Love of Books or Something Else? Reading Between the Lines

Parents who beg, threaten, and cajole their children into turning off the television, video game, or computer and pick up a book may find this scenario a dream come true: teens who read too much. Of course, these kids do like to read in some cases, but sometimes the teen who is always hiding behind a book may be hiding from a problem they can’t articulate.

Anne Reeves is the author of Adolescents Talk About Reading: Exploring Resistance to and Engagement With Text (International Reading Association, 2004). One of her case studies in the book is of a 17-year-old girl who voraciously consumes romances and mysteries. Reeves says that it became clear as she talked to the girl that she used her reading as therapy. “In this particular case, the girl was looking for models of happy adult lives,” says Reeves. “There are kids who persist in going into these alternate worlds for good reason, and in her case, when something bad happened in her life, she ran for her books.”

The Boredom Factor

Of course, just because your teen is reading a lot doesn’t mean they’re depressed or stressed. If they put the book down when they’re supposed to attend to other things, they probably prefer reading to other leisure activities. But, on the other hand, if they read when they’re supposed to be doing something else, says Dr. Elizabeth Berger, child psychiatrist and author of Raising Children With Character: Parents, Trust and the Development of Personal Integrity (Jason Aronson, 1999), then perhaps it’s time to investigate the reasons why. She does warn, however, against automatically assuming that it’s an emotional or psychological issue.

“There are an infinite variety of ways in which an ordinary activity can become a symptom, but there is sometimes a danger in getting too concrete about what constitutes a problem,” she says. “I would warn parents against the loss of the big picture when wondering if a behavior is normal or not. Overall, if a child is succeeding in school, which is reflected by good grades, has at least one or two good friends and a generally positive attitude and outlook toward the future, I wouldn’t be too worried about something like this.”

If the big picture is generally positive, a child reading too much may merely be a case of mischievousness, such as the child who reads by flashlight after his parents put him to bed. Dr. Berger also doesn’t like the idea of trying to set as a goal removing ordinary mischief from the life of ordinary children. When it may go beyond mere mischief, the parent is getting calls from the teacher that the child is reading to the exclusion of other schoolwork. Then it may be time for some investigation.

“When a teacher is calling a parent, it’s a very different thing from the parent noticing that a youngster might be reading in bed past his bedtime,” she says. “At that point, the parent needs to look more at the interpersonal situation between the teacher and the child.”

If reading truly does become obsessive, Dr. Berger says it might be time to look not at what the child’s doing but what they avoid doing.

Depression, Compulsion and Withdrawal

When a teen is cutting themselves, acting up in school, doing drugs, or any of the myriad of danger signs parents have been taught to watch out for, a problem is clear. But, unfortunately, not all kids with problems act out or externalize their anxieties. In some cases, a child will express depression or anxiety through withdrawal or avoidance behaviors.

According to Sam Goldstein, Ph.D., how a child expresses a problem depends upon that child’s personality. “Some of us are more likely to turn stress, worry, feelings of unhappiness or hopelessness inside,” he says. “There are probably a number of factors that contribute to this. These might include, but are certainly not limited to, gender, temperament, language skills, availability of assistance and history. Some children from a young age are simply more prone to experience stress and worry at a higher rate than others. While some children may act [out] when stressed, a sign that they need help, others may withdraw.”

Goldstein, who co-wrote the acclaimed book Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope and Optimism in Your Child (McGraw-Hill, 2002), suggests a parent be alert for these signs that their quiet teen may have an emotional or social issue that needs to be addressed:

● A significant change in how the child functions (e.g., more withdrawn, more time spent alone, lack of involvement with friends, change in school work for the worse, increased problems with anger or irritability). Signs of depression usually reflect the change from the usual.

● Depressed or irritable mood, loss of interest in pleasurable activities, a change in weight and appetite, significant change in sleep, patterns of marked restlessness or seeming catatonia, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness, problems with concentration, and in the worst-case scenario, thoughts, and actions of suicide.

If a parent does suspect a problem, Goldstein warns against being too quick to label it “depression” or doing any labeling at all. Rather, collect the data so it can be presented to a professional. That professional may be the family physician, the school psychologist, or a mental health professional in the community.

But even before taking that step, talk to your child. “Assuming parents have maintained lines of communication with their children, the first step is to sit down and talk to the teen about concerns,” says Goldstein. “Then jointly, options should be considered as to what to do.

“In the end, however, the decision about what to do must defer to the parents. My philosophy is that most parents are good enough for most children. They recognize when their children are having problems even if they may not completely understand the nature of the problem, its implications or what to do. If parents suspect there is a problem, they should seek help.”

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