Why creating positive experiences matters to your daughter's mental health

My daughter just lays in bed.  Her grades are terrible, she doesn't talk to her friends.  All she does is argue with us.  Any attempt to get her to do anything ends in a fight and her going to her room.  We have taken away all of her electronics but nothing seems to motivate her.  It's incredibly frustrating!!

This is a more extreme example of a girl who has shifted into a major depression but girls struggling with negative views about themselves and their lives will often see much more of their life as very negative.  Lots of complaints that communicate "its not good enough".

If you have been blessed to never have dealt with depression, it's hard to understand that depression can cloud perspective and can distort what is actually happening.  There is a side of depression that is comfortable being in the dark, down, negative space.  The effort required to make changes, even tiny ones can be daunting and overwhelming.

I think as a parent of a teen girl struggling with depression and other negative emotional experiences (anger, shame, jealousy, etc...) it can create so much fear and anxiety because you can see what is happening but you recognize you can't "fix it".  You can feel very powerless and helpless.

Positive Experiences

One of the best ways to help with her mood is to make sure she is engaging in positive experiences an a regular basis.  This is a great prevention tool for excessive negative emotional states.  This may sound simple, but it truly isn't.  If she is already deep into negative moods it's going to be difficult for her to see anything positive in life.

For example, she may not appreciate the simple joy of getting her nails done.  She may see it as stupid and a waste of time and keeping her from laying in bed.  She won't see that it's a great way to connect with you or her sister.

It can take time but she needs to do things regularly that would be considered positive.  It's best for her to come up with a list of things she could do daily, weekly and monthly.  They may seem insignificant to both of you, but the research is pretty solid that they matter.  You can read more here.

A lot of times, parents will tell me that it feels as if they are rewarding her "bad behavior" with positive experiences but a better way to look at it is that if she doesn't start having positive experiences she will not pull out of the negative state.  She needs them to get better.  It can almost act as medicine. 

This doesn't mean the experiences have to be extravagant but let's say she has been isolated for weeks and she gets invited to hang with a friend and wants to but her grades are in the tank and she has been super cranky.  The instinct is to tell her no.  I would actually advise that she be allowed to go (maybe for a limited time) so that she can have a positive experience.  It can give her a mood boost that may ultimately work to improve her behavior at home.  I call it "needing a win".

"Needing some wins"

She needs some "wins".  When girls are really down, life can feel as if she is losing at it.  She recognizes people are upset with her... siblings, parents, teachers and even friends. Often she really really wants life to be different but is stuck in her current mood or emotional state.  Gaining some "wins" can help her move forward. 

My experience has been that very few girls are purposefully being manipulative and miserable just to get at their parents.  There is almost always an underlying lack of self-esteem, depression, anxiety and intense fear.

We have to look at the big picture.  What may feel like a reward of poor performance may actually be what is needed to get her going and improving her mood which can make everyone's life better!

So what are some examples of positive experiences?  Here is a short list but it can be almost anything that is meaningful to her...

  • new hair color
  • adult coloring book
  • cook or bake
  • favorite chocolate
  • Pinterest art project
  • cat videos
  • thrift store shopping
  • redo/add to bedroom space
  • flowers
  • beach day or mountain day
  • shopping for new accessories
  • watch a movie
  • practice new make-up ideas

Whatever she might be interested in exploring, it's helpful to come up with a list together.  You can add experiences that are individual and with family. 

The key is that she actually does it, even if she doesn't feel like doing it.  If she can do it and be present while doing it she will receive the most benefit from it in terms of the emotional effects. 

This is a life long skill that needs to be practiced.  Balancing negative and positive emotional experiences will help with mental health.  Consider it a healthy habit to practice daily, weekly and monthly.  No matter how stressful and difficult life can be, it's OK to do something that brings you joy even if it's for just a few hours.  It's good for the soul!