Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Parenting Teenage Girls: Interview with Lisa Damour, Ph.D.

Update April 4, 2017: Untangled has been released in paperback.

[Episode 102] Today's episode of the Social Work Podcast tackles one of the most difficult developmental stages in the parent-child relationship: adolescence. If you’re a long-time listener of the podcast, you know that I’ve spent most of my professional career working with or doing research on adolescents. Like most clinicians I have more experience with adolescents when things are going wrong in their lives than when they are going right. And as a parent, I can tell you that I seem to be much more clued into when things are going wrong than things are going right. Like earlier this afternoon… no, I’m just kidding, I wouldn’t do that to you. What I will do is introduce my guest. Dr. Lisa Damour (@LDamour), clinician, researcher, professor, parent, writer of the Adolescence column for the New York Times’ Motherlode blog, and most importantly for today’s episode, Dr. Damour is the author of Untangled: Guiding teenage girls through the seven transitions into adulthood.

I’ve read it. I think it is fantastic. I recommend this book without hesitation to anyone who is raising or will be raising a teenage daughter. The writing is engaging, scholarly without being boring, and full of practical tips that parents can adopt and implement immediately.

  • How often should my kid be eating dinner with me? 
  • When is the best time to have a serious and uncomfortable conversation? 
  • My thirteen-year-old rolls her eyes when I try to talk to her, and only does it more when I get angry with her about it. How should I respond?
  • Do I tell my teen daughter that I’m checking her phone?
  • Where’s the line between healthy eating and having an eating disorder?
  • My daughter’s friend is cutting herself. Do I call the girl’s mother to let her know?

Download MP3 [48:55]

I also think that any mental health professional who works with children and families should read this book. Dr. Damour basically hands you brilliant ways of explaining essential developmental concepts that will make sense to the parents and kids you work with. Plus, you’ll be able to legitimately recommend it as bibliotherapy for your clients. Check out the discussion guide: https://www.drlisadamour.com/untangled/discussion-guide/

In today’s interview we talk about why a teenage girl’s erratic and confusing behavior is actually healthy, necessary, and natural.  She talks about what’s going on in the minds of teenage girls and how parents can reframe their daughter’s thoughts feelings and actions. She talks about how society essentially abandons teenage girls and their parents. We talk about sex and the internet. And even though about 70% of the book focuses on how and when parents can know what’s going right, Dr. Damour draws on her extensive clinical experience to alert parents of when they have reason to worry. 

Download MP3 [48:55]


Lisa Damour, Ph.D. directs Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls and writes the Adolescence column for the New York Times’ Motherlode blog. She serves as a faculty associate of the Schubert Center for Child Studies and a clinical instructor in the Department of Psychological Sciences at Case Western Reserve University. Dr. Damour maintains a private psychotherapy practice and also consults and speaks internationally. She is the author of numerous academic papers, chapters, and books related to education and child development. Her book, Untangled: Guiding teenage girls through the seven transitions into adulthood, was released by Random House in February 2016. Untangled has been hailed by Dr. Michael Thompson as "the best description of the female adolescent journey that I have ever read" and by Dr. Madeline Levine as "mandatory reading."

A Denver native, Dr. Damour graduated with honors from Yale University and then worked for the Yale Child Study Center before earning her doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Michigan. She has held fellowships from Yale’s Edward Zigler Center for Child Development and Social Policy and from the University of Michigan’s Power Foundation. Dr. Damour draws on years of clinical experience and the latest research to provide sound, practical guidance to girls as well as to their parents, teachers, and advocates.



