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Homeparenting educationHow to support teens psychologically and emotionally, according to author-psychologist Lisa Damour

How to support teens psychologically and emotionally, according to author-psychologist Lisa Damour

NEW YORK – American author and psychologist Lisa Damour has become somewhat of a celebrity among many parents of teenagers.

“I’ve been Damour-alising myself big time for about a month now,” said Ms Rebecca Gold, a mother of three in Great Barrington, Massachusetts. “I love her so much that I just created a verb in her honour.”

Ms Gold, who has two teenagers and a 10-year-old, has been devouring Damour’s books, listening to her podcast and “basically trying to channel her”.

In Seattle, Ms Katie Eastwood, who is mother to a 15-year-old and 12-year-old, raved about Untangled, Damour’s 2016 guide to a girl’s seven developmental transitions, saying that the book “has saved me over and over again”.

Damour, who is known for dispensing practical advice backed by scientific research, has counselled teenagers and their families for more than 25 years.

Her latest book, The Emotional Lives Of Teenagers, has become a New York Times bestseller, following Untangled and Under Pressure (2019).

As the mother of two daughters aged 12 and 19, the 52-year-old knows first-hand that parenting is hard and sometimes scary. And that has been especially true over the past few years, as the mental health of children, particularly teenage girls, has suffered.

But a reassuring thread runs through 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.”

Here are her suggestions on how to support teenagers psychologically and emotionally.

Lately, a lot of news stories have centred on the worsening mental health of teenagers. What should parents pay special attention to?

Here is 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 is abusing substances, using technology in unhealthy ways, being hard on the people around them or taking things out on themselves.

And I want parents to be alert if a teenager talks about feeling hopeless or wanting to harm himself or herself.

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How do you get your teenager to talk to you?

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 are not in the mood to answer my questions, and I do my best to be receptive when they are ready to talk, even if it comes at the cost of my own to-do list or sleep.

Some families may feel as if those times are not cropping up naturally – that their kids are just not opening up.

It is important for teenagers to express their emotions. Verbalising feelings and talking about their internal world is one way that they do that. But it is 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.

Let’s talk about school-related fears and anxieties. What do you say when your child continually wants to stay home?

Avoidance feeds anxiety. When we avoid the things we fear, the immediate effect is that we feel tremendous relief, which can reinforce the wish to continue the avoidance.

By not going to school, our fears become crystallised in amber because they are not tested against reality.

Another concern is that when a student misses a day of school, he or she cannot 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 can engage at least a little bit in the thing that he or she fears.

Going for part of the day is better than staying home.

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Several parents feel their children are facing anxieties related to academic achievement. How can we help teens alleviate some of that pressure?

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 teenagers have a big test that they have not started studying for or he or she 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 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 manage it.

If a teenager is worried about how he or she is performing academically, caring adults can talk with him or her about the possibility that the teen is overestimating the consequences. And perhaps underestimating his or her ability to take steps to address the things he or she is 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.

How do we support teenagers who feel stressed about their demanding schedule?

The real question is whether an adolescent has a sufficient opportunity to recover between intervals of stress.

It is similar to strength training. If people do not rest between weightlifting workouts, they can get injured. If they can rest between weightlifting workouts, they gain strength.

Are these demands so great that this teenager is not getting enough sleep? Has no time to see friends? If he or she is saying yes to questions like that, the teenager’s schedule needs to be revisited.

How do you know when to let teenagers work things out for themselves?

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.

Our first response should be that we are standing on the sidelines, so they can use us as a consultant for how they are going to play things out.

The situations kids are in can be so complex that there have been times when I have 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 is time for them to leave home. NYTIMES

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