Today’s teen whisperer Lisa Damour, like everyone else, knows that the kids are not alright.
But instead of pushing for greater happiness, or mental ease, the Cleveland clinical psychologist thinks we could all benefit from more sadness. Damour is also promoting stress, angst, danger-seeking, irritation, and disappointment— the whole rainbow of whacked-out adolescent emotions.
The raison d’être for Damour’s now third New York Times bestselling book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Capable, Connected and Compassionate Adolescents, is her view of a transformation in society from 20 years ago when we accepted uncomfortable feelings to today when the primary goal is to banish them. “Somewhere along the way we became afraid of being unhappy,” she writes, stating what could well be the book’s title.
At the moment, Damour is everywhere—collaborating with UNICEF on how to build strong teens, convening with Surgeon General Vivek Murthy on the mental health crisis, speaking at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, appearing on CBS Mornings and on NPR “Morning Edition.”
Her status derives from three decades of listening to teens and their parents, in her private practice and at the many schools she visits around the country. Besides being a popular speaker and best-selling author, she is also raising two teen girls of her own.
Teens particularly, she argues, are suffering under this stifling new ethos— feeling bad, feeling worse, then being made to feel bad about feeling bad. Damour is here to broadcast that for teens, “powerful emotions are a feature, not a bug.”
Damour is also critiquing the current definition of mental health. “Mental health isn’t about feeling good, or calm, or relaxed, or happy,” she told Surgeon General Murthy on stage at the Cleveland City Club in early April. “We like these things, but those don’t figure into how we [clinicians] assess mental health.” What mental health does mean? “Having the right feelings at the right time,” she says.
Her book, a day-to-day parent primer for surviving the broody, melodramatic, cynical, social-media-soaked, outbursty teen years, feels like that much-desired return call from a therapist that legions of tearing-their-hair-out parents have been desperately waiting on. These days, getting an appointment with a mental health practitioner is about as likely as spotting a snow leopard (though Damour miraculously seems to fit patients into her schedule, including many of her friends, and their kids, right away, at least by her account.) The book’s through-line is her “assumption that every one of their [teen] emotions make sense.”
Damour’s practical advising includes how to break your son’s 2 a.m. World of Warcraft habit and the comeback to your daughter’s demand that you change your dumpy outfit. She explains why sleeplessness trumps every other issue so must be solved first, and why a drive in the car should be your go-to plan to get your teen talking.
Using real (though disguised, and sometimes composite) scenarios from her therapy practice, she tackles handling extreme social anxiety and offhanded jokes about offing oneself; understanding your teen’s sudden, inexplicable fear of death; and why helping your teen characterize their feelings more succinctly beyond “bummed” can actually improve their mood. She even unpacks why your teen can’t stand the way you chew (of particular interest to me, because my daughter has been literally driven to tears by my husband’s chomping).
Take the first chapter, which dispels common myths about handling teen emotions. Despite the instinct to spare our kids disappointment—by haranguing them to get fit before soccer tryouts or to study to avoid a bad grade —the better path is to let them fail. Tough knocks like getting caught cheating or being dumped are how kids grow.
“A lesson learned the hard way is still a lesson learned,” she says. What parents can do is project calm in the aftermath: “Validate the suffering while projecting complete confidence that they can handle and will get through it.”
A critical reminder is that parents see the worst of their teen. When adolescents shoot a desperate text from school that they have no friends and no life, they are just unloading, which may ruin your morning but provides them relief. The technical term is externalization— managing a painful emotion by getting someone else to feel it instead. The girl that kicked the door and then insulted your haircut has kept distress in check all day and needs to blow up. The explosion acts like a circuit-breaker. “Consider this ‘garbage collection’ among the loving services you provide to your teen,” Damour writes.
For those who find comfort in science, in understanding the physiology at play, Damour includes a biology 101 on a teen’s brain changes. That impulse to climb atop an abandoned rail car with live electrical wiring is governed by the amygdala, the almond-shaped mass in each hemisphere which handles emotions, beating the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for decision-making, to maturation. She illuminates the major “rewiring project” underway as the adolescent brain adds neurons at a rate four to five times that of adults, and prunes unused ones even faster.
The situations Damour details seem relatable and useful to me, a parent of three adolescents, though oddly tame. The feel is more afterschool Disney special than “13 Reasons Why” or “Sex Education,” most of the messy, edgier scenarios audited out. I can’t help but think she must have wanted to assure that the book could be stocked in Walmart in red states. She leaves out the teen addicts, victims of sexual abuse, tales of coming out as transgender and shipping off to a rehabilitative wilderness program. There isn’t even mention of cutting, serious bullying, creepy online sexters or eating disorders. She never ventures into what to do if your teen gets violent, or actually attempts suicide, beyond the vague advisement to seek professional help. But for bread-and-butter topics like self-esteem, gender fluidity, friend drama, stupid late-night antics, and household tension, the book delivers a toolbox of solid tactics.
I particularly appreciate where Damour goes so far as to script tricky interactions that consistently come up. She doesn’t just tell me to be empathetic when my daughter is teased about her height, she shows me how.
“I’m sorry to hear that. What you are describing sounds awful,” Damour writes, providing the response to a tearful teen’s gush over a friend swooping in on her prom date. She also gives the ultimate “Don’t” in this situation: Listing off other boys who she might go with instead. She has your follow-up response should your son mention, or even imply, suicide, which should be delivered immediately: “I understand that this question may seem a bit out of the blue but given how upset you are, I feel that I need to ask it—have you had any thoughts about hurting yourself or ending your life?” (She also predicts your next question, and assures that raising suicide in conversation will not push your teen that way.).
