Author and psychologist Lisa Damour has become a celebrity for many parents of teens.
“I've been doing big Damouralizations for about a month,” said Rebecca Gold, a mother of three from Great Barrington, Massachusetts. “I love her so much I just created a verb in her honor.”
Ms. Gold, who has two teenagers and a ten-year-old, Dr. Devoured Damour's books. Listen to her podcast and “basically trying to channel them.”
In Seattle, Katie Eastwood, the mother of a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old, gushed about “Untangled,” Dr. Damour's Guide to the Seven Developmental Transitions of a Girl, saying the book “saved me over and over again.”
dr Known for providing practical advice backed by scientific research, Damour has been counseling youth and their families for more than 25 years. Her latest book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, became a New York Times bestseller, following Untangled and Under Pressure.
As a mother of two daughters aged 12 and 19, Dr. Damour firsthand that parenting is tough and scary at times. And that's especially true in recent years, as the mental health of children, particularly teenage girls, has suffered.
But a reassuring common thread runs through Dr. Damour's work: “You've got this,” it seems to be saying. “Mental health isn't about feeling good,” she writes in The Emotional Lives of Teenagers. “Instead, it's about having the right feelings at the right time and being able to deal with those feelings effectively.”
we have dr Damour asked how to support teenagers psychologically and emotionally as they face the new school year.
Questions and answers have been edited and shortened for clarity.
Much of the news lately has revolved around the deteriorating mental health of teenagers. What should parents pay particular attention to?
I want parents to be aware of: Dejected or angry moods that last more than a day or two. And what I call “costly coping” when young people engage in coping strategies that bring relief but do harm. Whether it's abusing substances, using technology in unhealthy ways, being harsh on those around you, or taking things out on yourself.
And of course I want parents to be vigilant when a teenager talks about feeling hopeless or wanting to harm themselves.
How do you get your teenager to talk to you?
teenager want to do things their own way. It's the nature of growing up. When adults call the meeting and set the agenda—when we say, “How was your day, what happened?”—teens can get upset and feel cornered at times.
But teenagers also want and need to connect with loving adults. And they tend to bring up topics close to their hearts, often at unexpected or even uncomfortable times.
Being a parent of adolescents myself, I try not to take it personally if they aren't in the mood to answer my questions, and I do my best to be receptive when they are up for a conversation, even if they are that comes with a cost of my own to-do list or sleep.
Some families may feel that these times don't come naturally—that their children just won't open up.
It is important for teenagers to express their feelings. Expressing feelings and talking about their inner world is one way to do this. But it's not the preferred option for every teenager. We must respect that sometimes teenagers “let their emotions run free” by going for a run. Or by creating a playlist that fits your mood so you can delve deeper into that mood and then quickly come out of it.
The priority is for teens to find ways to express their feelings that bring relief, not harm. The priority is not necessarily that they reveal their soul in language. People's coping strategies are very personal.
How do you react when a teenager tells you, ‘I'm an adult now.' I don't have to follow your rules anymore.'
They warmly answer: “The time will come when you will live independently. And you can make your own rules. You are currently a member of this household. And that means living by the rules we make.”
It is best if the adult can emphasize in this conversation that the rules are designed for respectful interactions and the safety of the teen.
And if the rules don't fall into those two categories, they probably should be up for negotiation.
Let's talk about school-related fears and apprehensions. What do you say if your child wants to stay at home all the time?
ADoing nothing breeds fear. When we avoid the things we fear, the immediate effect is tremendous relief, which can actually increase the desire to continue the avoidance.
When we're not going to school or to the party, our fears solidify in amber because they're not being compared to reality.
Another concern is that if a student misses a day of school for any reason, they are bound to fall behind a bit academically and socially.
I want families to decide whether what their teenager is facing is uncomfortable or unmanageable. Under most circumstances, the teen could, with the help of anxiety-reducing strategies, engage at least a little with what he fears. Walking part of the day is better than staying at home.
Several parents have told me that their children are afraid of academic achievement. How can we help teenagers ease some of that pressure?
Parents and caregivers can be most useful when we distinguish between healthy and unhealthy anxiety. Healthy fear is a security system we are all equipped with that alerts us to threats. When a teenager faces a big exam they haven't started studying for, or when a teenager is out of control at a party, I expect a fear response in both cases. And I want that fear response to drive a course correction.
Unhealthy fear arises when fear is present without the presence of a threat or when the fear is disproportionate to the threat. With irrational fear, we tend to overestimate the threat and underestimate our ability to deal with it.
When a teenager is concerned about their academic performance, caring adults can talk to them about the possibility that they are overestimating the consequences. And maybe they underestimate their ability to take steps to address the things that worry them.
The goal is not to rid teenagers of their fear. That will never happen, nor should it. The goal is to make sure their fears stay within healthy limits.
How do we support a teenager who is feeling stressed about their demanding schedule?
The real question is whether an adolescent has adequate opportunity to recover between periods of stress.
It's similar to strength training. If people don't take breaks between weightlifting exercises, they can injure themselves. If they can rest between weightlifting exercises, they'll gain strength.
Are these demands so great that this teenager isn't getting enough sleep? No time to see friends? If they answer “yes” to questions like these, the teen's schedule needs to be reconsidered.
What about social distress? What should parents do when a friend gets “mean” or their teen is kicked out of the friend group?
Aside from adults realizing the pain of being abused or abandoned by friends, adults can also take steps to help an injured teenager.
First, we can see that friction and disagreement is a natural, albeit undesirable, aspect of relationships. The goal is to handle conflict well when it arises. Examples of poor conflict management include being mean, icy, or gossiping with third parties about the issue.
Instead, we want to encourage young people to try to be direct and fair with each other, or to create a polite distance when that hasn't worked or won't work.
Aside from conflicts, friendships often change during adolescence. This painful reality can be easier for teenagers to accept if we reassure them that just because a friendship doesn't last forever doesn't mean it was never good.
How do you know when to let your teen do things themselves?
Luckily, there's one place where parents can position themselves between the helicopter and the hands-off: the role of the trainer.
Of course, we want to help our children and young people to master the challenges that come their way. And our first reaction should be to stand aside so they can use us as advisors on how to proceed.
The situations children find themselves in can be so complex that there have been times when I've seen a well-meaning adult make things worse by wading into them. The more we can help teenagers develop the skills to navigate on their own, the more confident we'll be in sensing when it's time for them to leave the house.