Education quandary

'Our daughter is depressed. She has just finished her AS exams, but still feels low. She eats nothing and hardly talks. We fear that she will not do well in her A-levels or present herself as a good university candidate next year.'
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HILARY'S ADVICE

HILARY'S ADVICE

Lots of readers had views on this one, but the views varied, perhaps because so many difficult issues are raised here. When does a low mood plunge into depression? When does a bird-like appetite become an eating disorder? And when do normal parental anxieties cross over into unreasonable pressures?

Counsellors who work with troubled teenagers were quick to point out that this parent seems more worried about how her daughter will do next year, than the fact she is unhappy now. "So, no pressure then?" said one dryly, as she listened to the list of stated anxieties.

Teenagers these days have year after year of exams, and girls in particular can put themselves under ridiculous amounts of pressure, so parents need to tread on eggshells not to add to this. Make it crystal clear that you don't think exams are the be all and end all, and that there is always life after them, whatever the results. Give her time to get over exams. If her mood does not brighten, it could be something more serious.

The advice from the professionals is to do your best to get her to talk - and then listen. "This is not about you, it is about her," said one. "Show that she can trust you to take her concerns seriously. Say, 'We're really worried that you seem so low. Is there anything we can do to help, or anything you want to talk about?' If it is difficult for her to talk to you, suggest she could turn to someone else - a grandparent, a helpline, or her friends."

On the other hand, there may be a clinical component to her low spirits. Teenage girls are often depleted in vital nutrients such as zinc, iron and fatty acids, all of which help to regulate mood. She could need to eat better, and she may need professional help. If, say counsellors, her mood is so black, and her energy so low, that she is unable to lift herself out of the pit, encourage her to see someone as soon as possible.

For more help, the mental health charity Young Minds runs a parents' information service (0800 018 2138). Childline (0800 1111) offers a confidential helpline for young people.

READERS' ADVICE

Do something. Don't watch and wait, as we did, until our daughter needed anti-depressants and wished she was dead.

Our advice, learnt the hard way, is:

1) Tell her how much you love her, how you do not feel it is right that she should be so unhappy, and how you want to help as much as you can. Tell her getting back to her old self comes before anything else.

2) Involve the school, but if they don't recognise that there is a problem, be prepared to stand up for her and take off the pressure to study if necessary. Plenty of people return to education later in life.

3) If it seems that regaining her old self is not possible without professional help, get it, via the school, GP, local Children and Adolescent Mental Health Service, or privately. Try different people until your daughter finds one she is happy with. If she won't go, go yourself.

Two years on, our daughter is on the way to recovery, but I wish we had acted sooner. Good luck.

Name and address supplied

I'm in exactly the same situation, except I couldn't hack the pressure of AS-levels and dropped out before the exams. I managed to pluck up the courage to see my GP, who asked me if I wanted to go on anti-depressants. The best thing you can do is be as supportive as you can. Tell her it's OK to have a good cry about everything. She will talk to you in good time.

AH, London

Based on my experience last year, it can take a while to recover from exams - give her at least two weeks before you start to worry. Make sure she's got summer plans that involve seeing her friends, and that she has at least one decent post-exam night out - particularly if her sixth form has already plunged everyone straight into A2 work without a break.

If she's worrying about applying to university, get her to look at the unofficial guides and union websites, rather than official prospectuses. This should give her a more relaxed view of the whole business. And don't even imply that she's not going to do herself justice if her mood doesn't pick up - this will guarantee that you don't have any real contact with her all summer.

F Hudson, Herefordshire

NEXT WEEK'S QUANDARY

The pupils in our school swear all the time. We have managed to curb it in class, but outside they revert to it. School outings are a nightmare. What can we do? Nagging at them all the time is corrosive, but do we just let it go? What's acceptable these days? And what do other schools do?

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to reach her by next Monday, 30 June, at The Independent, Education Desk, Second Floor, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or send e-mails to h.wilce @btinternet.com. Please include details of your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Berol Combi Pack containing a cartridge pen, handwriting pen and ink eraser

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