My daughter and I have a good relationship, but she is very angry about “family” therapy. There have only been a few sessions so far. She and I still get along, and there’s the usual anger about doing things she doesn’t want to do, such as chores, taking a walk, etc. It seems pretty typical. I know I’m not a peer, but we tend to enjoy each other’s company, and I’m trying to help keep her in touch with her friends.
Recently, my daughter got upset about something. She said she can’t tell me what, because she “can’t trust [me] anymore.” She eventually said she can’t trust me because of therapy. If I said that no one would go to family therapy, she might be able to trust me. She was crying.
I don’t know what about therapy is so upsetting to her. That is something else she won’t tell me. I’m worried about her. She seems mostly happy and at ease when she is at home with me, but she is very negative toward her other mother, whom she spends 50 percent of time with. She says there are no adults she trusts. She has very few friends. I think therapy could help her, both with potential depression and with dealing with a very difficult parent. But if she hates it the whole time, how much help can it offer? I know it’s early, and I need to give it time, but how do I decide what is enough time? I’m just worried and want to help her however I can. My heart breaks for whatever is going on with her. Help?
A: I have so much empathy for you and your daughter, and it is clear that you are doing the best you can to help her in an intense family dynamic. I am unclear as to who is actually in family therapy. Is it you and your daughter? The other parent with the both of you? In any case, my first bit of advice is this: Try not to overmanage. Ultimately, you are only responsible for yourself, so concentrate on your relationship with your daughter, not necessarily between your daughter and her other parent.
As for your main question — “How much help can [therapy] offer?” — I spoke to two therapists, and one message was abundantly clear: Your 11-year-old must have some choice when it comes to the therapist. No matter how experienced and renowned a therapist may be, your tween must feel that she can trust her therapist and that the person is there for her.
“Sometimes, it’s helpful to remember what it’s like to be an 11-year-old as we attempt to understand how they react to parental decisions that inevitably impact them,” says Donnetta Watson, an art therapist and licensed professional counselor with the Ladipo Group. “It may be helpful to explore what is the daughter’s understanding of the reasons family therapy has started, what the goal of attending family therapy is, and what’s the anticipated length of therapy.”
These are issues that could cut away at your daughter’s security and trust with you. And speaking of trust, Nedra Tawwab, therapist and author of “Set Boundaries, Find Peace: A Guide to Reclaiming Yourself,” mentioned what I felt was a critical point: Your daughter may not even want to talk about the other parent. Tawwab says she often finds, in her practice, that the parents have an idea of what the presenting issue may be, but when they sit across from the therapist, they discuss something else entirely. Yes, your ex may be a narcissistic parent, but Tawwab says your daughter may need to complain about friendships — or even you.
Finally, you sound like an involved, caring and compassionate parent. Trust in your relationship with your daughter. In fact, I’m seeing evidence that the two of you are in a good place. The resistance around chores and errands can be a sign that she needs a tad more autonomy and choice. Eleven-year-olds thrive on having a voice and contributing, so promote your daughter having more choice.
And when she is prickly, try not to take it personally. I am not suggesting that you ignore all rudeness, but the wise tween parent knows when to hold ’em, knows when to fold ’em, knows when to walk away and knows when to run. (Thank you, Kenny Rogers.)
I also recommend reading up on tween and teen girls. An 11-year-old (in a pandemic, mind you) is a complicated human, filled with hormones and intensities. The relationship with your daughter can feel fraught, and that’s typical. Lisa Damour’s book “Untangled” is a favorite of mine. Good luck.
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