Dear David Coleman: Snooping revealed my teen daughter's bad behaviour

Q Our eldest child is 15. She is very academically bright, musical, artistic and sporty and yet she seems deeply unhappy. She has had some traumatic friendship break-ups in the past. Her recent behaviour includes experimentation with smoking, drinking and “shifting” boys. She has only been given very limited freedom in the past six months and it is only by snooping that I found out anything. We don’t want to destroy her self-esteem, but she is making terrible decisions that she may well struggle to cope with down the line. Have you any advice?

David replies: Fifteen is a great age for experimentation. Indeed, experimenting with a range of behaviours, opinions, attitudes and values is the hallmark of adolescence. Your daughter sounds like she is right in the thick of such experimentation. If it is the case that you have only loosened your control of her in the last six months, then it is no surprise that such behaviours are emerging now.

I am concerned to hear that she seems deeply unhappy. Perhaps her unhappiness is linked to her experimentation with the new behaviours, although it may not be. You mention that she has had some difficulties with friendships in the past. Perhaps this still impacts on her now, with regard to her current friendships.

It may be that she is trying to fit in with a new peer group or hang on to whatever friends she currently has. This might explain why she is engaging in some of her new behaviours. It may also explain her current unhappiness, since quality of friendships often form the core of teenagers’ sense of satisfaction and contentment.

Generally, when things are going well with friends, things usually go well in other areas of teenagers’ lives. Similarly, when there are problems with friends, it often has a disproportionally negative knock-on effect on other areas of their lives.

It sounds to me like your daughter needs lots of understanding, and acceptance, from you and her dad. Your goal is to help your daughter to work out, and deal with, whatever is upsetting her at the moment. I’d suggest that you take your focus off her behaviour and shift it onto her overall well-being.

If you hadn’t snooped, it sounds like you may not even be aware that she has tried smoking, drinking or been kissing boys. The danger of snooping is that we find out things we feel we must address, but in addressing them we may reveal our snooping, and destroy trust. I wonder what your attitude to her would have been had you not found these things out?

So, for now, I’d recommend that you don’t start discussing her behaviour with her. Rather, I think you need to let her know that you see that she seems unhappy. Show her that you care about her, are interested in understanding more about this and are willing to help her deal with any distress that she is experiencing.

If this approach opens up a discussion, you may find opportunity to talk about the choices she could, or might make, with regard to drinking, smoking, or boys without having to reference the knowledge that you already have. There is a danger that, knowing what you know, you might be tempted to try to restrict her freedom again. I think this might drive her away from you at the very time she might need your counsel and your guidance.

So, aim to increase your connection to her rather than your control of her, and I think you’ll find you have much more opportunity to keep her on a more straight and narrow path.

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