Today’s episode of the social work podcast tackles one the most difficult developmental stages in the parent child relationship - adolescence. Now if you're a long time listener of the podcast you will know I have spent most of my professional career working with or doing research on adolescence. And like most clinicians I have more experience with adolescents when things are going wrong in their lives then when they are going right. And as a parent I can tell you that I seem to be much more clued into when things are going wrong then when they are going right. Like earlier this afternoon… No, no, no. Just kidding I wouldn’t do that to

What I will do is introduce my guest, Dr. Lisa Damour. She’s a clinician, researcher, professor, parent, writer of the adolescence column for the New York Times Motherload blog, and most importantly for today’s episode Dr. Damour’s the author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. I have read it and I think it’s fantastic. I am going to read you the blurb on the inside jacket cover. That’s how good I think it is,
“Just wait until she is a teenager, most parents have been warned about the stress of raising a teen girl. The friction with friends, the rush of emotions, stinging rudeness, followed by sweet affection, but your daughter’s teen years don’t have to feel like a tangled mess for you or her. There’s a predictable pattern of how girls grow, a blueprint for adolescent development.”
Isn’t that good?

Well, in today’s interview we talk about this blueprint, we talk about sex, the internet, swimming pools, I realize this is starting to sound a little more blue than print, it's not trust me. Dr. Damour talks about why teenage girl’s erratic, confusing behaviors are actually healthy, necessary, and natural. She talks about what’s going on in the minds of teenage girls and how parents can reframe their daughters thought and feelings and actions. She talks about how society is essentially abandons teenage girls and their parents. Even thought about 70% of the book focuses on how and when parents can know what’s going to be right, Dr. Damour draws on her extensive clinical experience to alert parents to times when they have reasons to worry.

Now I recommend this book without hesitation to anyone who is raising or will be raising a teenage daughter. The writing is engaging, scholarly, without being boring, and full of practical tips that parents can adopt if and implement immediately. Like: “How often should my kid be eating dinner with me? and “When’s the best time to have a serious and uncomfortable conversation?” I also think any mental health professional whom works with children and families should read this book. Dr. Damour basically hands you brilliant ways of explaining essential developmental concepts that will make sense to the parents and kids you work with, and by reading it you will be able to legitimately recommend it as bibliotherapy for your clients.

And now, without further ado, on to episode 102 of the Social Work Podcast: Parenting teenage girls: An interview with Lisa Damour.


Jonathan Singer: Lisa, thanks so much for being here on the social podcast talking today about teens, parenting, and your book untangled.

Lisa Damour: Well I am delighted to be here! I really appreciate you inviting me.

Jonathan Singer: Why did you want to write this book?

Lisa Damour: Well cause the short answer to that question would be that I want to change how we talk about teenage girls. Somehow it has become acceptable to talk about teenage girls in a way we would never talk about any other group. I think its more true for teenage girls than boys. Oh my god they are nuts or I am so glad I have only boys or yea they are crazy, I mean people say things that are really rude to put it bluntly. But I take care of teenage girls I think they are the greatest, most interesting humans on the planet, I think adolescents is really stressful, and really complex and hard on the teenager and on hard on the people around the teenager and that’s when everything is going just normal and fine and great. So I thought maybe we could talk about this is a much more thoughtful and useful and maybe even a bit more sophisticated way, maybe we could come up with a framework that let us think about adolescents as a challenging and dynamic developmental moment and we could simplify all of that chaos into seven categories of development that I think all teenagers are navigating. And we could start to see all of the stress and upheaval of adolescence as normal and profitable and reframe a lot of what looks like difficulty into an appreciation of how much growth is happening in a very short space of time.

Jonathan Singer: And so what are some of the images people have of the teenage girl and how does your experience differ from that?

Lisa Damour: That’s a great question and I think that often people see teenage girls as unpredictable, emotional, intense in their reactions, I think there’s an unspoken undertone around girls being sexual or having sexual interests or objects of sexual interest I think that’s often very charged very adults around sexuality and the girl side of that in particular. I think that adults view adolescent girls as very erratic and intense and I don’t think they see a logic to why girls react to things they do I think that that adults are prone to accusing girls of being you know having a lot of drama or being dramatic. You know I think there is a lot of misunderstanding among adults about girls and their friendships. You know adults are very quick to talk about girls being mean, you know and girls can be mean you know I certainly not saying that girls are perfect and without flaw but I think very rarely hear adults admiring how girls are to their friends which overwhelmingly. My experience of taking care of girls and you know, taking care of girls in groups, so I think that’s what adults are reacting to when they talk about teenage girls that way.

