Helping a Sensitive Teen

Dear Emily,

I have a high school aged daughter and she is very sensitive to her friends’ actions. She gets very hurt, or just in a bummed-out mood because of the poor choices they make. She isn’t involved in the situation…she just knows about it. I tell her that I’m proud of her for not wanting to do what they are doing, as it is sometimes a pretty bad choice. When trying to advise her or help lift her mood, she often shuts me down saying, “You just don’t get it.”  I am trying to convince her to just let it go, that if her friends are caught, it’s them making that choice not her, or that there isn’t much she can do. Sometimes it may be a choice that isn’t necessarily bad, but again, it hurts her and again I get the same response.

Confused Mom


Dear Confused Mom,

I can understand why you’re proud of your daughter’s good choices.  I hope you’re also feeling a little proud of yourself for creating such a good relationship with your daughter.  It’s wonderful that she’s able to confide in you.


The advice you’ve been giving your daughter about trying to let go of her friends’ problems is sound.  It reminds me of the message contained in “The Serenity Prayer”:


“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,

Courage to change the things I can,

And wisdom to know the difference.”


One of the main goals of therapy is to help people sort through the stressors in their lives.  I ask people to imagine two baskets: one for issues under their control, and one for things that are out of their hands.  In your daughter’s case, the sorting might look like this:

Basket #1 (Things she can control): whether she makes good decisions for herself…whether she gives solid advice to her friends…whether she still  supports her friends even when she doesn’t agree with their choices…whether she should invest more time into her existing friendships or try to create new ones.

Basket #2 (Things she can’t control): whether her friends choose to be sexually active or use drugs or alcohol…whether her friends take the advice she gives them…whether her friends approve of her decisions, which are different from theirs.

When people fixate on trying to control things that are out of their control, it can lead to frustration, sadness, and feelings of helplessness.   People are often unaware that their attention is focused on the wrong thing.  It sounds like you’ve been gently trying to raise your daughter’s awareness of her pattern.  Becoming aware of a pattern can be the first step toward changing it, but in this case, it sounds like your daughter hasn’t been able to pivot.  I have two theories that might help explain why your daughter is stuck.

First, I think it’s possible that your daughter isn’t ready for the good advice you’re offering.  I’ve learned that there are actually two distinct phases to trying to help someone with a problem.  The first phase is helping the person express the issue.  This involves listening intently, asking a lot of good questions, paraphrasing the person’s answers, and helping make connections between the current problem and larger issues.  For example, if your daughter tells you her friends’ behavior makes her feel helpless, you could ask her whether she has feelings of helplessness in any other areas of her life.


Try not to rush this first stage of the helping process.  Many well-intentioned listeners try to jump into phase two—problem solving—too quickly.  Until a person has fully expressed what’s bothering them, they will often continue to steer the conversation back to phase one.  Listeners sometimes mistakenly assume that when someone talks to them about a problem, they’re seeking a solution.


Many times, people just want to be heard.  I find this to be true even in my therapy practice, where I thought that people were paying me for my advice.  I estimate that 80-90% of my day is actually spent in phase one, listening.  If I’m dying to move to phase two, I’ll ask, “Would you like a suggestion, or do you just want me to listen?”  I remind myself that listening, in its quiet simplicity, is just another form of help.


Second, I found myself wondering whether your daughter might be experiencing some symptoms of depression or anxiety.  (I tend to mentally lump depression and anxiety together because they so commonly co-occur).  When someone has depression or anxiety, they often have great difficulty steering their thoughts in the direction they want them to go.  Scary or upsetting thoughts play over and over, and negative emotions tend to follow.


Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people with depression and anxiety gain some control over their thoughts and feelings.  There is a significant amount of evidence, however, that CBT and other forms of therapy tend to be most effective when used in conjunction with medication (most commonly antidepressants).  One of my clients recently started taking Prozac.  She told me that while she still finds herself worrying about her adult children, she’s now able to stop obsessing about them.  She said she’s now able to tell herself, “Okay.  There’s nothing else I can do to help my daughter right now.  I’m going to move my attention to something else.”  Your daughter’s situation sounded similar to me, in that she’s fretting about problems that are out of her control.  I’m guessing she might want to stop fixating, but can’t.  This might be a good time for your family to consult with a therapist or doctor.

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