Self-help books for adolescents?
January 6, 2021 5:42 AM   Subscribe

My 7th grader is going through an existential crisis and we can't find her a counselor at this time. Looking for books that might help her particular circumstance.

She has seen counselors before but found them unsatisfying because she felt they relied on glib/obvious go-tos ('you need to eat better' 'you need more sleep' 'well, we're all in quarantine, no one's feeling great' 'you need to exercise' 'get off the internet') and failed to engage with her as an intelligent, though young, person.

She is an only child in quarantine in a rural area, and cracking down on internet use isn't something that seems productive, though we do have her passwords and monitor her use and accounts. She's proven to be savvy and confidant at handling 'people on the internet'.

She's well versed in immediate go-to's for self-help, and she's also well-versed in the concept of 'hormones' and the complexities of being twelve. She understands that sometimes life includes feeling sad, and that's normal and okay. None of this knowledge helps her, because to her mind it isn't of practical use. She feels that while that's nice to know, it doesn't actually change anything. She feels there is more in her head than she can articulate and wants *help* sorting it out. She's been very clear about this.

I was wondering if anyone was aware of any books fiction or self-help, based that might be a good match for her. Cheesy self-help books will be immediately discarded. She's pretty sharp, and her default is 'but that's not true, really' or 'but that's ridiculous'.

I am offering all that I can as a mom on the listening w/out judging or contradicting and also offering tea and cookies. Parents can't fix everything, and shouldn't try, but it's hard to see your kid sad and I'm worried about her. (I don't think I'm helicoptering.)
posted by A Terrible Llama to Human Relations (30 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not clear from your description what kind of problem this is, particularly when you say 'existential crisis.' Is this less about depression or intrusive thoughts, and more that she's working through big things like what the meaning of life is, what are we here for, what's the point of everything?

I guess I'm asking what the content of her thoughts are. If its that she is trying to figure out what the point of life is, and she is indeed pretty sharp, then self-help books probably would seem very glib. Fiction, philosophy, or ethics, or having real conversations with her about what you think it means to be a good human, might be more relevant?
posted by EllaEm at 6:07 AM on January 6, 2021 [5 favorites]

I was very much like your child from puberty through to my early adulthood. I am still not a "happy-go-lucky" personality, but I did read a few books that helped me profoundly.

Books by Daniel Quinn. I am so grateful to have read My Ishmael as it directly addressed my complicated feelings about school and life in general. Also all of his other books.

This might seem odd as I am not a religious person, but the other writer who "saw me" was Hafiz. I Heard God Laughing is a collection of poetry and it soothes me like no other writing ever has.

Thank you for asking this question. Your daughter is lucky to have you .
posted by RobinofFrocksley at 6:15 AM on January 6, 2021 [5 favorites]

Like EllaEm I'm not sure exactly what your kid is struggling with. Maybe she could use some ACT-ish kind of self-help books (or worksheets - I know! worksheets are probably the least attractive thing in the world during remote school times!) with a focus on figuring out your values and goals and what steps you can take right now to bring your life more in line with those values vs. what you're doing that's distracting you from/dragging you away from those values?

I found The Happiness Trap and its worksheets useful (link is to free resources on the author's website) but it's definitely written for grownups and the examples may not resonate with a 12-year-old.
posted by mskyle at 6:15 AM on January 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Is this less about depression or intrusive thoughts, and more that she's working through big things like what the meaning of life is, what are we here for, what's the point of everything?

All of the above at various times. It is mostly that those things are very hard to untangle when lumped together and overwhelming.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 6:23 AM on January 6, 2021

Marshall Brain's "Teenager's Guide to The Real World"

The Essays of Montaigne

Vonnegut Novels

Lex Fridman podcasts
posted by at at 6:35 AM on January 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Maybe an introductory text of philosophy, or the work of a (not too bleak) philosopher?

Or start looking around at bibliotherapy -- works of literature prescribed for specific conditions of the mind.
posted by amtho at 6:36 AM on January 6, 2021

I really wish I'd had the illustrated version of the Happiness Trap when I was that age -- really simple description of Acceptance and Commitment therapy and I think it would work really well for teens. Not cheesy.

