How can I help my unhappy 15 year old daughter?

Parent Question:
I am struggling with my 15-year-old daughter at the moment. She started dieting last autumn and coming up to Christmas she lost a lot of weight. She was extremely thin, spoke about food all the time, and we were very worried about her.

She then fell off that “healthy eating wagon” and went to the other extreme – putting on a lot of weight in a short space of time. She has stopped engaging in her schoolwork and is rarely going out with her friends.

Just after Christmas I found a nail clippers in her bed which made me worried she was cutting herself (she bites her nails so has no nails to clip). I confronted her and made her show me her forearms (she is always wearing long sleeves). There were no marks, but she was really angry that I did not trust her and she did not talk me for days.

Last weekend, when changing her bed linen I found a one-off entry in a notebook saying she won’t be happy unless she gets back to being thin again and she is dreading the summer. She also said something vague which made me wonder if she was cutting herself but hiding it. I have not raised this with her as she would be furious I was reading her notebook and I don’t want to go back to big rows with her.

I am trying to be as supportive as I can and keep communication open. I have asked her about her mood and offered for her to speak to someone but she is adamant she is fine.

On the positive side, she is chatting to us at other times (not about feelings but about normal stuff) – she watched the rugby with her dad at the weekend and joins us for dinner.

We have had terrible rows in the past and I don’t want to go down that road again so I am focusing on being positive with her. I am putting a bit of pressure on regarding school and asking her to come out for a walk with me but trying not to put so much that it ends in a row.

The pressures of body image, fitting in with peers and schoolwork, make it hard to be a teenager at the best of times. During Covid-19, these pressures and challenges are greatly increased. Online schoolwork is harder and less satisfying than social learning in the classroom; trying to stay connected with friends can be really difficult; and engaging in the extra-curricular activities that are so important to teenagers have all but stopped. As a mental health professional, I am seeing a big rise in teen mental health problems such as anxiety, depression, problematic eating and self-harm.

You are right to be worried about your daughter’s pattern of eating and whether she might be engaging in cutting. Lots of teenagers try to manage their feelings and self-esteem by controlled eating and this is something to monitor carefully.

When she fell off the “healthy eating wagon” it is possible that she might have become depressed, causing her to disengage from school and friends and possibly to engage in cutting. It is normal for many teenagers to try to hide this and to not want to talk about their feelings of distress behind it. Below are some ideas to help.

Stay supportive and warm
Continue to build upon all the positives in your relationship with your daughter. Chatting at dinner, watching rugby and focusing on lots of daily chatting and daily fun times are all ways to keep the channels of communication open so you stay connected. Try to build these into the weekly routine, for example setting fixed times for meals, having a family games night, or creating a ritual of watching a daily TV programme together.

By creating lots of connected times you create the conditions where she might be able to open up and talk about her worries at other times.

Relax your expectations and pressure about school work for the moment. You are right to avoid going down the route of angry rows. Instead, listen to her feelings about schoolwork and encourage her to set her own plan and routine around this. More importantly, the focus of the discussion should be what fun and creative things can she do to help her get through lockdown?

Be prepared to raise your concerns
When you fear your teenager getting angry it is easy to avoid raising challenging issues. But remember it takes two people for a row to escalate – her anger will only escalate if you get angry and defensive. If you remain calm, empathic and warm, her anger is likely to subside. As a result, I would suggest you think through and rehearse how you might raise your concerns about self-harm or eating with her and then pick your timing very carefully.

For example, you might pick a time when you are both relaxed and say, “there is something I want to ask you, is this a good time?” You then matter of factly might raise your concern: “when cleaning your room, I read a note in your diary that made me worried”. Be empathic and ask her to explain what she meant in the note and how she was feeling. If she gets angry, acknowledge her feelings and avoid being defensive: “I know you are angry, that is understandable . . . it is just as your mum/dad, I am concerned about you and want you to be happy and well”. If she does open up, explore with her what will help her cope and if she closes down the conversation, say you are there for her anytime she does want to talk.

Seek support and help
Continue to offer her the option of getting help and seeing someone but respect that this is her choice. If she chooses not to see someone at the moment, explore with her what is she doing now to help herself and also what you can do to help her. You can also seek help yourself as a parent. Both and offer support to parents concerned about their teenagers. An outside professional can help you think through how you are responding to your daughter and what other ways you can help her.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the School of Psychology, University College Dublin. This parenting Q&A was originally published in the Irish Times in April 2021. John writes in the Irish Times Newspaper on Tuesdays. His website is