Depression in adolescent girl “caretakers”

One of the major causes of depression in adolescent girls is their failure to take care of themselves. There are many reasons for this occurring, and the following are stories of real girls who have suffered because of their role as “caretaker”. I have changed their names for anonymity.

                             Receiving love

Izzy’s older sister has been causing chaos in the family for years, including drug and alcohol usage, sneaking out, running away, and major meltdowns. Izzy’s response was to care for her younger brother and to pick up the slack as far as cleaning the house, cooking dinners, and managing her own life. She came to see me because of feeling sad and exhausted.

Maggie’s mom has ALS, and her gradually weakening conditioned has put stress on everyone in the house. Her dad works extra hours to compensate for his wife’s lack of income, so he is not around much in the evenings or on weekends. Maggie tries hard to keep the house in order and to manage her three younger siblings as well as maintain her grades and play varsity volleyball. She too feels drained.

Lauren has a younger brother with autism, and her parents are constantly walking on eggshells around his fits. His behavior requires an inordinate amount of time and energy, leaving little left over for Lauren. She feels like she has to overcompensate for her brother’s deficiencies by overachieving and being the perfect child. Lauren decided a long time ago that the only way to get her parents to focus on her was to exaggerate her problems or feelings.

All of Sara’s friends come to her with their problems, and her friends often to refer to her as “mom” or their “counselor”. She feels valuable by being a good listener and someone friends can count on to be there for them, but she sought my counsel because she felt depleted and depressed.

Clare’s dad left the family when she was four years old, and her mom became an alcoholic. She spent many a night putting her passed out mom to bed, and learned to take care of all of her needs. I saw her for counseling because she had become apathetic about her school work and activities.

What do all five girls have in common? They decided early in life that other people’s needs were more important than theirs, and ultimately, that they shouldn’t even have needs. Their feelings of depression, resentment, and burnout were the result of giving to everyone but themselves. All five girls had a difficult time allowing others to be there for them and to receive love and support.

When I asked each of them what they did to take care of themselves, they had no answers. Sara has experienced other hurtful experiences in her life, but she finds it easier to invest herself in helping others than to address her own issues and feelings. Lauren does sometimes get her parent’s attention, but it’s always around some unhealthy drama and not the kind of love she truly desires. Izzy, Maggie, and Clare needed a ton of support to begin the process of caring for themselves.

Some of you might want to label these girls as caretakers; I prefer to see them as heroes. Just like the heroines in fairy tales, they had to grow up fast and develop self-reliance. This was true for Cinderella, Snow White, Rapunzel, and Frozen’s Elsa and Anna, and it was true for our five girls as well. I don’t judge the experience of growing up fast or taking care of others as bad; it’s made them who they are today. What they lack is balance.

If you have a daughter in your home who takes on too much, help her become aware of the cost to her. I have observed that many girls like our five heroines pick careers where they are of service to others: doctors, nurses, therapists, teachers. It is critical that they embrace the notion that it is okay to have needs and to ask for love and support. Out-of-balance adult caretakers lead resentful, unhappy lives. It’s admirable that a girl is there for friends when they are hurting, but that needs to be balanced with times when she is “off duty” and with allowing herself to be vulnerable and to ask for nurturing.

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