Jonathan Singer: So there’s this myth of the teenage girl being all about drama and this sexual stuff and being mean and are you saying that’s not actually reflective of what you see or you saying that you're seeing the same behaviors but you understand them differently?

Lisa Damour: I see what adults are talking about but I don’t see it the way the adults see it. So take for example the drama piece, one of the things I focus on in my book is the developmental strand of developing emotions, you know that adolescents as a group are very emotional and intense in their reactions and we know this from both from common sense and we know this from really interesting neurological studies where we can watch their brain react in much more emotional ways then kids or adults brain do. I think that how girls do emotion is really different from how boys do emotion. I think girls tend to be more outward and expressive and to express a pretty broad range of feeling. I will say I could consult a phenomenal girls school here in the Shaker Heights area in Ohio where I live and you know crying is not unusual, you know crying happens in a course of a school day at some point somewhere in the school for some girl you know crying is just how often girls will sometimes express a feeling of sad or mad or all sort of of things. I think that one of the things that we over look is that boys are given much less latitude to express emotion and this is an insight that comes from Michael Thompson, who is a very good psychologist who focuses on boys, to the degree that boys express emotion. They are taught that they should express them all as anger, so you see them acting out among adolescent boys. Which I think is often distress and I think that in girls you see distress looking like distress? I think there is a lot more nuance to being brought to the conversation about what is happening with girls feelings and I also think you know in the sense, me and with my clinical hat on, I think being validated about anyone’s emotional reaction never helps so I think even that response that that adults can have of “Oh My God, that is all drama” you know that actually unfair and also isn’t empathic toward whatever it is that is driving you the expression that the girl is sharing even if the way she is sharing is a little bit off putting or surprising to the adult. On the sexual piece I think the thing is so tricky is that girls sexuality and girls emerging sexuality adolescence is such a heavily commoditized thing and the girls themselves and everyone around them are sent such strange the best way I think to describe it or kindest word I think to describe it. Such strange messages about what emerging romantic and sexual interests should look like in girls you we don’t want girls to do slutty but we do want them to be sexy but we don’t want them to be to sexy but we don’t want them to be prude I mean those are all the words that get thrown around. You know there is really probably no way for a girl to get it right. The thing that is completely lost in our conversations about adolescent girls and there emerging love lives is we don’t ever talk about what the girls want and we don’t ever talk about helping girls focus on what they want before they decide you know what they want to do or what they want to pursue or how they want to act. That sexuality among adolescent girls very much something that is owned by other people and terms dictated largely by a commercial market you about what it should look like. So I think its hard to separate out what’s really going on for teenage girls and they're emerging love lives and what is the commercial version of that and I think sometimes its adults are reacting to the commercial version of that without tuning very closely into where the girls are what they want in that.

Jonathan Singer: So how do you, how do you address this with the teenage girls who work with and how do you work with the parents around this issue?

