Dr. Wes and Samantha: My 15-year-old daughter was hospitalized for suicidal thoughts and is being treated for mild clinical depression. We moved cross-country a year ago, and she’s having difficulty finding good friends. She’s always been outgoing, independent and academically talented with numerous friends. The hospital and her counselor believe she has very mild issues, but two days after release she was making plans on her MySpace page to meet someone to smoke marijuana. We didn’t know she’d ever smoked. When confronted, she turned off the computer and claimed this was a conversation about the past. It’s the second time in a week I’ve caught her lying. The counselor said she wasn’t aware of the pot smoking, felt the consequences we set were appropriate and didn’t move up the next appointment (three weeks away). I’m concerned my daughter is manipulating these professionals and us. I want to think this is a blip on the screen, but my instincts are questioning this. What should I do?
Samantha: Trust your instincts. Your daughter has a few big issues that need to be addressed. Try these steps to help her feel better in school and find friends she enjoys:
• See whether getting a transfer to a different school sounds appealing to her. With a psychologist’s note, a transfer may not be difficult. Even if the school is a few miles away, it will be worth it. It would even give you two more time to talk.
• Talk to her about what she misses most from her previous school and encourage her to sign up for similar activities.
• If you could afford it, invite one of her old friends over for the weekend. A pep talk could be just what she needs to get a fresh start and confidence to move forward.
• Help her join a cause she really cares about. When you’re helping others, it’s hard to feel bad about yourself.
You’ll have to keep a closer eye, which will cause her to rebel, so you’ll have to be clever. Here’s what I recommend:
• Have a talk with her about what you saw. Tell her you understand why she would want to experiment, but explain the dangers of addiction. Don’t make her feel guilty, or she will never share her issues with you again. Just show that you care about her health and safety.
• Set up a media zone. Grab some desks and beanbags and put all the computers in that zone. That way you can keep an eye on her while she is on the computer.
• Let your house be the fun house. When she’s going over to a friend’s, tell her you’d like to invite her over instead. Once there, your ticket is food. Bring down pop or some fresh veggies and dip. You’ll score points and have a legitimate reason to start talking to her friends. Then send in a scout. An annoying little brother or a cool older sister or even a neighbor stopping by could work.
• When her room gets messy, offer to help her clean it. The mess can easily be hiding secrets. Cleaning solves the problem, creates an opportunity for conversation and offers you access.
• Most importantly, just be there for her. Whether in person or by texting, ask how her day was and really listen. Ask natural, nonintrusive questions and let the conversation flow. Set a weekly date to catch up and chat. My dad and I have Sunday morning coffee outings where he brings his work and I bring my homework and we chat. It’s great! Teens need you there even if we’re watching television or modifying their Facebook pages for the 200th time. We value your presence, just in case we want to talk.
Finally, find her a counselor that can see her once a week. Someone who has just been hospitalized for suicide and is being treated for depression should have a more frequent professional outlet.
Wes: We do a lot of hospital release with teens, and unless somebody made a mistake hospitalizing her in the first place, it would never occur to me to release your daughter on the schedule you describe. Beyond the obvious issues of safety and treatment continuity, a family therapist should never let a crisis go to waste. With something as traumatic as hospital admission, the therapist must convert that energy into a sustainable system for change.
On the other hand, I’ve seen cases where someone did jump the gun and hospitalize a teen well before it was necessary. You say your daughter only has mild depression and only thoughts of suicide. If things really are that mild, the therapist may be trying to tell you that you’re over-reacting.
Likewise, readers know I’m no fan of weed. That’s not a popular opinion these days. Almost universally kids I see from towns all over the area estimate that between 70 and 85 percent of their high school peers smoked marijuana at least once in the last 30 days. This comes from smokers and nonsmokers, boys and girls, rich and poor, popular kids and the regular crowd. I know that’s WAY over the self-report statistics, but I believe it’s more accurate.
That doesn’t make it OK for your kid, but it does make it the norm. So if she’s acting within that norm, you may be better off giving her a stunning consequence than treating her as if she’s in the throes of a breakdown. I’ll make a similar point next week when we discuss the issues of lying and manipulation in this and similar cases. From this chair, it’s impossible to know whether the therapist is under-reacting or trying to help you remain calm in the face of a non-storm. It might be worth a second opinion to be sure.
You have my blessing if you want to supervise your daughter as closely as Samantha proposes. Just understand what you’re getting yourself into. Many families think they want substance-free children until they find out how much commitment that really takes. Some give up because they don’t want to be substance-free themselves. Others won’t put in the time and effort Samantha describes. The choice is yours at this juncture, but I’d recommend you get a solid professional of your own to guide you down the correct path.
Next week: We’ll continue this discussion by addressing the perennial problem of trust and trustworthiness.
— Dr. Wes Crenshaw is a board-certified family psychologist and director of the Family Therapy Institute Midwest. Samantha Schwartz is a senior at Lawrence High School. Opinions and advice given here are not meant as a substitute for psychological evaluation or therapy services. Send your questions about adolescent issues (limited to 200 words) to firstname.lastname@example.org. All correspondence is strictly confidential.