Edit because I see someone else suggested Happiness Trap above. I agree the first book would be a bit hard, but there is an almost comic-book like version that is illustrated that I think is just as good, and a bit easier to digest.
posted by heavenknows at 6:47 AM on January 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Is she journaling/writing about these thoughts? I remember when I was that age and feeling a similar way (I imagine a lot of kids go through that sort of phase of one's thoughts outpacing one's ability to shape them), writing about how I was feeling, just getting it out and thinking it through was helpful as much as having guided examples. Creating art of some kind based on these feelings might also be useful -- maybe a new artistic hobby could give her some space to work things through as well as giving her somewhere to escape from those churning thoughts for a while.

Personally I think it sounds like you're doing all the right things and there are some great recommendations here, but also the best thing to do might be to just give her some time to get through it. This is her brain growing, and it might hurt or be difficult, but that is also part of growth.

That said, if she is depressed and experiencing intrusive thoughts, it might also be a good idea to see if you can find a therapist who can work with her, even if it's only for a few sessions to get her set up with some paths to managing her mind as an independent person. That therapist might also be able to give her some good recommendations for self-help techniques or books as well.
posted by fight or flight at 7:05 AM on January 6, 2021 [4 favorites]

Best answer: She feels there is more in her head than she can articulate and wants *help* sorting it out. She's been very clear about this.

The part with ‚having more in her head than she can articulate’ stuck out for me. As a person who was/is very much like this starting as a kid, I‘ve come to the conclusion that creative pursuits helped me way better at sorting and getting things out, and making actual progress in my mental health, than straight on therapy, self help etc. (which I have lots of experience with).

I still definitely need outside help and accountability — in my case teachers/mentors — but not so much directly tackling my brain, as it were, as in finding a way to creatively express myself. Especially, as a smart, articulate youngster. I feel I out-smarted my therapists to a degree that they really didn‘t know what to do with me (one, after two years of therapy told me, ‚Well there‘s nothing really wrong with you...‘, which is true for every person but didn‘t help my depression — at all!).

In my particular case, having a music teacher feels like I‘m getting help sorting things out, but I‘m not being pushed deeper into overthinking existential things but instead given the tools to express contradictory feelings and thoughts. Stuff that can‘t be resolved by reasoning. I‘m finding this out in my 40s but I think could have accessed it much earlier, even in my teens, with more support.

I don‘t know what her creative pursuit could be — music, writing, art — but maybe offer support on that side, too. A teacher or supportive group really makes a difference here.
posted by The Toad at 7:08 AM on January 6, 2021 [9 favorites]

I wonder if works of fiction where she can "see" herself or connect on a deeper level to the characters/themes/values would be a better avenue than therapy/self-help- since they would be less likely to come off as preachy or shallow.

I have a bright, currently angsty daughter in grade 9; ymmv but some suggestions off the top of my head based on our experiences might be:
-Becky Chambers' work (for the diverse and accepting characters, also just very feel good)
-Tess of the Road (by the author who wrote Seraphina; fantasy novel with a strong young female protagonist sorting out some personal trauma and feelings about her place in the world)
-The Pull of the Stars (30 yo nurse in a maternity ward during the 1918 flu pandemic, lots of subtext about figuring out what is important and who she is as a person, including her sexuality. This book is dark but my daughter has latched on hard, you may want to read it first to see if it's okay for a kid a couple years younger?)
-Becoming, the Michelle Obama bio

I'm sure I could think of others if you'd like and could ask my daughter, feel free to memail!
posted by DTMFA at 7:12 AM on January 6, 2021 [4 favorites]

Honestly, as someone who also tends to be unable to take anything concrete or helpful from therapists, and who doesn't struggle to identify issues but doesn't find that identifying issues makes me feel any better...the only thing that ever works is meds. My brain just does not, cannot, do a thing that apparently other brains do: solve problem, feel better. My brain solves problem, continues to feel like shit. It needs chemical, physical help to feel better. And your daughter's might, too.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 7:28 AM on January 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

You don't mention an age, but I've found that the teenage students I work with are pretty into of stoic philosophy. It's more "honest" than a lot of self-help books in that it fully acknowledges sometimes things suck, and they will continue to suck for a while, but you have more control than you know. Just the acknowledgement that struggles exist and persist is refreshing when everyone is telling you "You can beat it if you just do XYZ".

