My husband and I have three beautiful children — Noah (16), Aria (14) and Madison (11) — and they’re more important to us than anything else. Noah and Madison are doing very well. Noah is happy, hysterically funny with lots of friends, athletic and doing well in school. Madison has turned out to be a gifted violinist and is extremely passionate about music and animals.
We’re worried, however, about Aria. Despite our trying to think otherwise, she has probably always been a low achiever. She doesn’t seem to think she can do anything well and just gets by. Her grades aren’t terrific — usually Cs with an occasional D. She’s on the outskirts of any hobby or sport she participates in and has only a few friends.
Although Aria often expresses pride concerning her siblings, I’m sure it hasn’t helped that her brother is extremely popular and athletic and her little sister is so musical. We’ve tried never to make comparisons, but this hasn’t stopped others from making comments. It’s as if Aria has given up on herself because of low self-esteem.
She has started therapy and we were told she wasn’t depressed or anxious. I don’t want to be a pushy parent, but I do want to help my daughter. Noah says Aria cringes every time my husband or I start what he refers to as our “cheerleading.” It breaks my heart to see Aria give up on herself. We just want her to be happy and clearly she’s not.
There are many reasons — including anxiety and depression — why teens lack interest in school and extracurricular activities. I’m glad the therapist didn’t see either condition at this time. Just as you’re describing, Aria might be putting forth minimal effort in what she does because she sees herself as not excelling at anything. Feeling disheartened, she may have resigned herself to being average. This low opinion of her abilities may stem from overly harsh self-judgment and/or being negatively labeled or pigeonholed by others. She may have possibly quit trying when she failed to meet others’ standards or because she became discouraged when she didn’t see any progress or improvement despite her efforts.
Everyone has weaknesses and strengths, and it’s painful that someone so young has lost sight of what she’s good at. When people feel they have a chance to excel, they’re more open to trying. When they’re full of doubts, however, they’re more likely to give up, hang back and not participate. While it sounds like you and your husband have tried to be sensitive, the meaning which Aria might possibly have attached to comparisons and negative beliefs may have greatly influenced her actions and feelings of self-esteem.
It’s very clear you’re just trying to help her, but even well-meaning loved ones such as yourselves may evoke resistance in a sensitive teenager by keying in on achievements rather than recognizing/acknowledging what makes Aria who she truly is and what makes her happy. Many a parent, for instance, has worried about a teen’s aimless primping and preening and later realizing this was a precursor to an interest in fashion or hairstyling.
What do you like about Aria? What are her positive assets? Point out her present abilities and support her to appreciate those attributes rather than demand improvement. Focus on the positive. Show her you have faith and confidence in who she already is. Have her suggest activities based on what sounds like fun or would bring joy. For now it might be best to encourage Aria and give positive feedback for what she’s doing right in the present rather than pushing her to be more productive or successful in the future. Be enthusiastic about her interests and encourage her to follow her interests, strengths and assets, even if they aren’t the typical pursuits of her peers. Keep in mind as well that sometimes a trait which initially seems obscure may end up being very important. A teen may be argumentative or stubborn but, if re-framed, will show spirit, independence and self-confidence.
Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.