Help – My Teen Keeps Everything Bottled Up.

Dear Mamas,

I am a little worried about my 13-year-old daughter because she keeps everything bottled up inside. She doesn’t have any big problem that we know about but she rarely ever shares anything with us about what’s going on in her life. And when she does have a problem she doesn’t like to talk about it. She has nice friends, is healthy and does well at school. Any suggestions?


Hi Sharon,

I’m glad you wrote in because this is actually a pretty common problem between parents and adolescents. She sounds pretty normal but my question to you would be how long has this been going on? If she’s always been a little quieter, you could just be describing part of her temperment or personality. Some people are just naturally reserved and aren’t as comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings as others. That could be your daughter.

But if she has only recently started to shy away from frequent heart-to-hearts with you and seems to want to spend more time alone or in her room, it could be that the adolescent monster has stolen her voice. Almost all adolescents clam up on occasion. Even the ones who were chatter boxes who never stopped talking when they were younger begin to withdraw once they hit the teen years.

Adolescents need and want more privacy and the chance to “have a life” that is separate from you.They do not want mom and dad all up in their grill every time they turn around. They are beginning the process of forging their own identity separate from their family and long for a certain amount of space and privacy in order to do so.

Normal, yes. But there are, of course, a wide range of behaviors that can go along with this separation. You mentioned that she “keeps things bottled up.” That can be a concern because everyone, especially adolescents, needs to learn how to express and process their feelings.

There are ways that you can encourage her do so even if she doesn’t feel like talking.

  • You can encourage her to start a journal as a way to let it all out. Of course you will have to let her know that you will respect her privacy and not read her journal without permission.*
  • Music is another way to help her express feelings and emotions. When my daughter was a teen I could always tell when she was angry about something by how hard she banged on the piano. After playing for 15 minutes or so, the music coming from the living room was noticeably calmer. She may like the idea of taking piano, guitar, flute or songwriting lessons.
  • Art projects can also help her to express. Teens (especially girls) often like to make colages using pictures from magazines and photos. You might ask her to make one for you or grandma and grandpa about herself. An art class can also be fun especially if no grades are involved. The local community center may offer something.
  • Dance or exercise class can also help to get things moving.
  • Drama is another great outlet. See if she might want to get involved in a school or community play.

You may find, too, that she is more likely to open up when she is not on the spot to give a report. Even though our questions seem innocent enough to us, they can feel like a grilling to an adolescent. Try bringing things up casually about school or friends using a neutral tone and without making direct eye contact. Don’t jump on her answer right away and give her a chance to say more if she feels like it.

Teens are often in the mood to talk late at night before they go to bed. Defenses are down and they are often more open. Take advantage of that and check in with her before bedtime.

Also make sure you give her plenty of compliments. Teens really appreciate it when their parents tell them they look nice or did a good job on homework or a household chore. Your kind words may help her feel more comfortable about sharing more with you.

Of course if you are really worried that her pulling away goes beyond the normal teenage separation stuff, talk to your pediatrician or a family or adolescent counselor. Given the fact that she is ” healthy, doing fine at school and has nice friends,” it’s probably just the teen stuff, but as always, trust your gut.

*One exception to this rule is if you are truly concerned that she may be in some kind of real trouble. If that’s the case, the privacy issue goes down the toilet but you have to be brutally honest with yourself about what signals “trouble” and not use it as an excuse to indulge your curiosity.



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Ellen W. Schrier, LCSW, is a family therapist and the mother of three adolescent/young adult kids.

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