Crisis of Confidence in a Teen: It's a Family Matter
Dr. Lynn Margolies
Disclaimer: The characters in the following vignette are fictitious. They were derived from a composite of people and events for the purpose of representing real-life situations and psychological dilemmas which occur in families.
Madison was in 9th grade. She had been a star soccer player in middle school and was now on the varsity team.
Madison had been known for being unstoppable and fearless when it came to sports. Last spring she was injured and unable to play for several months, and was on the mend as she entered high school in the fall. Over the summer, her parents noticed that she seemed “off” and unhappy.
Madison’s injury created a crisis of confidence for her, since her identity was built around being a soccer player and being able to do whatever she set out to do, particularly in sports.
Madison was always a good kid. She was an only child and came across as older than her age – reserved and self-contained. Though she resumed playing sports once school started, she was not back to “herself.” She had difficulty adjusting to the workload and new environment at school, feeling pressured and unmotivated to persevere in her schoolwork when she didn’t feel sure of herself.
In the fall she became symptomatic, ruminating obsessively to the point of distraction about getting hurt or injured. This anxiety escalated into periodic panic attacks. During these episodes she became convinced she was having a heart attack. Madison also started having fights with her dad, feeling pressured by him around her school performance and his worry about whether she would get into college. She tried to avoid him because she felt he didn’t understand or trust her, and he made her feel worse. Madison’s relationship with her mom was relatively stable, and better than with her dad.
The Parents’ Perspective
Why was Madison’s dad so anxious and scared for his daughter?
Mom and dad were both concerned about Madison. Her mom, Brooke, seemed calm and confident, low-key. She clearly had faith that Madison would be all right. Her dad, Nick, on the other hand, seemed anxious and scared for his daughter. Private sessions with Nick showed him to be self-aware. He was able to recognize that he was vulnerable to reacting out of his own anxieties rather than in a way that would help Madison.
Nick revealed a childhood history of trauma. When he was a boy, his mother - a vibrant, athletic woman with whom he had been very close - died suddenly. Nick was committed to working hard to be a better dad, and was impressive in his ability to take responsibility when it was warranted. However, in therapy sessions with Brooke, Nick’s sense of perspective was overshadowed. He reverted to his position that Madison wasn’t really trying and focused on the legitimacy of his concern about the risk that she may not get into college.
The tension between Brooke and Nick was palpable. When they argued, they became notably polarized in how they viewed Madison, though in actuality their views were not that far apart. When Nick was confronted about his more rigid and different perspective around his wife, he explained that around her, he felt he was a failure as a dad and husband, and needed to prove his credibility. He felt constantly criticized by his wife, about his eating habits and lack of exercise, and in general. He said that she assumed she was always “right”, and acted as if she knew more than he did about everything.
Psychologically Speaking: What’s Really Going On?
Madison’s athletic ability had always provided her a sense of mastery, confidence and certainty about her identity. She often felt invincible, especially on the field, and learned to believe that if she tried hard enough at most anything she could succeed. Though she was aware of some anxiety at times even before having been injured, especially when faced with change, training and playing soccer channeled and contained the anxiety. Her anxieties at that time were primarily centered around underlying self-doubt around performance, and always alleviated by relentless practice and training.
Madison’s injuries shattered her sense of invincibility and left her with a sense of being helpless. At the same time, not being able to play temporarily took away her major mode of coping with self-doubt and anxiety. Even when she resumed playing soccer, Madison’s defenses did not work as well as before at managing her anxiety because of her newfound awareness of vulnerability. On top of that, her usual mode of coping was overpowered by the increased academic demands, changes and pressure of high school.
Nick and Madison shared a personality tendency toward anxiety. Nick saw aspects of his mother in Madison and projected onto his daughter the underlying vulnerability, helplessness and lack of security he felt stemming from the sudden traumatic loss of his mom. Madison had already been experiencing herself as lacking control and vulnerable to being hurt. On top of that, Nick often “gave” Madison his own anxiety, causing her own state to escalate.
In family therapy with Nick and Brooke, the dynamic between Madison and her dad, in which he passed his anxiety onto his daughter and made her feel bad about herself, played out in a similar way between the parents. Brooke inadvertently created a feeling of insecurity and sense of failure in her husband through her constant criticism of him. Becoming aware of these feelings and understanding what led to them allowed Nick to awaken and be empathic to the similar unintended effect he had been having on his daughter. Recognizing also that his wife’s “nagging” was in part driven by her concern and fears about his health allowed him to experience it differently.
Madison learned that she did not have to take on her parent’s feelings.
Madison worked in therapy to separate her own inner experience from her dad’s and learn that she did not have to take on his feelings when he was anxious about her or believe that his fears represented the truth about what would happen. As she understood that her dad’s reactions were the result of his own anxiety and often had little to do with her, she became less reactive to it.
Madison’s symptoms were alleviated as a result of her parents’ improvements in therapy as well as her own. Nick and Brooke learned to better understand Madison and their effect on her. Nick became aware that he identified Madison with his mother. He began to recognize the impact of his mother’s death on him, leading him to feel unsafe in the world, and unwittingly impose this onto his daughter. Nick became more self-aware and better able to manage and contain his feelings, as well as “own” them rather than project them onto his daughter.
Madison gained control over her panic attacks, which ultimately remitted, as she became able to accurately identify, understand, and bear the feeling of anxiety rather than be frightened of it. She developed the courage and ability to better articulate what she felt scared and angry about (adjusting to high school, feeling helpless, her dad’s attempted hold over her), rather than have it spin out of control and manifest physically.
Tips for Parents
• Keep in mind that children are affected by the dynamics in our relationship with our spouse and that we cannot effectively keep this compartmentalized.
• Children are affected unconsciously by unarticulated, “unknowable” issues lurking from our past. The more we allow ourselves to know, understand, and digest our own experiences, the less likely it is that they will be projected onto others, and the more control we will have over our effect on our teens.
• Our own state of mind and tone when talking to teens will determine the effect of what we say.
• Notice the effects of your behavior and interventions on your child. Consider other approaches if what you are doing is not “working” to create the intended effect.
• It can be difficult to know whether our own past is at play or whether our reactions are “legitimate.” We should suspect that our own issues are creeping in when:
1. Our feeling reactions (anger, self-righteousness, shame) are powerful and require immediate release.2. We are certain we are “right.”3. We feel the need to “teach a lesson.”4. We take our children’s behavior personally.5. We find ourselves being repetitive or in a repetitive cycle with our children.6. We find ourselves lecturing.