Author and psychologist Lisa Damour has become quite popular with many parents of teenagers.
“I’ve been damour-alizing myself for about a month now,” says Rebecca Gold, a mother of three in Great Barrington, Mass. “I love him so much that I just made a verb in his honor.”
Ms. Gold, who has two teenagers and a 10-year-old, devours Dr.’s books. Damour, listening to his podcast and “basically trying to channel him.”
In Seattle, Katie Eastwood, the parent of a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old, spoke about “Untangled,” the guide by Dr. Damour on seven changes in a girl’s development, saying the book “saved me time and time again.”
Dr. Damour, known for providing practical advice backed by scientific research, has counseled teenagers and their families for more than 25 years. His latest book, “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers,” became a New York Times best seller, following “Untangled” and “Under Pressure.”
As the mother of two daughters, ages 12 and 19, Dr. knows firsthand. Damour that parenting is hard and sometimes scary. And that’s especially true in the last few years, as the mental health of children, especially teenage girls, has suffered.
But an encouraging thread runs through the work of Dr. Damour: You have it, it seems to say. “Mental health is not about feeling good,” she writes in “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers.” “Rather, it’s about having the right emotions at the right time and being able to effectively manage those emotions.”
We asked Dr. Damour how to support teenagers psychologically and emotionally as they navigate the new school year.
The questions and answers have been edited and shortened for clarity.
Recently, a lot of news has centered on the deteriorating mental health of young people. What should parents pay attention to?
Here’s what I want parents to watch for: Low or angry mood that lasts more than a day or two. And what I call “expensive coping,” where young people use coping strategies that actually bring comfort but cause harm. Whether it’s abusing substances, using technology in unhealthy ways, being hard on the people around them, or taking things to themselves.
And, of course, I want parents to be alert if a teenager says they’re hopeless or want to hurt themselves.
How do you get your teenager to talk to you?
Young people like to do things on their terms. That is the nature of adolescence. When adults call the meeting and set the agenda — when we say, “How was your day, what happened?” — teenagers sometimes feel pale and cornered.
But teenagers also want — and need — to be connected to loving adults. And they tend to bring up topics close to their hearts, often at unexpected or even inconvenient times.
As a parent of teenagers myself, I try not to take it personally when they’re not in the mood to answer my questions, and I do my best to be receptive when they’re ready to talk, even if it’s in the expense. my own to-do list or sleep.
Some families may feel like those times don’t evolve naturally — that their kids aren’t opening up.
It is important for teenagers to express their feelings. Expressing feelings and talking about their inner world is one way they do that. But this is not the preferred option for every teenager. We have to respect that sometimes teenagers “let their feelings out” by running. Or by putting on a playlist that matches their mood so they can get themselves deep into that mood and then speed their way out of there.
The priority is that teenagers have ways to express their feelings that bring comfort and are not harmful. The priority is not necessarily that they pour out their souls in the language. People’s coping strategies are highly personal.
How would you respond when a teenager told you: ‘I’m an adult now. I don’t need to listen to your rules.’
You kindly responded: “The time will come when you will live freely. 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’s best if the adult in that conversation can emphasize that the rules are structured around respectful treatment of each other and the teen’s safety.
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 anxieties. What do you say when your child keeps wanting to stay home?
Aemptiness feeds anxiety. When we avoid the things we fear, the immediate effect is that we feel tremendous relief, which can actually strengthen the desire to continue the avoidance.
By not going to school or going to the party, our fears turn amber because they are not tested against reality.
Another concern is that when a student misses a day of school for any reason, they inevitably fall behind a little academically and socially.
The decision I want families to make is whether what their teen is dealing with is uncomfortable or unmanageable. In most conditions — with the help of anxiety-reduction techniques — the teenager can engage at least a little in the thing he fears. Going for part of the day is better than staying at home.
Many parents have told me that their children face anxieties related to academic achievement. How can we help young people relieve some of that pressure?
Parents and caregivers can be most helpful when we make the distinction between healthy and unhealthy anxiety. Healthy anxiety is a safety system we all have that alerts us to threats. When a teenager has a big test that they haven’t even started studying for, or a teenager is at a party that’s out of control, those are the same times I expect to see an anxiety response. And I want to respond to that anxiety to help promote course correction.
Unhealthy anxiety occurs when there is anxiety in the absence of a threat, or if the anxiety is out of proportion to the threat. In irrational anxiety, we tend to overestimate the threat and underestimate our ability to handle it.
If a teenager is worried about how they are performing academically, caring adults can talk to them about the possibility that they are overestimating the consequences. And perhaps underestimating their ability to take steps to address their concerns.
The goal is not to eliminate anxiety in teenagers. That will never happen, nor should it. The goal is to ensure that their anxiety remains in the healthy range.
How do we support a teenager who feels anxious about their busy schedule?
The real question is whether a young person has enough opportunity to recover between periods of stress.
It is similar to strength training. If people don’t rest between weight-lifting workouts, they can get injured. If they can rest between weight-lifting exercises, they gain strength.
Are these demands so great that this teenager is not getting enough sleep? No time to see friends? If they say yes to questions like that, the teenager’s schedule needs to be revisited.
What about social distress? What should parents do when a friend becomes ‘naughty,’ or when their teen is cut off from a friend group?
Beyond commiserating about how painful it is to be bullied or ostracized by friends, there are steps adults can take to help a hurting teenager.
First, we can remember that conflict and disagreement are a natural, if unwanted, aspect of relationships. The goal is to properly handle conflict when it arises. Examples of poor conflict management include being mean, berating someone, or gossiping to third parties about the problem.
Instead, we want to encourage young people to try to be direct and fair with each other, or to keep a respectful distance if that doesn’t or won’t work.
Disagreements aside, friendships often change and change during adolescence. This painful truth can be made easier for young people to accept if we reassure them that just because a friendship doesn’t last forever doesn’t mean it wasn’t good.
How do you know when to let your teen do things for themselves?
Fortunately, there is one place parents can find themselves between helicopter and hands-off: the role of coach.
Of course, we want to help our children and teenagers manage the challenges that come their way. And our first response should be that we’re standing on the sidelines, so they can use us as a consultant for how they’re going to do things.
The situations children find themselves in can be so complicated that there have been times when I have seen a well-intentioned adult make things worse by stepping in. The more we can help young people develop the skills to navigate independently, the more confident we will be. feeling when it’s time for them to leave the house.