3612402304_08304d8c19Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for Women’s Voices in many articles over the years. Today, she counsels a mother whose daughter is a dispirited loner who has always shied away from relationships with other people.

Dear Dr. Ford:

I am writing about my youngest daughter, who is 17.  She has always been shy, and not social.  I have three other children who are athletic, social, and work hard in school.  They are “normal” and use the gifts they have.  My youngest daughter is an excellent writer and reads voraciously.  She had trouble separating early on when it was time for her to go to preschool, has never been to a a sleep-over, refuses to have anyone sleep over here, has no friends, and is now in therapy.  The diagnosis is “depression. “

So far, she has been given four different medications, and none of them have made a difference, except that she hates the side effects.

She makes A’s in English and C’s in math and flunked public speaking (which was required).  We encouraged her to change schools when she was starting high school, but she was more afraid of the change in schools than her unhappiness in the school she is in.  The teachers treat her decently, and she is a loner, so the students don’t have much to do with her—fortunately, they don’t treat her badly.  She defines herself as the “outsider.”

She fights with my husband and me if we push her to do anything out of her comfort zone.  She is becoming overweight, and anything I say causes a volatile response.

I am most concerned about how to plan for this summer between her junior and senior years of high school and what to do about college.  She is very likely not to do well in a dorm setting, since she likes to be by herself.  When we spoke with her and her guidance counselor last week, the only thing she said was, “I just want to go to a college that is far away from here.”  I have friends whose children took an extra year at a boarding school, and some forced their children to do a gap year, but I am not sure my daughter would ever come out of her room.

She has never made suicidal gestures, but is clearly depressed and angry.

Do you have any advice for parents like me?

Jenny

Dr. Ford Responds:
Dear Jenny:

Like most things involving rearing kids, your question raises some complicated issues. It can be very difficult for us parents to decide what to do to help our children, even when professionals are in the mix. Adolescents can be particularly troubling, because it’s hard to sort out what is pathological behavior and what is average adolescent development: A lot of their behavior can seem weird, especially to the bedeviled parents.

Though your daughter has been diagnosed with depression, your letter indicates that she has a consistent pattern of character traits that have endured since childhood and which are now being magnified by the demands of high school. In other words, she has always been introverted, a loner, and afraid of new situations. A certain amount of this is “hard-wired,” meaning it is part of her essential makeup and is not that easy or likely to change.

Unfortunately, success as an adolescent in the average school setting favors children who are outgoing and outspoken, as well as those who have talents in multiple academic areas.Your daughter may be right in saying she is  an outsider: At least in your family she is a rare bird. While it is a blessing to be able to fit the cultural norms as your older children did, the fate of someone who is different can be more challenging, but not tragic. Clearly she is a girl with some talents and interests—you say she reads widely, writes well, and gets A’s in English. Luckily, as she matures it will become possible for her to specialize her academic pursuits rather than to have to demonstrate competency throughout the spectrum. Remember that Emily Dickinson didn’t have to endure an American high school, and I’m guessing she might have been considered “different” if she had.

The immediate problem of how to help her through high school and into college is also complicated by the fact that at her age, any advice or intervention from parents is usually unwelcome. For example, any comments or suggestions about her weight are likely to be ineffective or even to backfire. She must decide to fix this on her own (everyone who is overweight is aware of it, believe me). The best you can do is to provide a good example in your own lifestyle and quietly provide healthy choices in your meals at home.I cannot comment too specifically on the clinical diagnosis of depression and the drugs prescribed, except to say that it can often take several trials to find the right medication. Do you and (importantly) your daughter agree with the diagnosis? Does she have a good working alliance with her therapist? If your answer to either of these questions is “no,” I recommend that you consider a consultation with someone else. For adolescents it can be challenging, but very important, to find the right “fit, ” and it can make all the difference for someone like your daughter, who doesn’t easily feel understood.

Going forward, I would recommend that you let her set the tone and make choices for herself whenever that makes sense. Emphasize her strengths and help her explore appealing options for her future. For example, there are many summer programs that emphasize writing and English. If she found a good one, she might also find a higher proportion of students like her there. Since she wants to go to college far from home, she may as well try going away over the summer before college. And though she may not be ready for college yet, she can always apply, and when she gets in you can decide about the need for a gap year. Most colleges will allow a year’s deferral. By next spring, things might look different to both of you.

Indeed, a year is a long time in the life of a 17-year-old. As much as possible I would encourage her in that time to focus on independence and self-awareness skills: making her own decisions, developing her interests, and planning things for herself. Help her see herself as original and unique rather than different or odd.

Finally, treat her as if she knows what’s best for herself: Who knows, maybe she does!
Dr. Cecilia Ford