Lisa Damour: Yea, these are really big and complex and really interesting issues. Lets think about it from the lens of advocating for girl, right? That’s what I do, that’s my life right advocating for girls, so for advocating for girls. When we put on that hat there are a few things that we know that we do want to have happen and some things we know don’t want to have happen. So one is we like to think that a girl as she becomes a young woman and moves into adulthood will lay the groundwork for a happy and fulfilling love and sexual life right? So that’s one thing we want to see happen. Another thing we want to have happen is for her to have good sexual health, you know not have to, not to get pregnant if she doesn’t want to get pregnant, not to contract a STD, things like that. And then one thing we don’t want to have happen is for her to be in a situation where she has not given consent, and things have gone or things go past the point where she consented. So if we think about it as advocates for girls, how would we bring these things about, how do we make each of these things happen? What I know right now is that when we talk about girls, and there is a lot of research showing this. For the most part we go after the risk issue you know usually when an adults talk to girls about sex, they talk to girls about risk. Don’t get pregnant, don’t get a STD, you know don’t ruin your reputation, you know things like that, it's a lot of don’t and what we find when we look at data is that placing a heavy emphasis on risk only as opposed to also what a girl wants or girl as a sort of of agent in her own right doesn’t actually reduce risk, does not actually improve sexual health. And so an interesting story that goes a long with this is if you look at the Dutch and how they go about sex education. Now first and foremost they talk about romantic life as a wonderful, nurturing part of being a human and they talk about it from the positive side and they talk about people as sort of having wishes and wants and being their own sexual agents and then they also address as part of that how one keeps ones self safe and healthy in the context of a sexual interaction and they have the best sexual health for teenagers in the western industrialized society and we actually in the US have the worst sexual health for teenage girls in industrialized society. So there’s both a kind of advocate reason to talk about what girls want and how they perceive sexual interests or what would be appealing to them and there’s also health benefit to doing so. Of course there is a lot different from between the Netherlands and the US into terms of cultural attitudes towards sexuality, and also health acts around sexual concerns but what we know is when we focus on girls with sexual agents, girls having their own wishes, and wants sexually that the health also follow from that. So as we think about how we have conversations with girls I think it's really important as for watching TV shows or listening to music you know not to bust out 40 minute lecture about human sexuality but to say things instead along the lines of wow this show is all about the boys want to have happen, what does the girl want to have happen. And I think parents should not expect their daughter “Oh my gosh I am so glad that you raised that question with me, it's a conversation I am dying to have”. I think you know that a very expectable response to that would be that she would roll her eyes and probably leave the room and I don't think that’s a bad outcome. I think that it's really not an about getting into a likely conversation all the time, I think it's really about framing these questions for girls, so at least they are asking them of themselves you know.

Jonathan Singer: That’s really interesting cause you're saying hey I get it but you don’t have to talk about it right now but I just want to let you know.

Lisa Damour: Yea!

Jonathan Singer: I am not some idiot who is sitting here like completely oblivious to what’s going on.

Lisa Damour: Right and thinking you're not interested in this or might not take an interest in this and it’s also, its just a perspective that a girl doesn’t have its a perspective our culture doesn’t have. I mean there really no one in our culture saying hey what do you think the girls want out of this you know what do you think the girls interests are. I mean it's largely neglected, so I think it's an important for parents to advocate for it. Another thing that we know is that girls care what their parents think about their values around sex and again even thought girls we sprain their eye rolling their eyes through these conversations, they really will. It is really important for parents to say hey just so you know here is how we feel about intercourse and its role in a relationships, you know what we think its something that should happen and here’s where parents can fill in the blank you know. Should it happen in the context of a marriage or should it happen in the context of being an adult you know long term relationship you know any whatever the parents values are they should be up front those. And what we know from research is that actually changes sexually behaviors in teenagers that teenagers do shape their sexual behavior based on parents’ expression of values. I think what’s important thought in that conversation is parents should not be under the impression that they can make their teenager do what they want them to do, I think trying make a teenager do anything is feeling strategy but I think an open conversation about what parents believe is really important and really good for teenagers.

Jonathan Singer: People get confused because they say well I cant make my kid do something it means that my opinion doesn’t matter.

Lisa Damour: Oh isn’t that interesting.

Jonathan Singer: That’s not true at all.

Lisa Damour: No!

Jonathan Singer: I think that, it plays into a lot of the old research adolescence which says once a kid becomes adolescent the parent doesn’t matter anymore its all about the peers, and what we know now is that it's totally not true.

Lisa Damour: Yeah!

Jonathan Singer: Expecting a teenager to do something because you say it actually flies in the face of what they need to do developmentally, is that right?

