Depression Could Be the Cause of Lack of Motivation

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I’m in high school and unmotivated to do well in school – I don’t know what to do

DR. RUTHERFORD: This is a very interesting dilemma. Lack of motivation to do well can be caused by a number of things.

MOLLY: This was submitted by a high school student in Redwood City, California. He added that he tries “in school and in life” but feels like he can do a lot better. For example he knows he needs to study for the SAT test but despite knowing that, has no motivation to do his best. He added that he’s wondering if he and his Mom, who is divorced and “single handedly supporting (him) should see a therapist and if so, what type?”
He sounds like he recognizes that he has a problem but is “lost.”

DR. RUTHERFORD: Yes, I think “lost” is the right word. I would start out wondering if he’s worried about leaving his mother on her own if he goes off to college. What if he does well and leaves her behind on her own? It sounds like she’s been having a difficult time, especially about money issues. College costs lots of money; maybe he feels guilty using her money for school. If he doesn’t score well on the SATs and school testing, he won’t be going to college.

MOLLY: That’s interesting. What other things should be considered?

DR. RUTHERFORD: I think he might be depressed, which is contributing to his ‘paralysis of will’. We don’t know anything about his relationship with his father – does he financially contribute to the family, does he see his child regularly, is he a good role model for his son, etc. A father’s role is extremely important in a child’s life, particularly in role modeling successful behavior and encouraging that in his son – or, for that matter, a daughter.

MOLLY: Do you think he should see a therapist?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Absolutely! I feel strongly about the importance of him seeking some help. Intuitively, I think he needs to see someone without his mother, so that he can feel freer to talk about any guilt he may be experiencing as well as his depression. I think his Mom can certainly attend a session or so with him.

MOLLY: What kind of therapist should he see?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Someone familiar with treating kids his age who uses a psychodynamic approach. This kind of approach recognizes the importance of understanding feelings and motivations that are under the surface. Just telling him to do well won’t get too far, I’m afraid. He sounds depressed to me and perhaps feeling guilty, too.

MOLLY: Are there long term consequences for not addressing this issue now?

DR. RUTHERFORD: Without a doubt. He is unfocused about his future, even as he knows how important it to focus. He could miss the opportunity to go off to school and all that that implies. He certainly could do that later in his life, but he needs to work through this issue, no matter what. This kind of “paralysis of will” could follow him through much of his life, and that would be a real shame. It sounds like he has great potential.

How To Deal With A Defiant Teen

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My normally cheerful daughter is approaching puberty and is becoming mean, grumpy and defiant.

MOLLY: This question came from a reader based in Los Angeles.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): This behavior is not uncommon at all. You might even say it’s par for the course.

Physically speaking, the frontal lobes kick into action during pre-puberty and puberty. The frontal lobes are what control rational thought and decision-making. This is when often I’ll hear parents wonder what happened to their sweet, wonderful child who woke up one morning and became unpleasant all the time. A lot of this behavior has to do with the physical maturation process of the frontal lobe of the brain.

As a parent myself, I counsel that parents need a lot of patience and separate time from their kids while this process is carrying out, and the parents should just remember that period will pass.

MOLLY: But, as a parent whose child is acting this way, how do you deal with it at the time?

MOM: I think that when parents get too involved emotionally with the dramas of what’s going on with the child, they can lose themselves in the turmoil caused by the teen. This slide really only makes matters worse.

The better idea is for parents to keep a little bit of emotional distance during this time. It’s not going to last forever, and some humor and perspective can be very helpful for the family to get through it. If the parent has a partner, sharing frustrations with a partner can be extremely helpful to allow the parent to vent privately from the teen. If they don’t have a partner, sharing the experience with friends can help the parent feel less out of control and helpless.

Reach out to other parents because everybody who has a pre-teen or teen-aged child, particularly daughters earlier but also sons a little later in the teens, experiences this to some degree. Sometimes it’s a larger degree than others and finding the right parenting path can be dicey.

MOLLY: How long does this irrational and emotional period last?

MOM: It may be a more individualized thing on a person-by-person basis, but I think parents can count on at least one year. I do think when girls get to be about 15, generally speaking, they settle down and they return to more like they were before they went through this episode. Actually, frontal lobe activity settles down about the age of 25.

MOLLY: Is it worth it to point it out to to the teens while they are acting this way?

