what your teen has to say, be prepared to be wrong, and be aware that she is rapidly becoming your intellectual equal.

Social support

Finally, to feel safe and secure in the world, she must be able to make relationships with other people outside the family. She needs to learn the important skill of empathy, of putting herself in other’s shoes. She must learn to give and take in social and romantic relationships. Acting out situations where she takes the role of someone else and you pretend to be her can help to clarify things for her. For example, if she is struggling with a possessive friend, role playing can help your daughter work out some strategies for letting her down gently and give her insight into how the friend feels. Ultimately she must achieve autonomy and independence, and be able to rely upon herself.

Encouraging your teen’s interests and praising him for effort and achievements will help build his self-esteem, making him feel happier about who he is.

Offering physical affection is a good way to help your teen to label and reflect on her emotions in a safe space while she is upset. This may help to increase her emotional intelligence.

Your teenager’s social support network, formed of friends, and family, reflects an important aspect of emotional intelligence: Empathy.

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