How can I help my daughter decide what to do with her life?

Annalisa Barbieri

My 19-year-old daughter (the youngest) is anxious and disheartened that she doesn’t know what to do with her life. She took a gap year and went travelling, but found this quite stressful; she thinks she’s not good at making friends (she is) and her experience didn’t seem to measure up to those of her friends on social media. We explained that people only post the good bits and that others would also be feeling homesick, lonely etc. She also had some amazing experiences, however, and came back feeling more positive than she had been for a long time.

On her return, the university cancelled her course, because it was undersubscribed. This was a shock but as she wasn’t sure she wanted to go to university anyway, it was an opportunity to rethink things. Her father and I have always said that she shouldn’t feel obliged to go to university, but I think she feels pressure as her siblings have done so.

Her friends seem to have a path that they are clear about, but she feels she has no idea. Her father and I have given her examples of people who have started out that way but found the right thing serendipitously, pointing out that many people enter the adult world with little idea of a career. This has been to no avail.

She quite often brings up the subject of what she will do with her life, as though she wants to discuss it, but the minute we try to engage, no matter how carefully, she clams up. I get the feeling that she is very frightened, and that this is paralysing her to some extent. I don’t know what to do.

You are doing and saying so many of the right things. Your letter reminded me of similar readers’ letters I’ve seen through the years, in which an adult child (usually, but not always, the youngest) is “failing to launch”, ie leave the nest.

I consulted psychotherapist Elisabeth Berman (childpsychotherapy.org.uk), who thought you were spot on with your thoughts about your daughter being paralysed by fear. I asked why she thought this might be. “The process of growing up is something we all grapple with, and the task of leaving home will evoke the drama of earlier hurdles, such as being weaned, learning to walk, or starting school,” she said.

She went on to explain that this was about “managing the transition from being a child within the family, where your primary relationships are with your parents and siblings, to becoming an adult in the world, where you experience yourself mainly through peer relationships.”

The difficulty here is that your daughter has tried to go out into the world and, although she’s had some successes, she’s also experienced what she perceives to be failures. So her fledging steps have reinforced her belief that she can’t do it. Remember that child/parent relationships are different to ones you make with people outside of the family.

I want to go back to the way you interact with her, because although you have been empathic, sometimes, by trying to be too helpful, we deny our children their feelings. I want you to think back to the last time you felt unsure of something and about responses that both helped and hindered. Instead of coming up with solutions and appeasements, let your daughter’s feelings be.

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“It’s so important,” Berman said, “for a child to know that what they’re feeling is manageable, that it’s not something that has to be dealt with, that it can be tolerated. By trying to find a solution for her it can seem as if you’re trying to get rid of the feeling.” I’ve had more success saying to my children, “I can see you’re angry – tell me about it” or, “That sounds really hard”, than trying to fix their problems, which can seem like trying to shut them down. Next time your daughter wants to talk, Berman suggested, try saying, “That sounds overwhelming for you” – and leave it open. Sometimes you need to name the emotion instead of sweeping it under the carpet.

What is it you are scared of? You say it’s OK for your daughter not to find her way, yet, or know what she’s doing, or go to university, but do you mean that? Do you baby your youngest? You wouldn’t be the first to do this, but you may need to look at your own fears and what it means when she does leave – because the last child leaving the family home feels very different from the first one.

• Send your problem to annalisa.barbieri@mac.com. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence.

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