MOM: It’s not a bad idea to mention it as you notice your child approaching this time. I think it can be very helpful to educate your child about the frontal lobes and show her where they are located (on the front of your forehead). Then explain exactly what I had just said: that the frontal lobes are developing during this age and it may make somethings seem confused and extra emotional for her, but she will pass through this stage. Giving her some idea what’s ahead of her might be helpful to her to sort out why she might be feeling so intensely sometimes. Teens don’t understand what’s going on inside of them or why they’re so upset or are feeling so grumpy.

What adolescents need most is to have more separate space from their parents in which to grow and start to learn to make their own decisions. This is not to say that parents should be hands-off during these years, but that guidance should replace the constant monitoring needed with younger children. This is part of the maturation process for parents and children, and everyone goes through some version of it.
The job of a teenager, psychologically speaking, is to begin the separation process from his or her parents. For some kids it’s very traumatic and for other kids it’s not such a big deal.

MOLLY: How can parents help that process along?

MOM: I think parents can really help that process when they are able to separate what’s best for them from what their kid needs. What happens to parents at this stage is that they get very nervous about exposure to sex and restricted substances. The natural impulse for parents is to clamp down on their kids and attempt to keep them safe at home where they can be watched. But honesty that’s probably not the best of idea because the kid will fight like crazy against that.

I think that the best approach is for parents to talk with their kid –and by that I mean mostly listen to the teen– and to not come down so hard on the teens but rather give them a little bit more freedom. Does that sound counter-intuitive? Rebellion in teens is an expression of their need to be less tightly tethered to their parents.

In exchange for increased freedom a parent might link the privilege to school performance. A parent can say to the teen, “You’re a smart kid, I expect you to get a 3.0 average in school. We believe you can do this, and we are going to let you be in charge of your life. We will allow you to do x, y, and z, until or unless you show us that you cannot handle it. As long as you manage your time and get your responsibilities done, we’ll continue to give you more and more freedoms as time goes on. We don’t expect perfection, but we expect to see you putting forth the effort to be a trustworthy person who does well in your job, which at this point is school.”

MOLLY: Those freedoms are what specifically?

MOM: They might be what time you come home at night or a curfew…

MOLLY: This is even for a 12 year old?

MOM: No, this is more like 14 and 15 years old. There are more options for a child because their world is smaller.

The key is not to reflexively clamp down really hard on a child when they’re going through adolescence because it will just make matters worse and leave bad feelings on both sides. As the parent in this dynamic, you want to mitigate that potential negativity. Of course, a lot depends on what’s going on and what level the behavior has reached. Everyone will experiment and make mistakes as they go through life, but If your kid continues to act out and escalates the behavior, then we move into another realm of parenting. In this post, we’re talking about kids doing the usual kid things while growing up.

MOLLY: And if the acting out gets worse instead of better with more freedoms?

MOM: My basic motto with kids at this age or any age really is that you trust them until they show you that they’re not trustworthy. Then you have to do something different, but that’s another conversation.

MOLLY: I also think that even when kids show you that they’re not trustworthy, you can’t hold that against them forever.

MOM: I agree with you. Holding grudges doesn’t do anyone any good in any situation. Parents have to grow with their children.

MOLLY: Even if they mess up once, the parent has to be able to move past it and give them another chance, and another, and another…

MOM: Right. Parents have to talk with kids about what happened when they transgress and help them see that maybe there were other ways to handle that situation. This will help them to grow up and become more mature.

MOLLY: Are there long-term effects to consider when you see moody and unpleasant behavior in pre-teens and teens?

MOM: The most devastating long term effects come from when parents clamp down really, really hard and are overly restrictive with the teen. They don’t let them have friends over or to hang out in their own house, they don’t help them attend social events with their peers, and so on. These kids often end up very oppositional and angry with negative feelings toward their parents. They feel misunderstood much of the time and, the truth is, they probably have been misunderstood. This escalates as the child matures and rather than the parent granting freedoms to the child, the child rebels against the parental restrictions. It creates an angry and unpleasant dynamic in the family.

It’s a fine line: successfully raising your kids when they start going through puberty by helping them to learn to become adults rather than holding them back as undeveloped children.

When kids enter adolescence, parents can really set the stage of how it’s going to go for the next few years through high school.

How To Address Emotional Eating In Teens

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How can I help my daughter stop emotional eating without making it worse?

MOLLY: This came from a reader from California. She added that her daughter is a teenager and when she brings it up for conversation it seems to make things worse.

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): This can be a very difficult area to address.

