herald

Wednesday 18 September 2019

'Is it my fault that my daughter is refusing to go to school?'

Each week, adult and specialist adolescent psychotherapist Belinda Kelly answers your queries

Often teenagers don't realise the impact of their behaviour when they take sides with one another.
Often teenagers don't realise the impact of their behaviour when they take sides with one another.

Q: My 14-year-old daughter has started refusing to go to school. She says she's afraid to leave the house. She sometimes talks to her guidance counsellor. She has always been quite an anxious child, never wanting to leave my side, tantrums before going into school. I often wonder if her birth affected her. She was born premature and was in intensive care for over three weeks. I managed to breastfeed her before she came out of hospital and for months after that too, but I worry it's affected our bonding.

A: Firstly I want to acknowledge the journey you and your daughter have made. You must have been so emotionally and physically vulnerable after her birth that it's remarkable you managed to breastfeed at all. Many mothers are unable to feed after the traumatic experience of childbirth and they then feel guilty.

You say you worry about the bonding between you. I find the word 'bonding' so impersonal. It places an unrealistic expectation on new mothers who are often unsupported in their communities. It fails to acknowledge the intensely unique experience of mothering. Being curious about how her birth experience may be shaping her posture in the world now will help you connect and attune to her.

In 2017, researchers found that adults who were born premature experience more anxiety than adults who were delivered as full-term babies. It's also worth considering that transitions can trigger separation anxiety in teenagers.

The need to separate from our parents is a transitioning process. The move into adolescence and secondary school is a major transitional achievement. It is not a given. These changes can provoke anxiety and fear in early adolescents. The world is becoming bigger, more unfamiliar and her peers may appear to be developing faster than she is.

She may be concerned that she's not ready to move at their pace, that she is not ready for the enormous panorama that's opening out before her. You can help to normalise her experience by talking about how you remember your 15-year old-friend's daughter hating being 15 because she didn't want to kiss boys or go to discos, she just wasn't ready for all that stuff and that's okay.

She may be insecure about increasing her life-space by going to a counsellor outside school. It may seem safer to stay in her home. If you find that the school counselling isn't helping her, I would sit firmly into a directional parenting role and tell her that you want her to see a therapist so she can feel less frightened in the world, so that she can go out and live her life.

Explain that you will be in the room with her. If that doesn't work, you could seek phone or Skype adolescent counselling. Check out blackfortinstitute.ie

Q: My daughter, who is 15 has completely changed since she fell out with her best friend a month ago. They've been friends since they were 10 and went everywhere together. They were part of a group of girls in school, but now they just completely ignore my daughter. She is totally heartbroken and hates going into school. She says she feels so embarrassed and stupid, that she is the problem, not them. She's also started to say she wants to change schools. In the mornings she can be verbally abusive and will start a fight with us for no reason at all.

A: Your daughter is spinning in a spiral of shame. At 15 her friends are the most important people in her world. This is the age when her friends co-create her identity formation, they make her feel safe and part of a community. She develops her independence from her family within this peer culture.

Now she has been cast adrift by the people who matter most to her. Every day she has to face them and try to deal with this intensely public rejection. Shame is the experience of not being received by the people who matter most to me. The more important the people, the more potential there is for shame to be activated.

Her response to this humiliation is to blame herself. She thinks that she is the 'problem'. Instead of realising that the problem lies in her social group which is not supporting her. Because she is overwhelmed her self-criticism then becomes thrown back at you in her verbally aggressive behaviour. I notice it happens at the time when she has to drag herself into school each day.

So there are plenty of reasons for her to want to fight, as she is unable to contain what's happening inside her. And she has no power to change what's happening in her environment. She needs to hear that she is not the 'problem'. That she is a loveable, precious human being who had a row with a friend.

No big deal, it happens all the time. People fight, make -up and move on.

When we exclude someone from a group it is a form of bullying. That maybe these friends aren't her friends if they can treat her this way.

She deserves friends who make her feel good about herself, that make her feel valued. I'd encourage her to develop other friendships inside and outside school.

If you haven't already, I would speak to her year head or the principal about the situation. Let your daughter know that this is really important as the school needs to be informed. They can then talk to the students involved to try and resolve the situation.

Often teenagers don't realise the impact of their behaviour when they take sides with one another. The year head can then check in with your daughter each day.

I'd also start suggesting activities or days out so she has things to look forward to.

If the school is not supportive of your daughter or, if you notice she is more distressed, it may be worth considering changing schools in the future.

Hopefully that is not a choice you will have to make.

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