Lisa Damour: Yea, it's a typical reflex of adolescence that if you were just about to do something and your parent tells you to do it, you don’t want to do it anymore. And I actually tell that story, a story in my book about a girl who came on a Friday afternoon session I saw her every afternoon at 4:00 and all of the stories in the book are modified so there unrecognizable even to the client themselves. So the story I am telling is the version I pulled in the book and she came in and she was in a terrible mood and she was usually you know pretty steady girl and you know pretty good mood and I say what’s going on and she said “ugh so mad my stuff has been all over the dining room table all week, I study their, stuff been all over the place, and I’ve been thinking all week of cleaning it up and getting it organized before the weekend and really looking forward to it and I had an hour before our appointment when I could do that and I walked in the house and my mother, and when I walked into the door she said you have to get your stuff off the dining room table. So I spent the hour fighting with my mother how I wouldn’t move the stuff off the dining room table and that took up all the time I had set aside to do and now I am really pissed that” and she was cracking up and she finished telling me this story, but I think that to me was one of those moments in my practice that I could identify several of these where something came clearly into focus you know about what’s normative to adolescents. So I think saying don’t have sex is not a winning strategy for parents, but I do think that expressing parental values, saying you know we think its helpful for you know to wait until you're an adult to have intercourse or whatever the parents going to say. They should articulate a rationale that is about the adolescence taking really good care of themselves, you know not bending to the parents rule but saying look the reason for wanting to hold off is that you know in our experience you will ask for what you want more effectively, you will keep yourself healthy more effectively, you and your partner are going to have a better experience if you are communicating which tends to happen as people get older tends not to be true of you know sex in early adolescence. But it can all be framed from the perspective of being on the teenagers’ side. I mean there are a lot of teenagers who will go running from the room, you know early in that conversation. So to be quick it should happen in the car when no one is looking at each other you know. I think there is lots of ways for parents to sneak these conversations in. I always think that the ideal image of advice giving between parent and teenager is of parent and teenager standing shoulder to shoulder you know and looking together at whatever it is the parent is concerned about. Whether it is drinking or drugs or dangerous driving and the parent saying hey you person who I love so much, who is so precious to me as you confront this risky thing, here are the worries I have about how you might get hurt, and here are the ways that I think you're going to best keep yourself safe. I think that’s a much, much more effective strategy for getting teenagers to take care of themselves.

Jonathan Singer: That’s a good beautiful frame, I would imagine it would be a way that you could address something that would open up a conversation or more likely to open one rather shut it down.

Lisa Damour: It paints the parent as the ally in helping a teenager navigate the many risky that are thrust in front of teenagers and paints the teenager as a thoughtful good person who wants to take good care of themselves and may need some guidance along the way. You know we have all of this nice research showing that teenagers live up to expectations and they live down to expectations.

Jonathan Singer: So what are some of the other ways that parents can get it right, some approaches to raising girls that seem to work better than others.

