Current Issue of BDINews
I really want to ask something about our fourteen-year old daughter who has always had a "high maintenance" temperament.
Temperament and Parenting
A Newsletter About Caring for the High Maintenance Child by Kate Andersen, M.Ed.
Theme: Children without a conscience.
Volume 23, Issue 11,July,2021.
Letter to Kate
I know your newsletter mainly deals with children aged 2 to 12 but I really want to ask something about our fourteen-year old daughter who has always had a "high maintenance" temperament. Is that ok?
Laura (not her real name) doesn't seem to know the difference between right and wrong. She appears indifferent to any type of consequence we give her and is becoming sneakier by the day. I have found condoms in her bedroom, marijuana cigarettes in her jacket pocket, and her school is calling constantly to report she is skipping class.
We had Laura assessed when she was in elementary school. She doesn't have any learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, or any other reason that might make her behavior more understandable. She wasn't even a very non-compliant kid in elementary school.
Communicating with Laura has always been strained. Whenever we try, she shuts down and finds an excuse not to listen. She has several good friends and one of them even came to me and said she thought Laura was starting to hang out with the wrong crowd. She also said she missed Laura because Laura is a good listener when she herself needs someone to confide in. We seem to have two different children here: one without a conscience and one who is a good friend to others.
Our marriage is stable and our other daughter is not having any problems. I am completely confused about what is happening in our family. PLEASE help.
You are right to be concerned. Laura is at a vulnerable age when many adolescents start moving on to an unhealthy and potentially dangerous track. However, a substantial proportion of them go through a period of testing the authorities (school, parents) and then settle down. Laura definitely needs to be monitored but panicking is not a good idea. Because of the large amount of bad press that adolescents get these days it's easy for parents to either overreact or mischaracterize the problems their adolescents are experiencing. So, even though I don't have much information about Laura, I would like to suggest you sort through some of the statements you have made in your letter. This may help you decide where to go next.
"Our fourteen-year old daughter ... has always had a 'high maintenance' temperament." Is this your general impression of her temperament or has a qualified professional conducted an actual assessment using standardized temperament scales? If you have not had a proper temperament assessment done, you may be wrong in your impression of her temperament. Furthermore, pinning down the specific traits that are of concern may shed light on why Laura is currently experiencing a rather marked adjustment problem in early adolescence.
"Laura doesn't seem to know the difference between right and wrong." This is a significant statement. If it is true, you need to get some counselling immediately. If Laura won't attend, you and your wife should get help for yourselves. There are some youngsters who have a true disorder involving a lack of conscience. (Read the article below for more information.) I suspect you are wrong about this, however. As you note, her friend finds Laura empathic. Unless Laura is faking empathy to manipulate her friend in some way, Laura may simply have a wall of defence right now that is being confused with lack of conscience. Some such teens are, in fact, very frightened children because they are conscientious but trying to function in a social environment that is malicious.
"She appears indifferent to any type of consequence we give her." I am interested that you say "appears". It seems that even you think that maybe deep down she does care but is pretending not to. This type of bravado is common in defiant teens. Don't stop delivering reasonable consequences as long as the behavior being targetted is actually changing for the better, or at least not getting worse. Speaking of consequences, many parents get on the wrong track with teens and ground them for life for minor misdemeanors. This newsletter does not deal with adolescents so I would advise you to get good professional help about management programs with teens. Good programs involve the adolescents in a negotiatory approach to discipline, with the teen participating in developing the plan. If this thought shocks you, then you may be stuck in early childhood discipline mode and need to shift to adolescent parenting. I am curious to know if your other daughter is younger or older than Laura. If younger, then part of the issue may be that you haven't yet learned how to be the parent of a teenager, a task that is a struggle for most of us.
"... and is becoming sneakier by the day." This is pretty typical behavior of a defiant adolescent though of course it can be a real concern. I always took a journey to the past and recalled my own adolescence before I jumped in to characterize my own children as particularly sneaky. Oh boy ! I am surprised my parents didn't lock me up!! I'd like to reassure you that, as an adult, I've never even gotten a ticket for speeding.
