There are effective strategies for helping teens manage stress and anxiety. You are not alone in wanting to learn trusted and proven ways to help your adolescent cope.
In this Q & A, Allison Gilbert, Senior Writer for the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, talks with psychologist Lisa Damour. Dr. Damour is the author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. She also writes “Adolescence,” a monthly column for the New York Times, hosts her popular “Ask Lisa” podcast, tackling such issues as peer relationships, sexuality, and college admissions, and collaborates with UNICEF on topics of urgent interest to parents around the world. Gilbert begins her conversation with Dr. Damour by discussing anxiety.
Allison Gilbert: Your book Under Pressure focuses on girls. And you’ve tackled this topic in your New York Times column and on your podcast. What does anxiety look like in teenagers, and how might it look different from one young adult to the next?
Lisa Damour: I’m not sure that it looks different in teenagers than it does in people of any age. We experience anxiety first at the physiological level: heart rate accelerates, breathing gets quick and shallow. Everybody feels it, and everybody has a pretty similar first response, which is a physical response. Anxiety is a normal healthy function. It’s basically our alarm system that rings when something’s not right. Very rarely do we consider anxiety to be a sign of something being badly amiss. We only see it that way if someone is anxious when there’s no reason to be anxious or when they’re way, way too anxious for what’s going on. Otherwise, it’s healthy. But even if anxiety becomes problematic, it’s treatable. We know more about treating anxiety than almost anything in psychology.
AG: We know teenagers are super learners. How does this ability to learn new skills help them manage stress and anxiety?
LD: First and foremost, teenagers like to understand what’s happening inside of them. When we can explain the physiology and why anxiety is a fundamentally protective and useful emotion, this level of understanding helps them so much. I like to explain to teenagers why their heart rate accelerates and why their chests feel tight when they become anxious. They may have an inkling of this, but it really helps to say to them, ‘This is the fight or flight system kicking into high gear. And when the fight or flight system is kicking into high gear, your brain is telling your body to get ready to run or attack.’ This logic helps explain similar responses teens may have taking a quiz. You can’t run from the quiz, you can’t attack the quiz, but when you’re sitting during a quiz and recognize what may be happening in your body, it makes sense in this ancient, logical way.
AG: Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, Founding Director at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, has created a Stress Management Plan that’s customizable for any teenager. What are some of your favorite strategies for managing stress and anxiety?
LD: We all go through stressful experiences, and we all cope with stressful experiences. In my experience of adolescents, knowing what works is very personal. For a lot of teenagers, it could be rolling around on the floor with the dog. For other teenagers, it may be going for a run. It could also be re-watching “Hannah Montana.” So, my guidance is first to observe teenagers. Watch how they’re already responding. They come to things that work for them. Adults may not recognize what they’re doing as coping. I mean, it’s kind of weird sometimes to see the 17-year-old rolling around on the floor with the dog or the very academic 18-year-old watching “Hannah Montana,” but that’s what’s working for them.
AG: How can a parent judge if what their teen is choosing is helpful?
LD: We can start with the good old saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” If your kiddo is managing the world quite well, even during the pandemic, it’s likely that what they’ve chosen to do is just fine. So I think the measure is: Is it causing them harm? However strange their style is, if it’s working for them and does no harm, stand back and watch.
The other thing parents can do is model. We teach teens not only in our talking but in our living. If we can say, ‘I had an incredibly hard day. I have to take a walk around the neighborhood. Who’s with me?’ — that’s modeling good coping. I’m a psychologist, but I think, in many ways, psychologists are at our best when we’re anthropologists, when we just watch and notice how people solve the problems that life puts before them.
AG: One cause of anxiety for teens is relationships – with friends, parents, teachers, and others. You break these apart in your book, discussing each relationship separately. What are some of your favorite strategies for helping adolescents navigate these connections?
LD: One of the most important things adults can do is normalize the idea that in any relationship, there will be conflict and disagreement. After we do that, then we can try to teach teenagers respectful, assertive, and practical strategies to help navigate conflict when it arises.
What feels the most challenging from a gender perspective is that we don’t actually do a very good job teaching girls how to do conflict. Boys as a group seem to be better at saying their piece with each other and then moving forward. They seem to have more comfort in just asserting themselves, accepting the assertion, and then considering it water under the bridge. We have a mandate as a culture that girls are supposed to be sweet, they’re supposed to be agreeable, they’re not supposed to make anyone uncomfortable. This does not hold them in good stead when they actually are at odds with somebody. And what I like to do is teach adolescents how to do conflict effectively — what it looks like to be assertive and what it looks like to make a decision to have a conflict.
AG: How do specific character traits come into play in terms of teens being able to build positive, fulfilling relationships more easily?
LD: I think about empathy. Empathy is the ability to look beyond oneself and imagine what it’s like to be the other person. And this is a skill that develops throughout a lifetime. The best teaching, whether it’s in a classroom or a kitchen, happens when you’re dealing with real situations, when you’re dealing with the reality of the moment. For example, if a parent says something he or she regrets, which we sometimes do, then you absolutely have to correct that, you have to go back to your child and say ‘I owe you an apology.’ That’s how we teach relationships, and that’s the moment we also teach humility.
AG: You also believe anxiety can be a positive tool. How so?
LD: Emotions are always giving you feedback on the world around you and how well you are managing what’s coming your way. And we want kids to be perfectly attuned to that feedback. If they’re with a bunch of friends and there’s pressure to do something that maybe they don’t feel so good about, anxiety is a key alert. They want to pay attention to that.
AG: How can teens best use their experience managing anxiety during Covid-19 for life after the pandemic? What do you see as the lessons they’ll take with them into adulthood?
LD: Realistically, people are going to need some time to process. This has been harrowing and long. And in the context of a harrowing and long pandemic, a great number of disturbing historical events and racial traumas have also occurred. What I know about humans, and what I know about their management of distress, is that it’s very hard to process difficulties while you’re still in them. So I want to be cautious about suggesting that when the world opens up we’ll all be somehow newly durable and gleeful and resilient in ways we weren’t before.
I really want to create space for teenagers and adults to actually process what has happened. I think it’s in the processing. I think it’s in the reflecting. And I think it’s in making meaning of those experiences, that we will grow. And we’re going to need some time to do that growing.