Lisa Damour: Well I like the phrase getting it right because I think there is a lot of ways to get it right and one of the things that I think is really dicey about a lot of sort of of parented literature I think its sometimes gives parents the impression there’s a right way everything else is the wrong way and that for me just doesn’t work. Humans are way to complicate for there to be a single right way, but I think one of the things where I see parents get it wrong is there very defensive. Parents are very defensive about teenagers observations about the adults themselves and I think that one of the things that makes me so fond of teenagers is that they are so clear eyed. You know all of a sudden at around 13 or 14 they just start to see through grown ups in a whole new way and that’s why I like hanging out with them because I think they pretty much have a pretty good look at a lot of things that adults are not longer tuned into. I think its incredibly hard as a parent when a teenager starts to call you on short comings that are real and probably long standing and point out our flaws and of course it's not like teenagers do this in a universal kind way. They do it in anger and they tend to do it in a way that might be particularly piercing to the parent and so it’s never helpful if a parent reacts as if they’re perfect and as if they cant tolerate the idea that they got shortcomings. You know so if a parent is always like you know one of those parents who always runs late and some of us are just like that, you know if the teenager finally makes an issue of it and says you know what your always late, you're saying you're going to come here at 6 and your never here before 6:20. There’s a couple different ways for a parent to react and you know if the parent react with ‘you know what this is really hard for me and super busy and I don’t have time and your lucky I am picking you up’ I think that’s a really missed opportunity, it just becomes a fight. A fight where the teenager actually had a very legitimate point, another way a parent could go in a moment like that, is to say ‘your right, you know your right I am bad at this’ and to apologize. I think apologizing to a teenager is one of the most gracious gestures and an important one and one that we should never miss an opportunity to do when its deserved and to say I am not perfect and this isn’t fair to you and your right and let me work on it, and let me if I cant get myself here on time cause that’s a better thing to do. But I think that the really huge opportunity in a moment like that is to help the teenager see that shouldn’t take it personally because one of the things that I think is really true about teenagers is that they start to notice our flaws as parents and they want to fix us because they think ‘oh my gosh your my only parents for the rest of my life, you have got to be better than this’ you know. So I think a lot of pointing out our flaws is sort of their effort to say alright guys we got four years for you to become better and so like we need to get on it and I think that its really helpful to help adolescents step out a little bit of. There is truth to the fact that teenagers can be ego centric and I think its helpful to help them step out of that and say look you honey your right I am late but you know I am late to everything right you know this isn’t about you, this is a problem I have, you know this my own difficulty. As obvious as that may seem to the parent that will come as a revelation to most teenagers, cause you know most teenagers have been taking it personally you know teenagers as a group tend to take a lot of things personally. And so I think for a parent to take a critique and say you know your right this is not my strong suit and you know honey I love you, this is something I struggle with, you noticed that I struggle with it with your brother, I am late for your dad, like this something I do universally and to say this something around me, about me that is something you will have to work around, right you have to work around part of me, I will try to change it but you may have to adapt to it. I think that moment between parent and teenager if you could measure human psychological growth; I think you would see this huge surge in human psychological growth. Because what that moment says is yea I am not perfect, no one is, your not perfect, I am not perfect, your going to adapt to my imperfections and your going to make the most of what I do bring to the table as a parent but your not going to get hung up on my short comings and I think that’s so much of my work in psychotherapy with teenagers is to help them free up energy that is hung up on their parents short comings. Parent aren’t usually in the business of changing much you know, unless they are in psychotherapy where they are really trying to change and I would so much rather see a teenager put all of that muscle into there own interests, their work in school, their hobbies, things like that, and less into seeing if they can get their parent to be different then they are. You know of course there are exceptions right, I mean if were talking about abusive parents, things like that that, like that’s not the kind of thing, that’s not something I expect a kid to no longer be hung up on. But the, you know the normal terrain of adult neurotic behavior I think the sooner the kids are like yea that’s my mom, she makes a mean chicken pot pie and she’s always there for me in these other ways I think that really helps kids grow.

Jonathan Singer: You know that, one of the lens that I am hearing is through an attachment lens.

Lisa Damour: Yep!

Jonathan Singer: When you're describing this conversation to me it really sounds like the parent is validating the kid saying your not crazy, right I see this to and I am glad you came to me with this, because we can actually have a conversation that doesn’t make you feel alienated or more alienated.

Lisa Damour: Yeah! Some of my favorite writing that I got to do for this book was the section on rupture and repair in chapter 4. And so chapter 4 is a chapter about contending with adult authority and there is this phenomenal literature about when relationships fall out sync with each other and then get back into sync with each other. And a lot of it in is in that attachment literature, and a lot of it has not been translated very effectively for a late audience. But so much of what that literature finds is that human growth happens not necessarily when everyone is getting along but when people fall out of step with each other and then can say hey o wait I see where your coming from and you see where I am coming from and were going to come back together across a breach and its in that dynamic between parent and child. It can happen in other relationships to where people feel safe, were people feel valued, where people feel like they get a taste of how they should be treated in relationships that are optional. You know that kind of disconnect and then effort by both parties to reconnect is one of the most critical moments in shaping all the things we want our teenagers to become you know empathic, self valuing, valuing of others, curious about other peoples minds, curious about their own minds. And I think that to me it seems almost magical that you can get all of those fabulous outcomes by saying something to a teenager along the lines of yep I really screwed that up and I owe you an apology and I am really sorry and you know that my mom was not good about money and that does not help me be good about money with you and I am doing my best and I get it and that doesn’t feel good for you right just that kind of interaction is fertilizer for all of what we want our kids to be.