"I have found condoms in her bedroom, marijuana cigarettes in her jacket pocket." Well, using condoms is good news in a way, in this day of HIV and other risks. Normal adolescents do experiment with sex early these days. I trust you have talked with Laura about the fact that she is likely not really ready for the emotional entanglements that come with being sexually active. She also needs to know the legal consequences of being caught with marijuana. Your words may appear to fall on deaf ears but the important thing is that you are transmitting your values to Laura. She needs to be very clear about those.
".... her school is calling constantly to report she is skipping class." Well, skipping class is a big indicator as far as I am concerned but the difficulty is knowing what it indicates. Some youngsters try skipping once to go along with the crowd and find the freedom so delicious they get hooked. Others are leaving class to engage in an drug addiction. Others are overwhelmed by the academic expectations of secondary school or individual teachers, even in the absence of an attention deficit or learning disability. There are far too many youngsters who have a combination of all of these reasons for "skipping". Of course, family problems and parent-adolescent conflict is a key contributing factor in adolescent adjustment problems though this is often a chicken-and-egg issue, it being difficult to know which came first. Some teens with healthy families and healthy relationships with parents still may skip classes because find the social environment and school culture toxic. (Read the essay below by a young adolescent who developed a clinical depression in secondary school.)
School culture is often hidden from parents. It is a system of values, behaviors and norms which can either support healthy adolescent development or be completely toxic to it. The principal plays a large role in helping shape school culture but society-at-large, media, the local community and the particular group of youngsters play a role, too. Each secondary school has its own complex set of issues. Not all variations in school culture are intrinsically damaging or good. Some youngsters can thrive in school cultures which are deadly to other children. Sound a bit like "goodness-of-fit"? I think it is exactly that; however, this is a vastly, vastly understudied topic.
I urge you to try to find out from other parents, other teens, teachers, counsellors, and perhaps especially community counsellors who deal with referrals from your daughter's school. Get interested in the "in" crowd and how they treat the "out" crowd. Find out who the powerful role models are and what they model. Then think about the Laura you knew in elementary school and how well she would 'fit' with that environment.
"We have had Laura assessed several times. She doesn't have any learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, or any other reason that might make her behavior more understandable. She wasn't even a very non-compliant kid in elementary school." There is always the possibility that the earlier assessment was incorrect--or incomplete. However, even when there is no diagnosable "condition", a poor fit between temperament, learning style and/or family values with school expectations, approaches and culture can contribute to very significant adjustment problems in adolescents.
"Communicating with Laura has always been strained. Whenever we try, she shuts down and finds an excuse not to listen." This comment may provide a clue as to why Laura is struggling in adolescence. If she has not learned how to confide in her parents then she may not think to come to you to talk about "dumb, silly little things at school" that are adding up to cause her great conflict, confusion and stress. When you are fifteen, someone taunting you about acne can be devastating, for example. Being the last one to finish a race at track can be just as awful. Not getting algebra can cause a young person to feel completely defective. Being the only one without a boyfriend can be deeply painful. Do you have any idea what's going on for Laura? I would work on communication right now, in whatever way you can. You may need professional help if in fact communicating with Laura has never been successful.
"She has several good friends and one of them even came to me and said she thought Laura was starting to hang out with the wrong crowd." If these are true friends and not just associates, then Laura may have some basis for real resilience along with caring parents. Do what you can to make your home a welcoming place to such true friends. She needs them now more than ever.
"Our marriage is stable". Good news! Take special care now as a troubled adolescent can rock the most stable of marriages.
"...our other daughter is not having any problems." Avoid "polarizing" your children, with one being seen as the "good kid" and the other the "rotten" kid.
"I am completely confused about what is happening in our family." You are not alone. Millions of parents experience the shock of their lives when their children enter adolescence and experience such struggles. As hard as it is for you, please try to think of Laura, who may be in great pain and much more confused than you.
How is Laura's relationship with her mother? I would hope that she can confide in at least one parent. Stand by your daughter and try to get to the bottom of the reason for her skipping classes.
There is light at the end of the tunnel. Talk to other people who've survived the adolescent years and get a sense of the range of experiences. What you learn may help you take immediate steps for change or may bring relief.
I hope this is helpful to you.
to some common questions about behavioral style.
Origins, impact on parenting, risk for behavioral issues, relationship to ADHD, and other topics.
Goodness of Fit
How temperament is assessed.
Poor fit can lead to stress and possibly emotional or behavioral problems
When professional help is needed
There are qualified individuals from several disciplines who counsel parents and children.