By Melinda Wenner Moyer
For more than 25 years, psychologist Lisa Damour has been helping teenagers and their families navigate adolescence in her clinical practice, in her research and in bestselling books such as “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood.”
This moment, she says, is like no other.
According to a report released this month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 42% of U.S. high schoolers experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness in 2021, while 22% seriously considered attempting suicide. Adolescent girls, as well as lesbian, gay and bisexual youth, are struggling the most, but boys and teenagers in every racial and ethnic group also reported worsening symptoms.
“I am deeply concerned about the suffering teens experienced during the pandemic and the current crisis in adolescent mental health,” Damour said.
In her new book, “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers,” Damour aims to demystify adolescence and to reset the very definition of mental health: “Too often, ‘mental health’ is equated with feeling good, happy, calm or relaxed,” she said. But it’s “about having feelings that fit the moment — even if those feelings are unwanted or painful — and managing them in effective ways.” She thinks this characterization is “far more accurate,” and, she hopes, reassuring.
Here’s what Damour had to say about communicating with teenagers, distinguishing healthy emotions from mental illness and when to step in to help. This interview has been edited.
Q: It’s normal for teenagers to have big, tumultuous feelings. But given that we’re in the middle of an adolescent mental health crisis, how can parents tell the difference between healthy teenage angst and signs of anxiety or depression?
A: Teenagers feel their emotions more intensely than children do and more intensely than adults do. So there will be plenty of days where they experience distress, maybe multiple times a day.
Most of that distress will probably be appropriate to their circumstances. If a teenager failed a test, we expect they’ll be upset about that. If somebody breaks up with them, we expect they will be very sad. What we’re interested in is how the teenager then goes on to manage their feelings. What we want to see is that they use strategies that bring relief and do no harm, such as talking to people who care about them, finding brief distractions or solving the problem.
What we don’t want to see — and where we become alert to the possibility of a mental health concern — is one of two things. One, teenagers are using strategies to bring relief that actually come at a cost: So a teenager who’s very distressed and then smokes a lot of marijuana, or a teenager who’s having a hard time with a friend and then goes after that peer on social media.
The other thing we don’t want to see is feelings “running the show” — when they get in the way of a young person’s ability to do the things they need to do, such as go to school or spend time with peers.
Q: If a teenager comes home from school and seems sad or angry, what’s the best way for an adult to respond?
A: Usually, all they need from us are two things. One is curiosity — to take an interest in what they’re sharing, to ask questions. The other is empathy — letting them know that we’re sorry that they feel that way.
We have excellent scientific evidence that the mere act of putting an unwanted feeling into words reduces the sting of that emotion. So when it’s 9 p.m. and your teenager is standing in front of you suddenly describing that they are feeling very anxious, or unhappy or frustrated, the most essential thing to remember is that they are already on their way to feeling better because they put those emotions into words.
The exercise I use in my own home is that I imagine that my teenager is a reporter, and I am an editor. My teenager is reading me her latest article. My job is to listen so intently that when she comes to the end of the draft, I can produce a headline — a distilled, accurate summary of what she said that doesn’t introduce any new ideas. That shows them that you’re listening, and validates their feelings.
Q: What if your teenager says something cruel to you?
A: It is perfectly fine for kids to be angry. We should expect that. What we do put parameters around is the expression of that anger.
When teenagers use hurtful language, it can be useful to respond in a way that uncouples the feeling from how it was expressed. We can say things along the lines of: “You may be very angry with me. And you probably have a point. But we don’t speak to each other that way, so take a minute and bring it back to me in a more civil way.” Even if a teenager rolls her eyes, she’ll get the message and, hopefully, try again when she’s cooled off.
Q: Let’s say a teenager gets really upset and doesn’t want to talk about it — and then 20 minutes later seems perfectly fine. Should you try to broach a conversation then?
A: If a kid is in a bad mood, and has found their way to a good mood, I would leave it.
Time works differently for teenagers. It’s very common that a teenager who was deeply distressed about something at 4 p.m. can be gleeful by 6 p.m.
Q: In your book, you discuss the value of letting kids talk to parents on their own terms. What does that mean?
A: Many parents find that they ask brilliant questions over dinner and come up empty-handed — they get one-word answers if they’re lucky. Later in the evening, their teenager is as chatty as can be.
Teenagers are organized around the drive toward autonomy. They’d rather not be subjected to an adult’s agenda. When we ask them questions at times that work well for us, we’re asking them to cooperate with our agenda. We need to be open to the possibility that a teenager may be most forthcoming when they are the ones who initiate the conversation.
That may mean they want to talk to us at times that we are not expecting or even find inconvenient. And they want to talk about things that may not be at the center of our attention. But if we want to cultivate and protect our connections with our teenagers, an important element of that is being willing to work with their terms of engagement.