Jonathan Singer: I mean its great that at adolescence there is so much conflict.

Lisa Damour: Yea!

Jonathan Singer: Because there is almost as if it’s built in time of life when the adolescent is okay do this.

Lisa Damour: Lets do this! Lets get it on! I think that’s right; I think that’s why people are scare of adolescents. Right? Because they are like wow this kid’s coming at me and this kid is going to say a lot of things and some it is going to land. I mean they are going to poke some real bruises, and my personality. And I think parents can either walk into that moment thinking okay how do I maintain my authority and stay in charge or they can walk into that moment thinking okay can I grow, can I allow the possibility that my 15 year old is going say things that are accurate and helpful and I can change for the better and can own the shortcomings and can I help her grow, can I help him grow through the kind of conversations were having about them. And obviously I am advocating for the second path in this. But I think it’s really hard, and I think it’s really hard. I mean I have to tell you if I had you know gold medals for single parents of teenagers I would hand them out, I would throw them at people I mean, I think when you have a teenager who is combative or critical or cranky you know and teenagers can often be very cranky and I think to navigate that withstand, to be gracious in the face of that, when you don’t have any other adult on your side is heroic and really hard. So I think there are conditions that make it easier and conditions that make it a lot harder.

Jonathan Singer: In your book you write about there are a lot of things that adolescents do that puzzles or bothers parents that actually evidence of healthy adolescence growth, can you talk about that?

Lisa Damour: Yea, so one of the things I talk about, the first chapter is about parting with childhood. You know when kids decide that they don’t want to be little kids anymore and they want to start to move into the world being a teenager, a older teenager and one of a really common thing you see is that they start hiding in their rooms, you know they just some home, they go up to their room, you know you don’t see them, and then you call them for dinner and they reluctantly leave their rooms. And a lot of parents become concerned because it’s often a very abrupt change you know so they go from talking a lot to not talking so much. And what we typically see though is that teenagers want more privacy and they want more privacy to do whatever it was were doing with the door open last week, but they like to be more separate from their families and I think that this is actually a very adaptive practice for actually leaving home. You know I think that if your 14 and you realize that I have four more years in this house and I am on my own its actually really rational move to think, well why don’t I pretend that I am on my own while they are right downstairs if I need them and see how that goes and sort of try it out for awhile and I think if we reframe it like that its makes a lot more sense and can be seen as healthy. Now saying that I don’t think parents should then stop talking to their teenager or give up the relationship, I think there’s a lot to be said for continuing to say hey you know what you need to be eating dinner with us and you need to set the table before dinner and you need to tell us at least three things that happened today. You know the ongoing connection really matters, but not the pathologize the very normal wish of teenagers to be more separate and stop telling there parents everything. Every chapter ends with a section called end of worry and that’s where I address the line that has been crossed. So for example in the harnessing emotion chapter I talk about you know teenagers very intense feelings, very amped up, and they rely on a variety of strategies for managing feelings and a lot of that is some things their parents you know that’s a very typical strategy among teenagers. And so that’s all normal, its not fun for the parent, really effective for the teenager, the teenager feels much better having done it. So if that’s normal and expectable and the parent you know plays important role there, that’s good to know. But then I have a whole section in that chapter about when is harnessing emotions not going well you know. Its not going well if you have teenager who has is truly depressed or anxious or using self destructive tactics to manage big feelings you know that means things have gone off the rails and needs to be addressed clinical in that situation. So I think if you and your teenager are not getting along ever something is wrong and your teenager is rubbing every single adult the wrong way something is wrong or your teenager never ever bugs any adult anywhere that interesting and worth paying close attention to cause that’s unwholesome. I have a quote in the book from these researchers who do lovely work on teenagers and its a beautiful quote and the quote is “Disagreement is common, serious conflict is not” this negative stereotype around teenagers that they are icky, their combative, it actually causes us to miss adolescent depression. When we have teenagers who are cranky all the time, you know that is what adolescent depression looks like and just writing that off, as just an icky teenager is diagnostically inaccurate and then of course not helpful to the teenager.