The drum Damour bangs throughout is that the parent job is not to fix their teen’s bad grade/broken heart/bad haircut but to listen closely and sympathize. One of my favorite exercises helps you become that close listener. She says to imagine that you are a newspaper editor, and your teen is one of your reporters. When your daughter spills her love triangle saga, you play her back a “headline” distilling to its essence what she communicated. She can’t help but feel heard.
Importantly, given the job that the pandemic did on teen distress levels that had already been increasing since 2010, Damour helps parents differentiate garden variety distress and bedroom-seclusion from clinical depression. Her litmus test: Do the emotions match the moment? In the book’s opening anecdote, “Will” is tearful for days after learning his family is moving to Seattle right before his senior year. His parents fear a tumble into worrisome depression. “Is his mood down all the time, or does it rise and fall?” she asks, providing the key question. Given that he will still laugh with his friends, but darkness falls when packing his things, Damour deems his behavior actually evidence of good mental health. His response makes sense.
Damour pins the problematic new aversion to psychological discomfort on three forces: the spike in antidepressant usage, a wellness industry that has done “nothing short of explode,” and the climbing number of young people facing mental health disorders. Not only did the percentage of depression patients who are prescribed antidepressants jump from 37 percent in 1987 to 81 percent in 2015, we now pop pills for anxiety, sleeplessness and poor attention.
She derides insurance companies’ preference for covering relatively inexpensive drugs over costly, lengthy therapy. The sprawling global mental health industry – what Damour refers to as the “wellness industrial complex – has now eclipsed the $100B global entertainment industry. “Massive economic incentives are driving the wellness industry to make promises it cannot keep,” Damour writes.
Damour also references the robust literature on girls’ tendency to ruminate and over-emote; this was new, and sure timely. Ruminate is the perfect word to describe what my daughter has been doing since she and her boyfriend broke up two weeks ago. Damour warns that when two gushers get together, they can co-ruminate one another right into a completely unhelpful eddy of repetitive, circular venting. Damour alerts parents to warn their teen that they can be too good a friend at times, and boundaries are necessary. Hanging on Facetime multiple nights past midnight to comfort and commiserate your bestie after she was gossiped about at school could be keeping the problem alive, or, with a worse problem, preventing them from seeking professional help.
She did offer two problem-solving approaches that I know will help me. The first is to have your teen break the issue into “things I can control” and “things I cannot.” Then, ignore the latter and brainstorm together around the former. Damour suggests a way to ease extreme social anxiety, which I imagine could be used for other issues as well. The example she gives is a boy frozen about an upcoming teen summer trip to Israel, fearing he won’t make friends. Her advice was cut straight to the worst-case scenario. Establish together: What’s the worst thing that could possibly happen? If the most dire possibility is two lonely weeks with zero friends, you then ask how might you handle that? Then, you brainstorm ideas like bringing good books, or planning evening workouts.
Damour raises a more global issue plaguing her field: a one-size-fits-all approach to handling teen mental health. Although Black teens have registered the largest uptick in suicide rates, the needs and risk factors of that population have not been studied explicitly until very recently. Early findings indicate that the risk profile differs from white teens.
Black teens most in danger, for instance, tend not to have shared their suicidal thoughts or plans. Instead, they have likely experienced a recent crisis, family problem or argument. Damour highlights the ways in which mental health services have not been serving Black teens adequately. In her Recommended Resources section, she includes a list of books for “marginalized adolescents,” useful for adults raising or caring for Black teens.
Teens will likely give Damour a thumbs up for recognizing the validity of distraction as a tactic. She gives permission for video gaming. When just opening the backpack to start the night’s homework feels daunting, she applauds 20 minutes of YouTube scrolling as a bridge. Re-reading Captain Underpants or Percy Jackson, or watching a similarly regressive show – just fine. Teens definitely need ways to comfort themselves.
She even advocates for parents seeking the truth in their cantankerous teens’ criticism. “In my experience, adolescents’ descriptions of adults tend to be pretty spot-on. If we can tolerate their feedback, our teens may even help us grow,” Damour writes.
Damour has worked tirelessly to help parents do just that. She is a senior advisor to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University, a frequent contributor to The New York Times, host of her popular @AskLisaPodcast, and author of two previous bestselling books demystifying the inner lives of adolescent girls, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.
As a writer who closely follows teen development and mental health news and research, there was almost nothing I found entirely revelatory in her latest book. Nonetheless, I think it will be an eye-opener for many parents. I also appreciated the refresher in best practices – it renews my confidence in responding to various situations. Still, truth be told, it was a bust when I gave her technique a try. I poured on empathy and avoided problem-solving when my son texted me that he didn’t get the Montreal job.
“That sucks,” I pinged back. “Rejection feels SHITTY. Ugh. BUT, I have so much faith that you will find your path..” Unfortunately, I used all caps and I didn’t stop with that single text. “Here for bitching and venting,” I added. His response hit like a brick. “Not feeling too beat up about it.”
But reframing his response a la Damour took much of the sting out: My teenage son was handling rejection with perspective and apparent confidence. My realization, thanks in part to her book: I can breathe a hefty sigh of relief. He’s internalized that life is full of wins and disappointments, that neither define him, and that he’s entering adulthood capable of riding the topsy-turvy rollercoaster that is life.
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