Referring back to our earlier case of Debbie’s body piercing, let’s see how using knowledge of Debbie’s inner world and the power of spending quality time together can help her parents connect to her.
Daniel Schonbuch (DS): I’m interested in finding out more about your relationship. Was there a time when it was better?
Mother: Actually, Debbie and I never had a great relationship, although it used to be better when she was younger.
DS: When did it change?
Mother: Well I think it started to get bad around the time she turned eleven. She was always a quiet girl and didn’t talk much about her feelings. When her body started changing and she started putting on weight, she started feeling terrible about herself.
DS: Would you say that Debbie has low self-esteem?
Mother: Absolutely. It’s something she has been struggling with for years.
DS: Is she the kind of teenager who feels that nothing goes right in her life?
Mother: I think so. She is always complaining about school, teachers, her sisters and her friends.
DS: Tell me a bit about her friends.
Mother: I don’t like her friends very much. They are always getting into trouble with boys and things. She spends all night talking on the phone with them. Last night she was up until two o’clock talking and I couldn’t wake her up this morning.
DS: Do you often fight about things like waking up or going to bed?
Mother: All the time. It’s gotten so bad that I try not to fight anymore with her. But what can I do? Let her fall apart?
DS: What about the way she dresses?
Mother: I think it’s terrible. Debbie always looks shlumpy, like she doesn’t care that much about how she looks.
DS: She doesn’t care about her looks?
Mother: She doesn’t know how to present herself to others. It seems that she always picks something a little out of fashion to wear. It’s like she’s saying, “Don’t bother me with fashion statements.”
DS: Do you also fight about her clothing?
Mother: Of course. We’ve been fighting for years about her clothes. The more I get involved in her clothing, the more we just end up fighting with each other.
DS: Do you ever take her out to go shopping?
Mother: I try, but she is impossible to buy clothing with. Last week I took her for a pair of shoes for our cousin’s bar mitzvah, and she kept saying, “I can’t stand these shoes. You don’t know what I want!”
From this conversation, it seemed that Debbie was dealing with two main issues: self-esteem and control. I wanted to see if we could find a creative way to address her inner need for control and work to build up her self-esteem. I also wanted to try to reduce the tension in Debbie and her mother’s interactions and start moving their relationship in a positive direction.
DS: Let me ask you a question. Does Debbie have a clothing allowance or do you buy her clothes for her?
Mother: She doesn’t have an allowance; she just gets things when she needs them. We don’t have enough money to support an allowance fund. It’s hard enough just making ends meet.
DS: Okay, let me make a suggestion. Why don’t you try to make a budget? I know things are hard for you, but I’m sure you already spend money on her clothing. Work out with your husband how much you could be sure of being able to give her every month. Tell her that you and her father think it is a good idea. But remember; don’t say anything about the body piercing. The goal is to empower her and give her a good feeling about herself. You can’t really control her anymore, but you can make her feel that you care about her.
Mother: It’s not a bad idea.
DS: I hope that she will feel you are supporting her.
Mother: We have been fighting for so long. I don’t know what it will do.
DS: It’s not what it will do; it’s about the feeling that you will give her. The unconscious message is “I just want you to feel good about yourself. Here’s some money so you can buy something pretty that you enjoy.” You also need to address her need for control. I want to see if this approach can help.
The next time Debbie’s mother returned, she reported that Debbie liked the idea of having a clothing allowance. I asked her mother to try this out for a few months and be very careful not to criticize her about her clothing. During that time, I wanted to talk to Debbie about her feelings of low self-esteem and asked her if she would consider coming in to talk with me.