a blog about daughters in crisis and the moms who love them

How To Read The Signs An At-Risk Girl Gives Us

One of my greatest regrets is failing to intervene sooner when my daughter’s trouble started. If this blog can help even one family confidently take action before their daughter starts walking through the Valley of High-Risk Behavior, it will be more than worth every keystroke and late night. As a disclaimer, I do not pretend to be a credentialed expert on this topic. My assertions, however, are backed up by research and I will gladly share my sources.

Looking back with accuracy is much easier, sometimes, than seeing the present correctly. I noticed issues that seemed relatively small and amorphous early on. Tessa had a hard time interpreting “girl politics” as early as kindergarten. We worked on it, but nothing seemed to stick too well. She complained about it from time to time, but she also formed a couple of close friendships and seemed happy in general. Until 5th grade. That year, some of her classmates reached the cusp of puberty. A child’s brain transforms from primarily “black and white” thinking to abstract thinking at this juncture. This takes girl politics to a whole new level.

My daughter had not entered puberty yet, but she picked up on the new and different ways her peers were behaving. It was difficult, I’m sure, to articulate her concerns. Tessa was undoubtedly even more bewildered than ever by the cattiness, strife, positioning, and subtle bullying. She began asking if she could be homeschooled. We talked about it and considered it as a family, but it didn’t seem like the situation warranted such a dramatic change. It all seemed like normal kid stuff at that point. I should have listened better. If there were do-overs, I would take one for this decision. Giving a child the opportunity to step away from what, to her, is an overwhelming situation can lead to great strides in social development, self-esteem, and happiness. With the vast array of choices we have now to educate our children, it really can be a terrific option.

It seemed we were muddling through the transition from elementary to middle school. Tessa wasn’t elated, but she wasn’t completely miserable, either. She always made the honor roll, had a variety of interests, and thought often of the future. By 7th grade, however, we had a situation on our hands. The social environment at school had very definable fissures by now. Tessa, like nearly all of the girls, was in a group. Her group was populated by only a few: smart, sensitive, artsy types who made a point of eschewing their “preppy” peers for an endless string of reasons. In and of itself, this type of group is perfectly fine. But Tessa felt like it was her only option, and that WAS a problem. This, along with timing, cultural influences, and peer pressure were the breezes that built into a storm of darkness.

For my girl, the hormonal changes of puberty, the popularity of the emo subculture and its accompanying associations with self-harm / cutting (I realize that many insist quite forcefully there is no correlation. Based on my experience and my research, there certainly is in our case. Perhaps your experience is different. I’m sure it can vary by geography, age, how seriously one devotes themselves to it, etc.), and the modeling of risky behavior by some kids she looked up to all converged quickly and destructively.

Jumping forward, Tessa was diagnosed with major depression her 8th-grade year. Below, I’ve listed the symptoms of depression. When I found out that sustained anger and irritability can often be the loudest signals of depression in a child or teen, I was surprised. Please take note. Your daughter will thank you later. Many of the other symptoms on the list were absent or transitory, but chronic irritation stuck around and, I’m sure, contributed to the social marginalization my daughter felt she was experiencing.

There is some family history of depression, but what I saw in my afflicted relatives looked very different from what I saw in Tessa.

The bottom line is that we got behind the curve. It’s been much more difficult to catch up, clean up, and get ahead of it again than it would have been to stay in front from the outset. It sounds trite, but it really is better to be pro-active than reactive. I am not one to be an alarmist. I think far too many kids are put through the wringer of misdiagnosis and over-reaction. But the transition into puberty is a fragile time for girls. Some are more fragile than others. Stay connected even when you are pushed away and be ready to intervene decisively if concerning signs persist. She is worth it.

Signs A Child or Teen Is Depressed

According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, any of these symptoms occurring over an extended period of time may mean a child is depressed :

  • Frequent sadness, tearfulness, and/or crying
  • Hopelessness
  • Decreased interest in activities or inability to enjoy previously favorite activities.
  • Persistent boredom; low energy. “The hallmark of depression is this inability to have joy,” Dolgan says. “There’s this low energy, this shutting away, shutting down.”
  • Social isolation, poor communication. “A child given the opportunity to play with friends who prefers to be alone” may be depressed, Dolgan says.
  • Low self-esteem and guilt. “The kids feel they’re not good or not worth very much,” Dolgan says. “I often ask, ‘Are you important to somebody?’ Depressed kids say no.”
  • Extreme sensitivity to rejection or failure
  • Increased irritability, anger, or hostility
  • Difficulty with relationships
  • Frequent complaints of physical illnesses such as headaches and stomachaches. “A lot of these kids have physical illnesses for no real cause, especially stomachaches and headaches,” Dolgan says.
  • Frequent absences from school or poor performance in school.
  • Poor concentration
  • A major change in eating and/or sleeping patterns
  • Talk of or efforts to run away from home
  • Thoughts or expressions of suicide or self-destructive behavior

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