Pre-teen Angst?
November 19, 2018 7:19 AM   Subscribe

My 11 year old daughter is currently participating in an art class at our local museum, and the parents were invited for an open house for the first semester this weekend. They were working on their projects, and had their notebooks with them. On one of the pages of her notebook was a list of personal characteristics that she created, and none of them were terribly positive, and one is still bothering me today.

On the top of the list was "introverted". Nothing really wrong there, as that is me as well. Another entry was along the lines of wanting to be a vampire (later crossed out), and the one that bothers me is "dead inside".

I'm not sure how an 11 year old gets to "dead inside", and should I look at this as a warning sign or just a part of growing up? Should I bring this up with her, and how can I bring this up without her immediately shutting down (which she does any time my wife or I attempt to discuss personal issues with her).

She has been introverted and an avid reader for years, and part of me wants to push this off as coming from her latest obsession with the Shadowhunter books. I haven't read any of the Shadowhunter books, but from online summaries, I have gathered that they are squarely in the "teenage paranormal romance" genre. I have no problem with the subject matter, apart from not being my cup of tea. These books also follow a devotion to the "Divergent" series.

I've also been concerned with an inability to be part of a social group at school. She has one close friend that she spends time with, but she has also mentioned to us in the past few weeks that she will read by herself during class breaks because she "has no friends" in her math class, and that she enjoys the art class but would enjoy it more if she had a friend in the class (I don't think the class is made of kids that knew each other before the class, and we thought that it would be a good place for her to make friends). I think I had a pretty healthy social group in middle and high school, but have lost touch with those friends to the point where my daughter has said that "daddy doesn't have any friends", which may influence her?

She is doing well in school, and seems fine around us, if occasionally moody (which seems appropriate for her age). The lack of friends has always seemed to bother me more that it has bothered her, but she has now mentioned this twice in the past few weeks.

Should the "dead inside" statement be a warning flag? Is some kind of therapy warranted?
posted by dforemsky to Human Relations (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
When you say that she 'created' them, it almost sounds like these were imagined characteristics for a fictional self. Any possibility, first off, that you are reading more into this than you need to?

I would hesitate to jump straight from 'dead inside' scrawled into art class notebook to therapy. At 11, she is still finding herself. For an avid pre-teen reader, fiction has an enormous part to play in sense of self and in what she might find 'thinkable' - the characteristics she can name and imagine. My offspring (similar age) has gone from Warrior Cats and writing fanfiction around clans and roles and destinies to John Green-style older teen books relatively quickly and her manner of speaking and topics of conversation have changed with it.

Give her time and space and keep talking to her. Not directly about this, but make sure you are open and non-judgemental. Make sure she knows she can come to you without reproach or concern to discuss whatever is on her mind.
posted by humuhumu at 7:28 AM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

My 12 year old just told me, "I don't think I know anyone who knows about memes and stuff who hasn't described themselves as dead inside." I know I've heard my kids use that phrase without actually meaning anything very serious. Apparently it's in pretty common usage among young people. I wouldn't take it much more seriously than if she told you she was "literally dead," which is something else I hear from my kids pretty often.
posted by Redstart at 7:35 AM on November 19, 2018 [21 favorites]

Why don't you ask her what "dead inside" means to her?

Only she knows. No one else here knows. Our opinions mean nothing and her opinion is everything. It could be some silly metaphorical dramatic statement or not.
posted by moiraine at 7:41 AM on November 19, 2018 [21 favorites]

I think one strong possibility is that the list of characteristics represent identities she’s trying out for herself. Thinking back to my time as an artsy preteen, if “dead inside” had been a concept I had come across in a book I really liked, I probably would have been really intrigued by the idea and “tried it on.”

And I can imagine the friend thing is hard to watch because you want your kid to be happy, but you can’t force it. Lots of kids go through phases where it’s hard to connect with their peers - I was an extrovert so for me it manifested as lots of conflict with friends and rapidly cycling though different “best friends.” But I could imagine for an introvert, it woul manifest as withdrawal. If she asks for advice or seems open to it, you could coach her on how to approach kids in her art class, for instance. But I wouldn’t push it.

Finally, 11 is not really too young for preteen girl angst. Honestly, she may be a bit precocious but it seems right on time. This is the age when girls start coming up against the intense (and often conflicting) societal pressures they face, and it’s definitely worthy of angst!
posted by lunasol at 7:42 AM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think you kind of can't know. I was both an unhappy kid and someone who narrated myself through whatever I was reading, for instance, and might have written something super-dramatic about myself that had a relationship to how I felt but was not 100% accurate. Also, moods vary - one day's "dead inside" is another's "I can't wait to do this project".