What I would probably do first is talk to the child about what’s going on emotionally in her life without connecting it to the eating because usually kids can get quite defensive about behaviors like this.  This is a time to tread carefully. I would try to assess what might be going on in the child’s life that is distressing for her and driving her to seek solace in food.

MOLLY: Should she take her kid to see a therapist?

MOM: Well, it depends if her parents can help her reduce her stress with some coping strategies so that she naturally becomes less dependent on food to feel better about herself. If the root is low self-esteem, finding ways to improve her self-image will help. If it’s severe enough that there’s a significant weight gain or weight loss, or if the child begins to hurt herself by cutting on herself –those things often go together– then absolutely the child should see someone.

MOLLY: What could be the long-term consequences?

MOM: Well, it’s hard to predict. What we don’t know is if the emotional issue is long-term or if it’s a temporary one that will pass on its own. The longer it goes on the more impact it will have. Often we see that when such a kid becomes an adult and has some stress in her life she’s likely to revert back to that eating pattern.

MOLLY: So you want to break the pattern.

MOM: Right, you want to break the pattern of linking food with emotions. And, it’s not an easy job.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success dealing with emotional eating in a teenager. Or Contact Us if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.

Teenager Acting Out – What to Do?

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How can I keep my 15-year old daughter from acting out and making bad choices?

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MOLLY: The reader (the teen’s mom) added that her daughter has been sneaking around with an 18 year old boy and that she caught her stealing alcohol. She also said that her daughter has been hanging around with a tough crowd. She is wondering how she can “stay strong and help her daughter from hurting herself during this time?”

We’ve are thrilled to welcome Annie Fox as a guest to our site! Annie is an internationally respected character educator and is highly qualified to answer this question. Her books include Teaching Kids to Be Good People: Progressive Parenting for the 21st Century, and the popular Middle School Confidential book and app series for kids. You can learn more about her at AnnieFox.com.

Annie Fox: It’s not easy being a teen. There are so many changes that can easily throw a young person off balance. Changes in the way she looks. The way she feels about herself. Changes in her peer relationships. Changes in her relationship with you, her mom. From your description, your daughter is having a hard time navigating safely. Like all teens, she craves peer approval. The craving is so strong I call it Peer Approval Addiction, that is, the willingness to do whatever it takes to fit in, including stuff that can present real danger to her.

You are trying to control her behavior when she’s not with you. Understandable, in light of her recent track record of making poor choices. You are not alone by any means! However, there is no way you can be monitoring her behavior 24/7. What you want (more than anything, I’d guess) is for your daughter to develop the good judgment to make healthy choices when she’s on her own. That’s the goal of all parents. But there may be something going on with your daughter that is telling her it’s OK to push beyond the typical teen testing of limits.  I believe you and your daughter would benefit from a conversation with a family therapist. Your daughter needs help figuring out how to be independent from you without jeopardizing her safety and her future. And you need support in guiding her through this phase of her life.

MOLLY: Mom, do you have anything else to add to Annie’s advice?

Dr. Susan Rutherford (MOM): No, I thought it was excellent advice; very balanced. It’s a difficult situation and I agree with Annie that it is important for this reader to consult with a professional so she and her daughter can get some help together. In the meantime, she can help her daughter learn how to make good decisions for herself by initiating conversations about benefits versus consequences. The developing brains of teens keep them focused on the here and now so, as parents, it’s our job to help them learn to think about the potential results of their choices.

As our children get older, we should allow them more and more opportunities to practice their decision-making skills and interfere less and less. Our goal is to feel confident that our child makes wise decisions in her life, even when she is not around her parents.
This mom has shown the daughter that she is aware of the behavior choices she is facing and they should continue to maintain an open, non-judgemental dialogue so that the daughter feels like she can trust her mother to help her suss out her path through life. The mom should realize, too, that making poor decisions can be learning experiences, too, and sometimes that’s what needs to happen to change a teen’s behavior. As difficult as it may become, the mom should remember that it’s not all about her as it’s her daughter who is struggling to figure out who she really is and who she wants to be.

MOLLY: What could be the long-term consequences from this kind of acting out as a teen?

MOM: Typically, the more a parent clamps down, the more the child rebels. In adulthood, this can result in one of two extremes. One is that the kid remains in a state of rebellion into adulthood and has trouble making a successful life because of it. The other side we see is that when these rebellious kids become adults and have their own children they are very strict –probably overly strict– parents and it’s very hard for them to have a happy medium.

Experience this? Comment below if you’ve had success dealing with your teenager’s acting out behavior. Or Contact Us if you have other parenting questions you’d like to see addressed.