Our Daughter has Disengaged from the Family

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

From the U.S.: Our 21 year old daughter recently told me and my husband that she does not feel close to our family and does not care at this point. My daughter is the youngest and has an older sister (three years older). My husband and I moved from Boston to Dallas in 2003. While the girls didn’t want to move they eventually made friends. The oldest daughter was very verbal about the transition while our youngest was not. It appeared that she was adjusting because she had made friends. However, when she entered middle school became withdrawn especially with her father. She would not talk during meals despite numerous attempts to draw her out and engage her in the conversation. Numerous efforts by both myself and husband to find out what was wrong but to no avail.

She eventually asked me by her senior year in high school if she could see someone professionally. We were happy as she felt that she needed to talk to someone about the challenges she was facing with fitting in. All appeared well until she came home for the summer after her first year in college in Boston. She reverted by to her solemn and distance demeanor. After heading back to school for her semester year, she seemed happier and called at least once a week. We thought that she was happier being away from and that deep down she hated us for moving but never express her disapproval.

My husband and I went to visit her last week in Boston for the summer and it was at that time that a mutual friend communicated to us that she had expressed that she did not feel close to us and did not care. We are perplexed and do not know where to go from here. We know our daughter loves us but I feel we have missed not meeting her needs during the move and now she is filled with resentments. Help
Once back

A: I’m sure this is terribly painful for you. But the most important thing you said is that you do know that your daughter loves you. Although the family story seems to be that the move when the girls were young is the basis for her unhappiness, I’m not sure that is the case. She was so young at the time and problems later emerged at middle school age — a time that is tough on many kids. Like many kids, she didn’t share with you what was making her so unhappy. Like many parents, you didn’t know how to draw her out. Although it isn’t really fair, she may unconsciously resent that you didn’t seem to understand what she needed at the time and couldn’t help her. (That’s just a guess that would be explored if she were in therapy.) As she matures, she’ll come to understand that the situation was more complicated than that.

It doesn’t surprise me that she is happier in Boston. For many young people, getting away from the hometown is a way to get a new start. Further, the family story is that she was happy in Boston so she has positive associations with being there. At college, she has had the opportunity to make new friends who don’t know her as that unhappy kid who was bullied or invisible in middle and high school. She gets to be the self she wants to be.

Her disconnect from you may be painful for you but it’s also quite normal. She’s figuring out who she is. Love her. Love her a lot. Don’t put pressure on her. She comes from a loving home. Chances are she’ll come back to you as her self-esteem builds and she feels more confident in herself. Celebrate her successes. Be there if she calls in distress — not with advice so much as reassurance that you know she is smart enough to figure out what she needs to do. Have confidence that you raised her with love and from a good home.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 24 Aug 2014

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2014). Our Daughter has Disengaged from the Family. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 25, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2014/08/24/our-daughter-has-disengaged-from-the-family/