As adolescent mental health has worsened, the psychologist offers advice for parents about anxiety, academics and friend struggles.
The author and psychologist Lisa Damour has become somewhat of a celebrity among many parents of teenagers.
“I’ve been Damour-alizing myself big time for about a month now,” said Rebecca Gold, a mother of three in Great Barrington, Mass. “I love her so much that I just created a verb in her honor.”
Ms. Gold, who has two teenagers and a 10-year-old, has been devouring Dr. Damour’s books, listening to her podcast and “basically trying to channel her.”
In Seattle, Katie Eastwood, the parent of a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old, raved about “Untangled,” Dr. Damour’s guide to a girl’s seven developmental transitions, saying that the book “has saved me over and over again.”
Dr. Damour, who is known for dispensing practical advice backed by scientific research, has counseled teenagers and their families for more than 25 years. Her latest book, “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers,” has become a New York Times best seller, following “Untangled” and “Under Pressure.”
As the mother of two daughters, ages 12 and 19, Dr. Damour knows first hand that parenting is hard and sometimes scary. And that has been especially true over the last few years, as the mental health of children, particularly teenage girls, has suffered.
But a reassuring thread runs through Dr. Damour’s work: You’ve got this, it seems to say. “Mental health is not 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 manage those feelings effectively.”
We asked Dr. Damour how to support teenagers psychologically and emotionally as they navigate the new school year.
Questions and answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.
Here’s what I want parents to watch out for: Low or angry moods that last more than a day or two. And what I call “costly coping,” where young people are using coping strategies that do bring relief but that will cause harm. Whether it’s abusing substances, using technology in unhealthy ways, being hard on the people around them, or taking things out on themselves.
And, of course, I want parents to be alert if a teenager talks about feeling hopeless or wanting to harm themselves.
Teens want to do things on their terms. That is the nature of being an adolescent. When adults are calling the meeting and setting the agenda — when we are saying, “How was your day, what happened?” — teenagers can sometimes bristle and feel cornered.
But teenagers also want — and need — to be connected to loving adults. And they do tend to bring up topics that are close to their heart, often at times that are unexpected or even inconvenient.
As a parent of adolescents 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 comes at the cost of my own to-do list or sleep.
It’s important for teenagers to express their emotions. Verbalizing feelings and talking about their internal world is one way that they do that. But it’s not the preferred option for every teenager. We need to respect that sometimes teenagers “get their feelings out” by going for a run. Or by putting on a playlist that matches their mood so that they can deepen themselves into that mood and then speed their way out of it.
The priority is that teenagers have ways to get their feelings out that bring relief and do no harm. The priority is not necessarily that they bare their souls in language. People’s coping strategies are highly personal.
You warmly respond: “The time will come when you are living independently. And you’ll get to make your own rules. For now, you’re a member of this household. And that means living with the rules we make.”
It’s best if the adult in that conversation can underscore that the rules are organized around respectful treatment of one another and the teenager’s safety.
And if the rules don’t fall into those two categories, they probably should be up for negotiation.
Avoidance feeds anxiety. When we avoid the things we fear, the immediate effect is that we feel tremendous relief, which can actually reinforce the wish to continue the avoidance.
By not going to school or going to the party, our fears become crystallized in amber because they are not tested against reality.
Another concern is that when a student misses a day of school for any reason, they can’t help but fall behind a little academically and socially.
The determination I want families to make is whether what their teenager is confronting is uncomfortable or unmanageable. Under most conditions — with the help of anxiety-reducing strategies — the teenager could engage at least a little bit in the thing that they fear. Going for part of the day is better than staying home.
Parents and caregivers can be most useful when we make the distinction between healthy and unhealthy anxiety. Healthy anxiety is a safety system we all come equipped with that alerts us to threats. When a teenager has a big test that they have not started studying for, or a teenager is at a party that is out of control, those are both times when I would expect to see an anxiety response. And I would like for that anxiety response to help promote a course correction.
Unhealthy anxiety occurs when there’s 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 manage it.
If a teenager is worried about how they’re performing academically, caring adults can talk with them about the possibility that they are overestimating the consequences. And perhaps underestimating their ability to take steps to address the things they’re worried about.
The goal is not to rid teenagers of anxiety. That will never happen, nor should it. The goal is to make sure their anxiety is staying in the healthy range.
The real question is whether an adolescent has a sufficient opportunity to recover between intervals of stress.
It’s similar to strength training. If people don’t rest between weight-lifting workouts, they can get injured. If they can rest between weight-lifting workouts, they gain strength.
Are these demands so great that this teenager is not getting enough sleep? Has no time to see friends? If they’re saying yes to questions like that, the teenager’s schedule needs to be revisited.
Beyond empathizing about how painful it is to be mistreated or pushed away by friends, there are steps adults can take to help a hurting teen.
First, we can note that friction and disagreements are a natural, if unwanted, aspect of relationships. The goal is to handle conflict well when it arises. Examples of poor conflict management include being mean, icing someone out, or gossiping with third parties about the problem.
Instead, we want to encourage teens to try to be direct and fair with one another, or to create a polite distance if that hasn’t worked or won’t work.
Conflict aside, friendships often shift and change in adolescence. This painful reality can be easier for teens to accept if we reassure them that just because a friendship doesn’t last forever doesn’t mean that it was never good.
Happily, there is a place parents can locate themselves between helicopter and hands-off: the role of coach.
Of course, we want to help our kids and teenagers to 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 play things out.
The situations kids are in can be so complex that there have been times when I’ve seen a well-meaning adult make things worse by wading in. The more that we can help teens build the skills to navigate independently, the more confident we can feel when it’s time for them to leave home.
Christina Caron is a reporter for the Well section, covering mental health and the intersection of culture and health care. Previously, she was a parenting reporter, general assignment reporter and copy editor at The Times. More about Christina Caron