Why We Must Embrace the Emotional Lives of Teenagers
Throughout the pandemic, clinical psychologist and author Dr. Lisa Damour witnessed teenagers suffering. That emotional turmoil, along with what she believes is an inaccurate understanding of mental health that’s taken hold in the broader culture, compelled her to write her new book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers. I spoke with Dr. Damour about teen emotions and why their intense feelings – both positive and negative – are a key part of development. We also explored how caring adults can reframe their expectations of mental health and help teens better understand, embrace, and cope with emotions when they occur. This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Eden Pontz: Are there cultural changes you have seen that may impact teens and how they deal with their emotions?
Lisa Damour: Yes, I feel like as a culture, we’ve moved to a place of being quite uneasy about negative emotions. I understand why the pandemic was incredibly hard on everyone. We have seen a rise in mental health concerns, especially among teenagers. But the position has left many feeling somewhat frightened of any distress in adolescence. I’ve been a practicing psychologist for almost 30 years and have two teenagers myself. We know distress is part of life. And it’s certainly part of being a teenager. Though adolescent distress and mental health concerns can be uncomfortable, my aim in this book was for parents to know what to expect, when to worry, and what to do with their teenager.
EP: Why is it important for teens to understand what they’re feeling? And what are some ways that parents can help their teens to do so?
LD: We want teenagers to embrace all varieties of emotions, even unwanted ones. There are several good reasons why we want teenagers not to feel scared of having unpleasant emotions. The first is that these emotions are informational. We learn things from our feelings. Suppose a child has the experience that when they hang out with a particular friend, they come away feeling uneasy and unhappy. In that case, those are not pleasant emotions but that’s good information. We would want the teenager to use that information to maybe reconsider that friendship. Another reason emotions – especially the negative ones – should be welcomed into our lives, within limits, is that they foster growth. If we think about a young person who makes a mistake, or does something they shouldn’t have done, maybe they cheat on a test and get caught, that will be very uncomfortable for them. They may be in trouble with their school. They may be in trouble at home. That is highly unpleasant. But I have seen from years of practice that when we help a kid feel the impact of the consequences of their choices, they work their way through it. Often they decide they don’t want to feel that way again. They make different choices going forward. Some of the most potent periods of growth I’ve seen in young people have been as they’ve pivoted out of a painful experience, worked their way through it, and thought about what they’ve learned from it and the kind of person they want to be.
EP: Let’s say a teen goes to their parents and expresses that they’re in emotional pain. What is the best first response for any parent or caring adult to consider?
LD: The governing advice here is that we want to try to be a steady presence. So often, when a young person comes and tells us they’re upset, it’s hard to do that. We love our kids. We hate to see them in pain. Right away, we become activated. So, to become a steady presence in that moment, one of the most important things for parents to remember is that by the time a teenager is telling us about their feelings, by the time they are verbalizing emotion, they’ve already done a huge amount to help themselves. They’ve reflected on what they’re feeling. They’ve put it into language. And they’ve brought it to a loving adult. And what we know from the research is those acts altogether, in and of themselves, help to decrease distress. Just talking about what we’re feeling, even when we’re talking about painful emotions, reduces distress. What I want parents to know is their child standing in front of them saying, “I feel anxious, I feel upset, I feel angry, I feel frustrated,” that is evidence that their child is already coming up with solutions and finding a way to feel better.
So, the first thing we want to do is listen. Let them verbalize emotion. Let them tell us about their feelings. That provides tremendous relief. And then, if parents want to deepen that relief, they can do two things. One is they can be curious. They can ask questions or make it clear they’re interested, and not quickly jump into advice-giving as we so often do. Then the other thing, which most of the time is everything a teenager is looking for, is they can offer empathy. They can say, “What you’re describing sounds really hard,” or “That stinks,” or “Anyone in your shoes would feel that way.” I will tell you overwhelmingly that we support our teenagers by listening and empathizing. Very rarely do parents need to do much more.
EP: For some parents, it’s hard to get their teens talking about emotions. Tell us about some strategies to help increase the odds of starting and having a meaningful conversation.
LD: A lot of the time, I think about teenagers in two camps – kids who talk freely about their emotions and kids who have a hard time opening up. So for kids who talk freely, we want to be very attentive, listen, and empathize. That goes far. Then for kids who do not talk freely about their emotions, there’s other things we can do. One is we can be very attentive to the conditions that make them more likely to talk. These are often teenagers who don’t like to be put on the spot, who don’t want to be cornered, or have difficult conversations about emotion. Sometimes these teenagers are much more open to texting about what they’re feeling or having conversations when they don’t have to be face to face with their parents, such as on a walk or in the car. Another thing we must observe is that teenagers whose parents feel they are not inclined to open up are often willing to open up, but maybe not at times when parents are expecting it. So, it may be that it’s late at night, or on the weekends, after a time in which the parents had asked a bunch of questions and got very little. Maybe later on the weekend, for example, the parent of a teenager may introduce a topic about school or friends and get them talking. I think we want to be attentive to when teenagers are most likely to be interested in talking and receptive to their overtures to talk. I hear from teenagers all the time in my work that when they’re ready to open up, their parents often miss the invitation.
EP: How can parents help teenagers minimize the emotional downsides of their online and digital lives?
LD: We have murky data about the impact of technology on teenagers. We largely think it’s a pretty mixed picture for every teenager. I don’t know any teenager on the planet for whom the experience of digital technology is not simultaneously positive and negative. Our goal as the adults in their lives is to help minimize the negative elements of it. There are some very basic things we can do that make a huge difference. I am a huge proponent of teenagers not having technology in their bedrooms, especially overnight. There are many reasons for this. It undermines the quality of their sleep. It means they never get a break from interacting intensely with their peers. And it’s also, frankly, when I’ve seen teens do misguided things on digital technology – at one o’clock in the morning in their bedrooms when their brakes are weak and their impulses are strong. So, it’s best to not put them in a position where that can happen. That’s one thing we can do to minimize the downsides. A lot of it comes down to conversations with teenagers about their experience with technology, about what they like about it and what they don’t like. Because we don’t understand it the way they understand it. We don’t have the fluency with it that they do. We didn’t grow up with it ourselves as teenagers. So, to give advice, we first need to ask a lot of questions about how our young person interacts with technology, what they already do and don’t like, and then follow their lead. Ask what they think would be most helpful to bring the negative aspects of technology under control for them.
EP: If you had the opportunity to suggest to parents a beneficial point of view that they should take when it comes to the emotions of their teens, what would it be? What would you want to leave them with?
LD: It can be frightening right now to be a parent of a teenager. Every day, we are getting new harrowing headlines about the mental health crisis in teenagers. I think it’s scary to teenagers. And I think it’s scary to their parents. And it’s not the kind of way I want anyone to feel. What I would say to parents, what is so powerful and will get us so far, is strengthening the relationships between teenagers and the adults in their immediate environment. We have tons of data showing how much this serves to both prevent, and reduce mental health concerns among teenagers. Do not underestimate how much good can be done by you having a close working relationship with the teenager you care about. Teenagers are desperate to be understood by adults, and when we do our part to try to support them and understand where they’re coming from it is wildly therapeutic.
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