Courage and Limits with Your Teen
This column uses a story based on a real-life situation in therapy to represent both the teen and parent viewpoints on the delicate balance between adolescents’ needs for containment and freedom.
Ashley was 19. She had been away at college her freshman and sophomore years when her life unraveled again. In high school, she had struggled for several years with escalating depression, drinking, and marijuana use, and the painful feeling that her mother was ashamed of her. Her parents did not recognize the seriousness of the situation until she began to scratch and then cut her arms with sharp objects, at which point her mom got scared and sought help. During her senior year of high school, her mom forced her into treatment, and with intensive individual, family and group therapies she become sober and psychologically stable.
Before leaving for college, Ashley was much better. She felt strong, proud of herself, and grateful to her parents for the ways they changed and learned to support her. Ashley even seemed to rise above her past — becoming an informal spokesperson for treatment and sobriety and seeking out ways to help friends and others in trouble.
At college Ashley initially participated in the support system set up for her, but then her attendance at therapy became sporadic. She became absorbed with campus life and seemed to revel in her independence. Ashley told her parents she felt “fine,” and announced that she no longer needed any antidepressants and had gone off them.
Toward the end of first semester, Ashley tried to avoid her parents’ calls. When they did speak, she was short with them, refusing to talk about school or therapy. When Ashley came home during winter break, she spent much of her time sleeping and staying in her room on Facebook. Though having agreed to get a job, she became too anxious to follow through the process. When her grades arrived, she could no longer hide that she had failed a course and was on probation. Ashley felt ashamed but promised her parents she would do better next term and go to her therapy appointments.
Unfortunately, the same cycle occurred the following year, culminating in a mounting emotional crisis toward the end of spring semester which she attempted to hide from her parents. When they questioned her over the phone about how she was doing, she told them she didn’t want to talk about it and wanted space. Her parents complied and backed off. When she was home over the summer, however, the signs that she was sinking became harder for her parents to ignore. (The warning signs of her depression included poor grades and failure at school, avoidance, inertia, withdrawal, staying in bed too much, weight gain, lack of motivation, irritability, and depressed mood.) Though her words stated otherwise, Ashley had again fallen into the danger zone.
Ashley’s mom, Laura, was a successful surgeon. She struggled with tremendous guilt over her role in her daughter’s emotional problems and failure to heed warning signs that Ashley was in trouble until things were so bad that Ashley started cutting herself.
Laura recognized that, due to her own upbringing, she had been unable to be available emotionally to Ashley and, on top of that, was perpetually disappointed with her. She came to understand that she had tried to mold her daughter into someone more conventional and ambitious, pressuring Ashley to be more like her, thereby giving her the message that she was not good enough.