Our 20 year old daughter is heading back to college in a few days following a horrendous winter break. Since early November, she has been on an emotional rollercoaster because her high school boyfriend has been trying to let her down gently and she has been refusing to accept that it’s over. In the worst of this she has gone for five days without eating (while eating very little the rest of the time; she’s lost considerable weight), curled up on the floor of her bedroom, unable to interact with the world around her. She pushed away all her friends because she didn’t “want to hear what they’d say,” and essentially did the same with her parents. The only time she came back to life was when she talked with the boyfriend. Even at the apparent conclusion of this crisis, the only reason she’s not still grieving is that he left her with the unrealistic premise that they will put their relationship on hold until after college (this was the only thing he could say to stop her worst clinging behavior). I wish I could relax now, but she’s still deluded: now she’s trying to arrange her college work in order to shave a year off her program of studies. We’re happy to have her back, but sad she can’t accept that it’s really over. In general, her coping skills are limited to trying to control all situations and relationships, so that when a real conflict or challenge crosses her path, she falls apart. She even stated at one point that she is “tired of the chess game,” meaning she really thinks she has to maneuver everyone around her. We know she needs professional help, but she is vehemently opposed to any suggestions of that sort. We also know that the root causes of her problems derive from emotional problems passed down through my family (I’m the first person in generations to acknowledge these problems and go to counseling to address them). So, how do parents of older adolescents help when their child is emotionally immature, programmed to self-destruct, and refuses help?
Since there's little you can do directly, focus your energy on getting your kid to try three sessions of counseling. Tell her that you'll quit bugging her if she'll do that. When she refuses ask her what she is afraid of. When she says "nothing," then ask her to just waste 3 hours and then decide for herself if it helps. Don't hesitate to offer some incentive to get her over her anticipatory anxiety. Once there, hopefully she'll calm down and find that it is not so scary. Even if she stops after the three visits, she'll likely be less scared to go when the next crisis hits.
Dr. Mike Bradley
Thank you for your reply, Dr. Bradley. I wish I could follow your advice, but I've been down that road many times...She is 20 and we have been locked in power struggles for years. As a result, there is no incentive she accepts from her parents when they suggest something she doesn't want to do, up to and including eating. We tried family counseling years ago, and her negative memories of that form the foundation of her resistance to it now. From as early as elementary school she has tried to control every situation and relationship in her life via manipulation, excuses, and avoidance. From the reading I've done, she seems to have all the characteristics of someone who cannot be helped until she really hits bottom, similar to an alcoholic who needs but refuses intervetion. I've participated in an intervention that worked, but it required an "ambush" of the patient, who was given a severe ultimatim. I don't want to push my daughter into a corner if I have other options, but unfortunately, "asking" her to do anything just doesn't work.
Your next step is to get a "coach/counselor" for yourselves to get some well-informed advice on how to proceed. The odds are that that person will suggest a series of increasingly intrusive measures designed to encourage your kid to get help by slowly withdrawing the supports you provide to her.
Hopefully your girl will decide that a shrink's office looks less threatening than the street.
Good luck and let us know how you make out.
Dr. Mike Bradley