Marcus Aurelius' Meditations may be a good place to start, but doesn't have a ton of structure or direction (it's basically his journals and personal reflections). I'd personally recommend The Daily Stoic by Ryan Holiday or really any of his books, depending on the particular person (they all have slightly different focuses). Stoicism seems to be experiencing a growth in popularity for fairly obvious reasons (plague thinkin') and there are a ton of resources out there, both free and paid.
posted by _DB_ at 7:34 AM on January 6, 2021 [3 favorites]

Rookie Mag (and the book-form yearbooks) might be good. It’s not self-help specifically, but because she’s struggling with a lot of the advice she’s being given as too obvious, reading through others thought processes and struggles could be really helpful. They’re written by and for teens and don’t shy away from hard stuff. I’ve linked to the subsection “live through this”, it’s all about coping, and might make her feel a little seen and less alone (it’s extremely diverse so not all the articles will be relevant and you will probably want to do a quick review to see if she’s mature enough for all of it). It’s no longer being updated, but there’s a huge archive.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 7:53 AM on January 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

A couple vectors:

Anxiety Relief for Teens: Essential CBT Skills and Mindfulness Practices to Overcome Anxiety and Stress (I know she's a tween, but sounds like a sharp one, and she'll need this as a full teen too.) Real skills, not platitudes, and y'all can get your own copies and do it too, I promise it won't hurt.

The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy. I don't know WHY, except maybe it's because if you have just reached an age where you're starting to realize the world is not a shiny perfect place and a lot of people are not particularly happy and bureaucracy is actually as unavoidable and bullshit as it seems and sometimes the president steals a spaceship and you realize you know a fair number of people who ought to be on the B Ark, it's actually comforting to have it acknowledged but not in an especially graphic way. And it's funny. And it's not for kids but is also fine for a precocious teen.

The Tiffany Aching Discworld series. This IS for tweens, it starts when Tiffany is 9 and the final book she's 18ish, and it is also about how life is hard a lot of the time and people can be difficult-to-dangerous and the importance of the family you have and the family you make. It's actually really lovely, but it's the sort of fantasy series where your boots are mud-caked and your socks are damp more often than not.

I second the Becky Chambers Wayfarers series, and I always rec Murderbot alongside it because that's just some good poli-sci-fi with feelings.

I think fiction truly is one of the balms for this sort of ill, and mostly it's not going to be the kind of fiction you read for school. It should mostly be a tiny bit too old for them, and it should be fun, and it should be books you can fall into and disappear for hours and literally get out of your own head for a while.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:51 AM on January 6, 2021 [11 favorites]

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar
Book by Cheryl Strayed
posted by maloon at 8:54 AM on January 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

Hello Cruel World has heavy stuff and lighthearted platitudes mixed in together. It acknowledges the shittiness of life, the difficulty of fixing things, and the fact that most fixes are incomplete. It's written for teenagers and it's really, really good.

(You might read it first yourself: it's not about being LGBT, and it's not for LGBT kids specifically, but the author definitely takes the stance that it's ok to be LGBT or to violate other social norms as long as you're not hurting anyone, and that might start some conversations you'll want to be prepared for.)
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:58 AM on January 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

I really like the books written by psychiatrist David Burns. I was older than your daughter when I first encountered Burns's work, but I think a bright seventh-grader can handle the writing without too much trouble.
posted by alex1965 at 9:42 AM on January 6, 2021

She might like Sophie's World by Jostein Gaarder, which is a sort of pop history of philosophy through the framing of a novel, for the big questions side of things.
posted by plonkee at 10:44 AM on January 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

I think one of the really tough things about that age is that it’s very hard to separate “behavior that’s in your best interest because it will help you have a fulfilling life and maintain good, mutually respectful relationships with others,” “behavior that’s narrowly in your best interest because it trains you to fulfill society’s expectations of you or will help you reach some kind of material success, but which may be either helpful or harmful psychologically,” and “behavior that’s not in your best interest at all, but does help or please specific authority figures or people who wield power over you.” A lot of self-help (and I might even put Russ Harris’s books in this category, even though this is one of the points of ACT therapy) is not always great about identifying these differences. I think this confusion — often deliberately introduced by parents, teachers, peers, advertisers, and so on — is one of the hardest parts of entering adolescence. Self-help is hard if you don’t really know who the “self” is.

