FAMILY ALMANAC

Help! My once-happy teen is lonely and friendless after a breakup

Posted Jan. 14, 2013, at 1:36 p.m.

Q. We have two daughters, aged 17 and 13, and I am increasingly concerned about the older one.

She was a happy kid in the ninth grade and part of the 10th grade — busy with her school, her sports and her social life. We loved meeting the boys and girls who hung out at our house and the girlfriends who came over for their regular sleepovers.

Her life went down the drain, however, when her boyfriend (her first boyfriend) broke up with her. Although her grades were still good, she cut off contact with all of her friends; she refused to participate in school activities; she stayed in her room; she ate too much and then she wore sweatpants and sweatshirts to hide the weight she had gained. This reduced her social life to zero and made her really lonely, but we couldn’t get her to re-engage.

Last fall, she took an interest in life again and we were delighted. She watched her diet, worked out at the gym, lost weight and made new friends, but she slipped into a funk again, gained back the weight she had lost, and broke with these friends, too. They were into drugs and drinking, she said, but I don’t believe it.

Life is very black and white for my daughter. She doesn’t forgive slights, she is judgmental, she has a volcanic temper when things don’t go her way, and she criticizes everything her sister does.

Even though she is uber responsible with her work, beloved by the kids she babysits (and by their parents), she is a different kid at home. Talking to her is like walking through a minefield for me, and her dad has only marginally more luck.

I have broached the idea of therapy with her several times but she refuses to go. I can’t force her to try it but I don’t want her to be lonely and friendless either.

How can I help this dearly loved daughter navigate the tensions and pressures of her life?

A. Timing is everything, isn’t it?

A young woman in graduate school can usually handle a breakup pretty well, even if she’s dumped by someone she loves. Rejection, however, can devastate a young teen if her hormones are raging and her boyfriend has thrown her over in a callous or embarrassing way. Breaking up takes practice, just like everything else.

If your daughter felt that he was judging her — rather than judging their relationship — her brain may have gotten stuck in an emotional pit, much like a soldier who was traumatized by a wartime battle and then developed post-traumatic stress syndrome afterwards.

Whatever the cause of your daughter’s unhappiness, she needs to get over it quickly, but she shouldn’t do it alone. If one person in the family has a problem, the whole family has a problem and the whole family should fix it, too.

You can do that more quickly and more easily if you get a therapist to help you examine your feelings, understand each other better, and keep the meetings civil and on target. Look for a clinical social worker, a psychologist, or a psychiatrist who is experienced; who relates well with teenagers and who will include you, your husband, and your younger child in at least some of these sessions. This will remind your daughter that she may carry a burden but she never carries it alone, and that she may be in pain, but pain, once shared, weighs so much less.

A nutritionist could help your daughter, too, because high school students are more likely to follow the advice of an expert than the advice of a mom.

Your daughter also is an expert — at least when she talks about her friends — and you should believe her information, too, if you can. Although she may or may not be exaggerating when she says that she dropped her friends because they drank and used drugs, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse probably wouldn’t be too surprised. According to CASA’s latest report, nearly one out of five teenagers drinks, smokes or uses drugs in or near their high school every day. These problems are almost as bad in private schools as they are in public schools, and many teenagers try alcohol and pot after seeing online pictures of teens who are drinking, using drugs and looking cool.

If your daughter dropped some those friends because of their behavior, she did the right thing. Sometimes it’s better to have no friends at all than to have the kind of friends who could lead her astray.

Send questions to advice@margueritekelly.com or to Box 15310, Washington, D.C. 20003.

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