The question My teenage daughter has been depressed for 18 months. During the past two years, I have been in the process of separating from her dad and their relationship has deteriorated to the extent that when we move apart she says she no longer wants to see him. She is not attending school and is struggling to engage with learning despite it being an important exam year. I have taken a step back and, together with the school, we have allowed her to only go in when she can, maybe for an hour or two.
Her father sees this as giving in and allowing her to be “lazy” and says giving her this freedom means she will just take advantage. According to him, she needs more structure and discipline, and she needs to get used to the fact that pressure is a part of life. It feels as if he can’t acknowledge that she is depressed, despite her GP confirming this to be the case. I can see she has started to respond well to having the pressure taken off.
My daughter and I have always had a good relationship and she confides in me a lot. Her dad and I have very opposing parenting styles, which is partly what led to us splitting up. He lacks the ability to empathise and listen to her. Unless both her parents believe in her, she tells me, she won’t be able get through her depression, so there’s no point in trying. We are due to move apart soon. In the meantime, how can I help her to believe in herself?
Philippa’s answer I think what I’m going to say might be very difficult for you to hear. But I hope for the sake of your child you hear me out. You seem to be so driven and burning to be right that you cannot see that there might be another way of looking at this situation.
Now, I might have got this wrong, I have only your email to go on and I am reading between the lines, but it feels as though you may be playing a game of “me-right, you-wrong” with her dad. It almost feels to me as though your child might be a pawn in this fight. I know you are desperate to do your best for your child, but I’m fearful that – unintentionally – you may not be.
For a child, it’s easier to make one parent good and the other bad
You have got the school and the GP on side. I’m fearful that this is like lining up chess pieces to win a game. If you could try to understand your ex’s fears and concerns for your daughter he might be more willing to listen to yours. Your teenager sounds conflicted. On the one hand she very dramatically doesn’t want to see him again, but on the other, she wants him to believe in her, she needs his good opinion.
When your ex moves out of the family home, your daughter will lose her dad in her everyday life and from your letter I don’t see anyone focusing on that. I imagine, to her, it might feel as bad as losing a leg. It might feel like she is being convinced one of her legs, that’s held her up all her life, is no good. A greater part of your world when you are a child is your family, your mum and dad. And in lockdown that world will have got even smaller. Imagine what it does to you when that world splits apart in an unamicable way.
It’s not as though she’s an adult and can just choose another house share. A child may unconsciously see themselves as part mum and part dad and if one part or both parts say the other one is bad, well it’s not surprising if it makes a child feel uneasy in themselves. Some kids are more resilient than others, but some are sensitive and when their parents argue or appear to hate each other they experience this as trauma. To a child, the only solution their psyche may come up with when parents are warring is to throw in their lot with just one parent. It’s quite complicated to see each one as a mixture of good and bad and so it’s easier to make one good and the other bad. These processes are largely unconscious and when we cannot process our difficult feelings into words it can be a cause of depression.
You and your ex-partner have taken up polarised positions. You both need to exercise some give and take to come to a compromise. Your daughter has thrown in her lot with you. And if you describe him to her as somehow lacking, you are in danger of alienating her from her father. Don’t be in league with her against her dad. Her home being in flux and about to fall apart could be a reason she is too distressed and depressed to go to school, as there is a crisis at home. It is not unknown that when parents war a child may become ill.
I’m sorry if this is hard to take in and, as I said, I may be reading the situation wrong, but to make sure your split doesn’t exacerbate your daughter’s depression I urge you to make an appointment for the three of you at the Family Separation Clinic (familyseparationclinic.com). This clinic offers a specialist service to families experiencing separation, in particular where a child is rejecting a relationship with one of their parents. Also, I recommend listening to my BBC Radio 4 documentary about parental alienation called When Parents Split, available online.
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