Dear Dr. Meg,
My daughter is 13 years old but does not show any emotion. She will not acknowledge when she does something wrong. How can I help her?
Dear Distressed Parent,
When you say that your daughter does not show emotion, I am assuming that she is more than simply withdrawn from you. Most teen girls go through a period where they are uncomfortable with themselves, feeling that everyone sees the tiniest pimple on their face. Thus, they withdraw from affection and act quite snarly. These behaviors stem from low self-confidence and in time, most girls get over it. During this stage, teen girls know when they are doing something wrong, but they are too embarrassed to admit it. In time, they outgrow this.
If your daughter however, appears to show little affection, animation, enthusiasm or sorrow, then she has pushed her feelings deep inside of her for some reason. She may feel that it is not “safe” for her to express joy, anger or sadness and she may be suffering from depression. If this is the case, it is helpful for you to do some detective work. Ask yourself, how do I react when my daughter is mad, sad or upset about something? Do you allow her to show her feelings or does she feel dismissed or afraid if she expresses her feelings? Many children won’t show their feelings to their parents because they feel stupid or insignificant. So, it is important for every parent to show their kids that they can express their feelings but they must always do so in a respectful way. If you believe that your daughter may be depressed, take her to your doctor soon.
I tell kids that when they shove their feelings inward, that over time those feelings form an emotional “abscess” if you will, that needs to be punctured. This can happen if a good counselor asks them the right questions in an effort to draw those deep feelings out of them. Many 13-year-old girls do not want to admit that they are wrong, so they will hide their guilt or remorse. The best thing that you as a parent can do is continue to firmly and clearly outline what is acceptable behavior for your daughter and then tell her that when she steps out of line, there will be clear consequences, regardless of how she is feeling. Do not be mean or condemning but simply tell her what the boundaries of good and bad behavior are and she will eventually learn to admit when she is wrong. To admit wrongdoing, takes maturity.
It is extremely rare to have a 13-year-old who feels no emotion. This can happen if a child has suffered extreme trauma during the early childhood years, like some children in bad orphanages do. In this case, children learn to feel comfortable with only a few feelings, with anger being one of them. These children have a very hard time feeling sorrow or regret because they never were able to form healthy attachments as young children. If this describes your daughter, then the best thing that you can do for her is to get her help from a good adolescent psychiatrist.