But what I'm hearing is that she wishes she had more friends. That's probably not making her feel too good. Is there some non-school activity that meets regularly that focuses on her specific interests where she could meet other kids? Not something that you want her to do, like piano lessons, but something that would be for her?

Having just one friend makes things hard, even if that friend is a good one. It makes things especially hard when you're young - what if that friend's parents decide to move? What if things change at school and that friend stops being her friend? \\

My parents didn't really have friends when I was growing up and that did affect me. Mostly not super-negatively, but I am extremely, extremely introverted and stay home a lot, and that's absolutely rooted in growing up in a home where the adults really didn't socialize. I think that if they'd had a more active social life, it would have helped me to develop social skills through observation and interacting with more adults, and it would have turned me in the "I'm bored, let's do to a thing" direction rather than the "I'm bored, let's read again" direction.
posted by Frowner at 7:42 AM on November 19, 2018 [5 favorites]

I would take it seriously and find a trust building way to ask. It might take a long time to build towards getting a true answer.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 8:13 AM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

I think the worst case scenario here is something like what happened to me as a girl her age, where I wrote some poetry about feeling suicidal, my parents found it, they sat me down for a Concerned Conversation — and I took away the message that I was in big trouble, and might get in bigger trouble if I got caught expressing those feelings again. I was definitely for real suicidal, and feeling like I couldn't talk about it was not a great outcome for me.

They absolutely wouldn't have wanted me to think I was in trouble for it. They were just scared and upset and coming on too strong.

So, like, okay. Probably this is not a big deal. Like everyone else is saying, lots of kids who aren't depressed or suicidal also write stuff like that, just as a way of expressing normal preteen feelings.

But still: try approaching it calmly and gently, with a "hey, tell me more about what this means to you" attitude, and without trying to change her mind or shut down whatever negative feelings she might express. That will be sort of a win/win approach. If it's nothing, you avoid raising a stink over nothing. And if it's something serious, you raise the odds that she'll feel safe about telling you it's something serious.

And like St. Peepsburg says, this might not be a thing that's done after one conversation. You need to cultivate the habit of checking in with each other about stuff, and she might need to try out trusting you with small stuff before she trusts you with big stuff.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:26 AM on November 19, 2018 [16 favorites]

My 12 year old just told me, "I don't think I know anyone who knows about memes and stuff who hasn't described themselves as dead inside."

My 12 year old (boy) also uses "dead inside" all the time, as a way of meaning "yeah, I don't really care about that" or (I think maybe more commonly) "I'm just putting up with this because I know I have to". There are, in fact, a huge number of 'dead inside' memes out there.

He and I have talked about it a few times. (He's also in therapy for social issues, so he's pretty savvy about mental health stuff.) It used to freak me out, but he's pretty successfully convinced me it is not literally meant to say that he's numb or emotionless or feeling depressed, just that being a pre-teen is hard and sometimes you have to do work to not let things get to you.

I'd have the conversation with her, but I wouldn't freak out about it.
posted by anastasiav at 8:49 AM on November 19, 2018 [4 favorites]

I want to reiterate what another poster said about meme culture.
"Dead inside" is actually a common term used by a popular youtubber and I believe means more of reference to a dry sense of humor and irony.
Like yourself, I previously came across a lot of material created by my children that I found worrisome and even disturbing at the time, but getting them to educate and include me in their world of inside jokes and references has been a great way to ease those concerns and better connect with my kids.
The phrases and terms they are using generally mean something entirely different to them and a lot of them were made popular by streaming, gaming and youtube personalities who were avoiding having their accounts flagged, banned or demonotized for using certain keywords. It's like their own secret language you have to get in on to get it.
posted by OnefortheLast at 9:16 AM on November 19, 2018 [7 favorites]

I think it’s an important distinction to make whether the notebook was something she expected authority figures to see inside of. Dead inside is certainly a meme, collerate that with “vampire? hmm nahh” and you’ve got some babygoth personality-trying-out stuff...but if she expected this to be performative for herself and her peers more than for adults, tread carefully in responding with what may feel like punishment and a violation of emotional privacy via therapy (“these feelings are unusual and dangerous, so we want you to go to a doctor”) or even Serious Conversation (“we are worried about what we read in your journal, your Awkward Preteen Feelings are a family Problem”).
posted by zinful at 9:25 AM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

I don't think it's a "man the forts!" level of statement. But it might highlight that it's a good idea to reconnect. My similarly aged son opens up to me when:

1. When trapped in the car, provided we're not looking at each other
2. When making dinner together Saturday, which we do every Saturday
3. We are pursuing a sport together

Also IF the entrails are also auspicious, which is very very rare. Like we do the things above 30 times and I get information 1-2 times.