I don’t really have better concrete suggestions except that a bit later in our teens some friends and I got really into theater of the absurd and existentialism — Beckett, Ionesco, Sartre, Camus, Kierkegaard — which resonated a lot, possibly for similar reasons as the stoics listed above (but maybe with more humor and/or human emotion?). Also I do think You Are Not A Rock is a good ACT/ERP-inflected self help book, particularly for people with anxiety. Sorry you’re both having a rough time!
posted by en forme de poire at 11:23 AM on January 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

I've recommended the books by Zen teacher Cheri Huber kind of a lot because they've been so helpful for me. The book I usually suggest as an entry point is called (Regardless of What You Were Taught to Believe) There Is Nothing Wrong With You, and there's a version of it adapted for teens.

Cheri's style is clear and direct, and anything but platitudes or self-help pep talks. She also doesn't talk down to people, regardless of age.
posted by Lexica at 12:37 PM on January 6, 2021 [1 favorite]

Maybe ask her to keep an audio diary, and she can choose to share with you or not. Just use the phone recorder app and say as much as she wants. She has stuff she wanted to get out and typing or writing isn't "fast" enough. Audio recording seems to be the best way unless you want her to learn typing. ;)

Once recorded with date/timestamp, she can choose to share it with you or not. That would give at least some temporary relief if she wants to self-reflect later.

No idea if Sean Covey is any good, but he's Stephen R. Covey (i.e. "7 habits of highly effective people")'s son and has a few books for teens.

Google actually has a topic page on "self-help books for children". So maybe pick out something that she finds on-tpic, then buy it off Amazon for her?
posted by kschang at 12:53 PM on January 6, 2021

For a child in this mode, I strongly recommend Victor Frankl. Man's Search for Meaning has a way of establishing perspective, while also giving globally useful ideas for enduring pain. It has its issues and caveats, but even a very precocious preteen will generally be too distracted by the horror of the camps to muster a counter-argument.

That said, this is the age when my mental/emotional disorders really began to escalate, and books or support alone were never sufficient. I'm not one of those who can directly recommend psychiatry, as legal treatments have never helped me, but don't assume a middle schooler isn't yet at a stage where medical intervention could be warranted. Feeling consumed by thoughts that one can't even articulate seems like a warning bell to me. Like, it could be adolescent confusion, but it could be indicative of a chemical mood/anxiety issue. Also, be aware your kid may be concealing the severity of their troubles. I often framed my difficulties as vague existential problems, when I was actually suicidal. Not trying to scare you, just pointing out that sensitive children are good at hiding things out of either genuine despair, or concern of burdening their parents. With that in mind, you might explore adolescent psychiatrists in your area, even if things are okay right now. It can be helpful to know the options before you're caught by a crisis or just gradual escalation.

I also wouldn't be so quick to move on from therapy. ACT, somatic experiencing, and some ideas from DBT are the legal things that have helped me the most. I'm unsure how much they could have helped me in adolescence, with the way I was emotionally flooded all the time, but I think therapy is worth trying no matter where your kid's brain is right now. It can take a while to find the right person, and I wish my parents hadn't given up so quickly. At the time I loathed going to therapy, but I don't think that would've been so true if I'd had a compatible therapist (with a compatible modality...CBT was NOT for me).
posted by desert outpost at 3:13 PM on January 6, 2021 [2 favorites]

She feels there is more in her head than she can articulate and wants *help* sorting it out.

