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16 Year Old's Apathy may be an
Expression of Grief

QUESTION: My 16-year-old daughter has suddenly stopped caring about anyone but herself and her friends. She has never acted like this before. She was involved in a car accident, which killed her father. I feel like she's punishing me for being the parent who is alive. I have recently remarried. I am heartbroken and wish to have a close relationship with my only child. Is her behavior a reaction to my marriage or is this just a normal adolescent stage?

You and your daughter have been through a tremendous amount of change precipitated by tragedy over the past 4 years! This is the third family formation you have experienced together. Your first intact family unit suffered the loss of your husband, resulting in a single parent family for several years, before forming a stepfamily with your new spouse. Your daughter's behavior is no doubt triggered by this last wave of family upheaval.

Your daughter's apathy towards you may indeed be an expression of suppressed anger at your ability to "replace" her father. Your remarriage no doubt triggered her attachment to her father as well as delayed grief for the loss of the intact family unit that was once represented by the three of you. Perhaps your daughter needs a safe way to say "good-bye" to the past before welcoming her new family constellation. It must be very difficult to sense your daughter's resistance to what is for you a happy turn of events in your life.

Do not take her anger personally. Your remarriage could be one more event in your daughter's life that is out of her control. Do not let the differences in your present experiences divide you or diminish the importance of your bond. It is your job to go on with your life. Do not interpret your daughter's anger as your guilt. Work to accept her feelings. She may feel angry or even abandoned by you to your new husband. After all, your grief forged a deep closeness between you, as did your nursing her to recovery. It could be very difficult for her to invite not only another man into her life, but to relinquish a part of your attention after the deep and profound togetherness the two of you shared over the last several years.

It is also likely that your remarriage is causing adjustments which have triggered her loyalty to her father and renewed grief. But this time she may feel somewhat alone with it. Consider taking special time with her to review the past and trace your journey to the present together. Revisit picture albums of the first family constellation with her father, your first husband. Invite your daughter to express her anger or her grief openly to you. It is likely you will cry and maybe even laugh together before you are through.

Find out how she feels about driving and be sensitive to the possibility that this could be an activity that may also be charged with her father's death. It is possible that post traumatic stress from the accident could be triggered by this new responsibility, adding difficulty to her present emotional adjustment.

Your daughter may indeed be expressing her anger by passively withholding affection from you because she senses your guilt. Your interpretation that she is "punishing" you only complicates the process. She is likely to pick up the message from you that you cannot tolerate her feelings. This leaves her no avenue for direct expression. The passive withholding you experience in her gift giving may reflect the fact that it has been her only safe avenue to express anger.

It will take your daughter time to forge a relationship with her new stepfather. Take it slow. Spend special mother-daughter time together. Remember, your daughter is not adding a new love to her life. Instead, she is losing her intimacy with her mother who she has been extremely close to these past few years. Of course she is angry with you! Make the room to process the very normal feelings your daughter may be experiencing.

Do not be fooled by her "aloofness". It is normal for teenagers to pursue their social lives in a quite self centered fashion. Creating a safe atmosphere for "negative" as well as "positive" feelings and maintaining contact through shared activities is a good idea for adolescence in general. Yet in your daughter's case, the loss of her father and adjustment to your recent marriage increase the intensity of her adolescence, making these suggestions not just "good ideas" but imperatives!

Express your love by making room for her "negative" feelings. Reflect them back to her. Let her know that you understand what she must be going through. Do not lose touch with her now, after all you have been through together. Your emotional availability will result in an easier adjustment and perhaps an increased ability to enjoy what this new family has to offer her!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter.

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