So what I would do is not rush to explore this phrase right now. But sometime relatively soon during a connecting kind of activity I would share with her something like "hey daughter, I loved seeing your art and notebook, but one phrase kind of stays with me, when you described yourself as dead inside. When I was growing up, dead inside would have mean feeling really bad, is that what you meant?" or similar.

It's okay to ask dorky questions. :)
posted by warriorqueen at 9:32 AM on November 19, 2018 [7 favorites]

My first question would be about You Tube. This has You Tube written all over it. My daughters 11 and there's this whole world of angsty You Tubers who sing/talk about the despair of how meaningless life is and how they're dead inside and have no soul. I actually stopped her from it because it's so ridiculous/giving her the wrong message.
posted by orsonet at 10:06 AM on November 19, 2018 [3 favorites]

"Caring for Your Introvert" would be a good read for you and your daughter.
posted by Carol Anne at 11:25 AM on November 19, 2018

Parent of a teen (16) and soon-to-be tween (nearly 10).

"Dead inside" sounds like a meme.

My younger son is also an "introvert" (FWIW, a colloquial rather than precise or clinical descriptor).

While he seems to be generally accepted by his peer group, he doesn't really do the things kids do to make friends, such as invite others to play with him, or participate in impromptu soccer or basketball games after school.

He does possess the "social currency" needed on the playground, such as being able to talk in detail about video games or MCU.

We generally try to ensure he has opportunities to interact with other kids his age, such as going to a weekly "foam blasters" meetup at a local rec centre, and enrolling him in team sports (competitive ball hockey) in the spring.

I also monitor what media he consumes -- he can only use his tablet in common area, and I have access to it. However, he will still pick up some of the more annoying aspects of Internet culture if we're not careful.

With our older son, I was only able to monitor media until he was 11 or 12 at the oldest. After that it's a trust thing. He's also very outgoing, popular among all of his peers, and well-known and liked by teachers past and present. A polar opposite.

I think that there is a bias in North American culture against "introverts" (people who don't speak much and are reflective). A constant, constant comment we hear from all of our younger son's teachers is "he should speak up more, he needs to take ownership of his learning, he needs to let me know when he doesn't understand". Which is ridiculous.

On the other hand in Japan, where until recently we have spent part of the year and where my kids have gone to school for several months each year, my younger son is just an average kid who fits into the community of the school.

My older son, the "extrovert", of course has tremendous advantages in both Canadian and Japanese and Canadian schools.
posted by JamesBay at 1:13 PM on November 19, 2018 [2 favorites]

Just asked my two teen daughters (14 and 15) about this and they both said it's a common saying. It's generally used jokingly or metaphorically. Examples:

A: Look at that tree, it looks totally dead
B: Like my insides

Or: "I hardly slept last night, I'm dead inside"

I think you've received lots of good advice upthread but just wanted to add my anecdote.
posted by yawper at 6:07 PM on November 19, 2018 [1 favorite]

Is is possible that an 11 year old writing about vampires confused "dead inside" and "undead"?
posted by windykites at 8:09 AM on November 20, 2018 [1 favorite]

I would ask her what that means to her. Dead inside does sound like a meme but I would still bring it up and have a nice supportive chat about it. It shows that you care and when we show that we care, it raises our kids self-worth.

I will give a personal story and maybe you can relate and find it helpful, maybe not, depending on your situation:

I'm introverted as well but can be extroverted for short periods. I like to socialize and need friends. (Don't we all need friends and human connection?) When my oldest son was 11 there was a time where he reported having no friends. After reassuring and encouraging him and giving a little motherly advice, I thought about what was happening in our lives that could be contributing to my son's lack of friendships. I'm a mother and at this time I was dealing with a lot of emotional stress (self-created) and I think this rubbed off on my kid. Things got better when I lightened up a bit and did more things outside the house, planned more get-togethers, and generally had more fun with life. Also since I was going through stress, I was distracted and thinking about myself and probably didn't give them the attention they deserved. We are not our kids entertainers but it's important to pay attention, celebrate them, and have fun together. I think it's immensely helpful for our kids to see us interacting with others regularly in a positive way. Even if it's smalltalk with someone at the store or whatever. Both of my kids, who are now teens, have a tight friend group and are doing fine socially.
posted by loveandhappiness at 12:23 PM on November 20, 2018

I started writing some creative stories when I was a kid. Mom found them and panicked a bit due to the main character being bullied and interrogated me a ton, interrogated the parents of my friends, and asked the school. I wasn't bullied. I felt awful and stupid for causing a fuss. Never really wrote stories again, which is a pity because I think I could really have enjoyed writing and was pretty decent at it in school.
posted by meepmeow at 8:08 PM on November 21, 2018 [1 favorite]

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