Not a bad definition of poetry in general, both reading it and writing it. Emily Dickinson could be a fit ("There's a certain slant of light ...," etc.), possibly supplemented with Susan Howe's My Emily Dickinson. I also recognize some poems in Poetry Speaks Who I Am, a collection for teens that seems on point. And Poemcrazy is a great, readable resource for thinking about poetry in everyday life and how to write your own.
posted by Wobbuffet at 12:35 AM on January 7, 2021 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I am an adolescent mental health counselor. Your kid sounds amazing. There are lots of good suggestions above. I would add, help her find a way to help others. Even if it's short-term, or virtual, there is a part of us that is awakened and given such perspective by doing things in service of others.
posted by reksb at 12:02 PM on January 7, 2021 [2 favorites]

The Novel Cure is a fairly fun book where you look up what you're struggling with (anxiety, adolescence, nightmares, etc.) and it gives you suggestions of novel to read to "cure" it. Sometimes I don't want to work on my anxiety, I just want to sink into a novel that gives me some perspective on life and lets me quiet my thoughts for a while. It's a little off kilter, but you said "fiction or self-help" so I thought "A self-help book that tells you what fiction to read" might fit the bill. :)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:13 PM on January 7, 2021

Sol Gordon's Teenage Survival Book

I wish I had a copy when I was 17. I didn't come across it till my 20s.
posted by wittgenstein at 6:17 PM on January 7, 2021

+100000000000 to The Toad's comment. I was very similar to your daughter and even now, in my early 30s, I get days of that exact same kind of adolescent despair and being lost in my own head. I have very been fortunate to find a therapist who listens to me and helps me verbalize and address my feelings. I also would have turned my nose up at a self-help book at that age, especially a teen-centered one.

But before that -- from ages 12 to 19 -- I found anything creative to be a very welcome solace. Writing stories/fanfiction/online roleplaying, drawing, sewing, photography, playing and listening to music. I read a fuckton of fantasy books for the delightful escapism. Sometimes you don't have the tools to sort out how you feel, and creating is the next best thing. I still find these activities to be massively helpful and fulfilling.

Does she have close friends that she connects with? Quarantine must be hell on earth for teenagers who disprefer social media. And the internet is a different place than it was 20 years ago, but I found companionship among peers on message board forums and the like, centered around the books/music/etc I was into.

This is gonna sound wild (and 12yo wintersonata would have rolled her eyes into the far end of the universe) but I started meditating this summer, and I cannot recommend it enough. I use the (paid) app Headspace, and they have a feature on Netflix now too. It's completely unlike the "white girl namaste" meditation styles I have heretofore experienced. The 5-15 minute guided exercises are focused on breathing and body awareness, but the intro and outro offer points of focus. There are also courses like Balance, Creativity, Kindness; wind-down sleep sessions; and S.O.S. one-offs for when you're in a crisis and really need to center and calm down. The Headspace guy is very into affirming that our feelings are normal and valid, even if they are sad or hurtful or unhappy, and I wish with all my heart that anyone had given me a fraction of that validation when I was a teen.
posted by wintersonata9 at 3:17 PM on January 8, 2021

Response by poster: Thank you so much everyone for your sensitive and thoughtful ideas. I'm going to compile the ones I think might most suit her and put them out there.

I do own a copy of Burn's Feeling Good and I "left it" out in the room where she goes to "school" in case she felt like picking it up. Someone also noted through DM that maybe telehealth is an option - I'm thinking we are limited by location but honestly, why are we? We don't leave the house. She could have a therapist anywhere. If anyone has a suggestion, please by all means drop me a DM.

Also if anyone knows a good Buddhism for kids book I'm interested -- I know there are a lot out there but she's an edgy kid and edgy styles and Buddhism don't appear together all that often. I wouldn't call myself a Buddhist, but I'm practicing. ;)

There's a song from Steven Universe called 'Here comes a thought' which is one of the best illustrations of the intersection of thoughts and feelings I've ever seen.

Going to sit here and watch it myself a few times. (She and I have actually watched it a bunch.)
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:58 AM on January 12, 2021

For Edgy Buddhism the book Against the Stream is really great and very accessibly written. It really helped me when I was going through a hard time and I *think* it would be fine for a 12 year old, especially a smart 12 year old with good critical thinking skills, but you might want to preview for some discussion of sex/drugs (he talks about his life before buddhism a bit and he was pretty troubled). It does an incredible job of teaching buddhist principles without any woo at all.

I recommend it with the caveat that the author has since been accused of some pretty not great treatment of the women in his life, but I think the book is useful enough to be worth reading anyways.
posted by Sweetchrysanthemum at 2:58 PM on January 18, 2021

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