Being a teenager has never been easy. Throw in the pandemic, which affected teens perhaps more than any other group of kids, and teens today are facing even more intense turmoil. Much has been written about where we go from here. Enter Dr. Lisa Damour. The Ohio-based family therapist and host of the “Ask Lisa” podcast has written a new book called The Emotional Life of Teenagers, which — you guessed it — dives into how to help your teens learn to regulate and express their emotions, especially in light of the mental health crisis now facing teens.
So Scary Mommy spoke with Dr. Damour about her book, how parents can help their teens, and how parents of tweens can lay the groundwork now.
Scary Mommy: We all know teens are suffering, thanks to regular teen issues plus the pandemic. What can parents do if they’re in the trenches with their teens?
Dr. Lisa Damour: The most important thing that parents can do is to serve as a steady presence. This means being attentive to their teens’ distress, but not reacting to it from a place of fear. To do this, parents will want to take good care of themselves and have the support they need in their own lives. It can also be very helpful for parents to remember that verbalizing emotions — putting feelings into words — offers its own relief. This means that simply listening attentively to what teens have to share often goes a long way toward helping them feel better. Finally, what teens in distress usually want more than anything else is empathy. Much of the time, listening carefully to what a teenager shares and then responding with, “Of course you’re upset,” or “What you’re describing sounds painful,” or “I’m so sorry that you are feeling that way,” will give teenagers all that they want and need.
SM: How can parents tell the difference between typical teen angst and something more serious?
LD: It’s time to worry about the presence of a mental health concern if negative feelings are dominating a young person’s life, such as when anxiety keeps a teen from going to school or when the teen relies on costly coping strategies to manage distress, such as abusing substances, being hard on others, or being harmful to themselves. The presence of distress is not, in and of itself, reason to be worried about a teen’s mental health.
SM: What can parents of preteens or tweens do to lay the groundwork for good communication later?
LD: Be open to when your child wants to talk. Some kids like to debrief right after school, others need time to process, and still others will want to wait until they know the conversation can’t go on too long — such as when you’re in the car and nearly home — to share what’s on their minds. Kids and teens are much more likely to open up when we notice their conversational bids than when we are the ones to introduce delicate topics.
SM: You talk a lot in the book about emotional regulation and getting teens to open up. How can parents start doing this even earlier, and what should parents of preteens be looking for as “warning signs” that there might be difficulties as the teen years commence?
LD: Psychologists have long recognized that kids between the ages of 6 and 10 are often especially fun to parent. They still enjoy our company, laugh at our jokes, and love the idea of going to the grocery store with us. Most of the time, it’s easy to connect to pre-teens and to enjoy a strong relationship with them. If a parent is finding that’s not the case — that they feel constantly at odds with or at a great distance from their 6 to 10 year old — I’d take that as a warning sign and seek support. There is nothing that benefits teenagers more than having strong connections to loving adults; it’s a lot easier for parents and teens to enter the phase of adolescence with a solid connection than to try to build one once adolescence is underway.
SM: You write a lot about empathy playing a role as a parent. Can you give a few quick pointers to parents who are at their wit’s end?
LD: It can be hard to empathize with a child who grouses at length. When children are full of complaints, it can be helpful to remember that the very thing that helps kids to be gracious and civil throughout the day may be the knowledge that they can come home and grumble about the injustices and annoyances they faced. Often, kids just want to “dump” the emotional garbage of the day and move on. Rarely are they looking for advice or solutions.
If letting a child vent isn’t helping the child to feel better, or if you have had your own bad day and aren’t in the mood to hear your kid’s complaints (believe me, we’ve all been there) consider switching gears. Try warmly saying, “Yup, I hear you, your day was lousy — and, actually, mine was too. How about instead of rehashing it all, we find another way to help ourselves feel better. Want to go for a walk, or hang out with dog, or watch some reruns together?”
SM: How does gender play a role in this and what can parents do to get their boys, in particular, talking more?
LD: Girls, more than boys, are socialized to talk about their feelings. And compared to boys, girls are allowed by our culture to comfortably express a much wider range of feelings. While girls are generally free to express sadness, frustration, vulnerability, and anger, boys often feel themselves limited to two emotions: anger, and pleasure at another person’s expense. If we want boys to express their feelings more freely — and express a wide range of feelings — the men in their lives need to show them how this is done. Boys need for adult men to model the expression of vulnerable emotions and to talk with boys about their feelings. It reinforces boys’ beliefs that talking about feelings is a “girl” thing to do when the emotional heavy lifting is left to girls and women.
SM: Low self-esteem can be a really big problem for teens. How can parents help combat this, even in the pre-teen years?
LD: People feel good about themselves for the things they do well — there is no other meaningful source of self-esteem. Kids and teens need to be given opportunities to cultivate skills they care about and make meaningful contributions to their families, schools, or communities. Becoming involved with service projects and having ways to be of use to others can be a particularly powerful and reliable way for young people to build a sense of self-esteem.
Giving kids ways to make meaningful contributions can start young. Children can take responsibility for age-appropriate tasks around the house — my younger daughter has been in charge of keeping our bathrooms stocked with toilet paper since she was four — and their chores can expand as they age. When kids grumble about being asked to help out, don’t be dissuaded. Consider saying, ‘Think of our family like an organization — and know that you’re an important member of that organization. We all rely on one another to help keep things going smoothly.”
Interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.