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Carolyn Hax: Self-conscious teen lashes out, blames struggles on her ‘ugly’ dad

(Nick Galifianakis for The Washington Post)

Hi, Carolyn: I’m a mid-40s guy. My daughter, 13, has weathered the pandemic pretty well and now goes to school two days per week. Lately she tells me “You’re so ugly, I hate you” several times a day. She also blames me for how she looks. Is there anything I can do to get her mind off people’s looks?

— Father

Father: Oh. This breaks my heart.

It’s not people’s looks she’s stuck on, it’s her looks. And yours, too, yes — but only as a handy and relatively safe place to dump her bad feelings about herself.

In fact, her appearance probably isn't even what she is most upset about; it, too, is likely the easiest place for her to dump these more general bad feelings.

This is speculation, of course. I obviously don't know her. But I've seen this enough and felt enough of it to be comfortable typing it out loud.

I will also address the “I hate you” situation, because it's not okay for her to talk to you or anyone else like that — but I will address it only briefly because focusing on it would be a mistake. It too is just a symptom of something larger.

So when you get the I-hate-yous, please remain calm, remind her gently of your humanity, then bring the compassion around to her. So, for example: “Hey. That hurts. And I’m sorry you’re feeling bad.” Pause to leave her room to respond. You can stop there, or, if you sense an opening: “Something else on your mind?”

I cannot emphasize the “gently” part enough.

And don't say something every time, either. That can burden her, and monopolize your relationship. Pick your moments, and choose at other times not to react.

The underlying ailment driving all these behaviors is how she feels about herself. That’s it. And it’s bad right now. She’s at an age where a lot feels bad or strange or awkward, where doubt seems like the only thing on the menu. A teenager lashing out is such a nonevent that I’m responding only because yours is doing so multiple times a day.

It is also normal for people to lash out where it feels safe to, until they figure out better ways to manage overflow feelings.

It is a credit to you that you're her safe lashing-out place; it means she trusts you to love her even through imperfect behavior — but it's also the sound of a child begging for help.

For that, I suggest a few calls: to her pediatrician and/or the counselor at her school for advice (fingers crossed the budget-cutters haven’t gotten there first), since they’ve seen this all before. And, maybe a call or text to other adults who spend enough time with your daughter to have insights on her state of mind. "[Daughter]'s going through something lately. Have you noticed anything?” This can include other family members, parents of friends, a favorite teacher. If you have access to therapy, an appointment for you alone, to start, can help you learn how to ride out these waves and what help your daughter might need.

Longer range, please help her identify, cultivate or just start feeding again whatever interests she has that get her off the couch or her phone and out of her own thoughts. If it involves using her own physical strength, even better — it's harder to hate a body, or a self, that carries you up mountains or around dance floors or across the deep end.

This isn't an instant fix — and in fact it's slower-motion than ever, given her age; even though she needs parent time, spending time with a parent is unlikely to be her first choice. That means, again, you'll need to pick your moments.

But steering her out of negative loops and toward productive outlets is the way to teach her to apply this lifelong strategy herself, to help her manage the feelings that come with adulthood — which will be harder, at times, than anyone wants for their kids.

Dear Carolyn: My husband is a very kind man, but I really don’t understand his gifts to me. Recently he gave me a huge basket of exotic chips. I do not eat chips. Probably, he will end up eating all of them. He told me he could not find an orchid plant, my favorite.

This goes back years, to when we got married. We are well off, so I don’t understand why he gives me something he enjoys for himself. It bothers me.

— K.

K.: Some people are very kind, but terrible at ______.

That can include: gifts, small talk, crowds, solitude, social cues, repetitive sounds, milestone dates, travel, planning, time-management, discussing death, transitions, knowing when a list has gotten way too long.

If the ______ is a free-floating disappointment, then bat it away as a quirk. If it’s the tip of a thoughtless iceberg, then think bigger, please, about whether your marriage gives you what you need.