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Monday, April 25, 2016

Was This Normal Teenage Behavior — or Something More Important? (Part 1 of 2)

By Samantha Smith

Our Lauren is a sweet girl and has been sensitive to the needs of others since she was little. She’s always been on the silly side, loving humor and wit despite being a bit shy. Her grades were strong until middle school, when she began to feel the affects of criticism, real or perceived. As confident people who had always encouraged her to believe in herself, her dad and I were surprised. Must be a teenage girl thing.

We realize now how loud and destructive her internal criticism can be.

Her grades declined, and she became more quiet, pulling away from encouraging friends and preferring to stay in her room. She started showing anger with herself and with me when pressed about missing assignments, like she was straining hard to keep from exploding but refused to talk about any of it. That felt personal to me so I had to work through my own hurt and anger.

I knew something was wrong, but I was unsure whether it was "normal teenage girl behavior" as others seemed to think. I began to notice she was always uncomfortable when I entered her room. I began reading her text messages and watching her very closely. Then I noticed a wound she had on her thigh from bumping into the edge of a table — the bruise had healed but the cut was larger and deeper. Now I was scared. It was a few days later when I found the package of razors and felt my heart stop. My husband and I showed it to her and she denied it. But we had watched a friend's nightmare as his son committed suicide and knew our child was in danger.

I called our church and got the name of a psychiatrist who specializes in adolescents and teens, Dr. Alphonso Nichols. He wasn't available for several weeks but offered to do a phone consultation. After hearing details about Lauren's behavior and family history of depression and anxiety, he suggested we take her to another psychiatrist right away and also to a licensed family therapist specializing in teen girls. I was able to talk with the therapist, Kelly Parker at James Kassel and Associates, and felt confident she would be helpful...if only Lauren would talk to her.

That night my husband explained to her that we loved her and were committed to her well-being, including her emotional health. He told her we were convinced she needed help sorting through her thoughts and feelings, and that it was possible she may have inherited some conditions that could be addressed with medication. We made it clear that we loved her too much to ignore whatever was happening. Lauren was very quiet but didn’t fight us on this.

We were surprised by how open she was with both the doctor and therapist. She refused to allow us to be present, but gave them complete freedom to share everything with us. It was gut wrenching to learn how much emotional pain she was in and that she wanted to end her life. Initially we were told she shouldn't be left alone and we removed the lock from her bedroom door. She understood. I think she was empowered by sharing her struggles and having them acknowledged as something treatable that she didn’t have to suffer through alone. The reality of the worthlessness she felt — how she felt she could never measure up — continued for several months but eventually faded.

Our daughter's depression became controlled very well with medication within about six months, during which she saw the therapist weekly and then bi-weekly. Mrs. Parker helped her identify automatic thought patterns that were unhealthy and replace those with better thoughts and actions. During a major transition a year later, Lauren struggled again with anxiety and met with her for a couple of months, which got her through a difficult situation. We were all grateful to have that relationship in place when we needed it.

Several years later we are so thankful that we treated our daughter's emotional health as the emergency it was, although it didn't initially appear to be one. The experience has strengthened our relationships so much, and made us all more compassionate to those around us who struggle emotionally.

Tomorrow's post will offer advice from an expert on how to work through teen emotional struggles.


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