Q: When our daughter, an only child, turned 13 and entered the eighth grade, it was like a switch was flipped. Almost overnight, she went from being a sweet, respectful and obedient child who had never given us any serious problems to being petulant, sassy, and often belligerent. She wants nothing to do with us anymore and makes that perfectly clear in often very hurtful ways.
She stays in her room, on her smartphone, most of the time, often refusing to even eat dinner with us. We tried taking her phone away, but she threw such an out-of-control tantrum — shrieking, throwing and breaking things, even — that we became concerned gave it back to her. Her grades are beginning to suffer as well. We just don’t know what to do. Should we perhaps put her in counseling with someone?
A: My finding — obtained over the past 45 years — has been that professional counseling with young teens frequently makes matters worse.
All too often, professional mental health counselors give children your daughter’s general age the impression that not only do their feelings “rule,” but that their rebellious, disrespectful behavior is in some way justified by their parents’ failings. In all fairness, that may not be the intention, but it is the all-too-frequent outcome. For that reason, I rarely recommend professional counseling or therapy for a child or young teen.
As I’ve said before in this column and elsewhere, I am not aware of a body of objective studies that would verify the reliable effectiveness of counseling or therapy with children or teens (or even adults, for that matter). However, studies report averages, not individual outcomes. You might be able to find a counselor for your daughter who would be a good “fit,” but you would be rolling the dice by making the attempt.
My first recommendation is that you take away your daughter’s smartphone and give her an old-fashioned flip phone instead. It’s becoming increasingly clear that smartphones are exerting a highly negative influence over children and teens. To begin with, there is no doubt that they are addictive. The tantrum you witnessed when you made the attempt to take your daughter’s phone away is a strong indicator of exactly that, but the rest of your description also fits the profile. Unfortunately, she has discovered that she is capable — by acting like a lunatic — of intimidating you, even frightening you. The next time you make the attempt, if you are even willing to do so, the storm is likely to be even more intense. If you capitulate to or compromise with her on this issue, then I would predict things going downhill from there.
If that fails to restore the daughter you’ve known for the first 13 years of her life, then take her door off her room while she’s at school and inform her that to restore her privacy she must act like a normal human being and family member for one straight month. To be perfectly clear: I’m talking about an incident-free 30 days. If there’s an “episode” of some sort during the month — disrespect, belligerence, refusing to join you for dinner, et cetera — then her month without a door begins anew the next day.
Parents who have delivered the one-two “punch” of making a teen’s smartphone disappear (or simply taking it off their account) and removing the door to his/her room usually report that things go from bad to worse for three days to a week and then begin to improve. I don’t make guarantees, but the weight of these testimonials leads me to predict a positive outcome with your daughter. You have going for you the fact that she’s been a good kid for a whole lot longer than she’s been a pill.