Jonathan Singer: Yea that reminds me there was a book I read a long time ago called “More than Moody”. I think is along that same lines of just okay so when is your kid moody and when is your kid more than moody. And you bring up a really good point which I think is one of the big struggles for parents is to know what that fine line is and I don’t know it is actually a fine line but I think its hard to see it the way others might see it. So in your book you have I think one of the greatest metaphors ever.

Lisa Damour: Oh God I cant wait to hear what.

Jonathan Singer: It’s the swimming pool metaphor!

Lisa Damour: Oh yea, yea that one has helped and served me well for many years.

Jonathan Singer: So can you share this metaphor?

Lisa Damour: Sure! Okay here is the metaphor and I will say this in the book and I will say its a fairly belabored metaphor but I have had enough parents come back to me over the years and say that really got us through our daughter’s adolescence. So the metaphor is this you the parents are a swimming pool, the water is the outside world and your daughter is the swimmer. All teenagers want to be out splashing around in the world and swimming their friends and having a good time and they’re not giving much though to the pool that holds it all together. And then invariably something happens she gets dunked, exhausted, she worked out to hard in the pool and she needs to catch her breathe and in those moments she will come scrambling for the edge of the pool and that’s the parent and she will hold on and quite literally sometimes hold. And you know these moment are the moments where your parents talking daughters wanting to cuddle and wanting to lean up against them like a couch and she’ll talk about what’s happening and seek advice and she will take advice, And to the parent this is the greatest thing ever because they feel like were back together again, you realize how important I am to you and how I love you and this is fantastic. And what is happening though for the swimmer is that she is getting her breathe back and then all of a sudden she feels like a little kid clinging to the side of the pool who doesn’t know how to swim and for her that is really uncomfortable and it feels regressive it feels babyish. And so as soon as she gotten her breathe back she is going to push off the edge of the pool, she is going zoom away to try to get back into the water. And she will do it in the same way as swimmers do which is with a kick so often these really intimate moment end with the teenager saying something like whoa did you actually wear that to work today you know or something like that that’s very stingy and personal and very abruptly ends. And so if the parent isn’t expecting that but it feels like for the parent is go my gosh your coming around this is fabulous were reuniting our old relationship and then oh my gosh what just happened why are you talking to me like that and it could be really painful. But if the parent can reframe it and think she’s come to me and she clinging to me because she needed to get sustained again and it has ended because she is sustained and now clinging to me feels babyish and she has to end it. So I don’t this is not me saying that the parent should say why thank you very much for that horrible comment abbot my clothes. I think its fine for parent to say oh wait I minute that’s nice or something acknowledges that was you know unkind, I don’t parents should allow teenagers to mistreat them, I don’t think anyone should allow anyone to mistreat them. But I think there’s not good guy and bad guy in this story were all caught up in the progress in the adolescent’s growth, someday it feels really great and someday it feels really stressful and that’s as good as it gets and that’s good enough.

Jonathan Singer: Yes, the good enough parenting is certainly is a standard that I think a lot of parents have hard time being okay with, you know one of the things that I think a lot of parents struggle with these days is technology and I know your book is not specifically about technology but you know parenting advice seems to run the gamut from shut it down to you know don’t worry about it kids will be kids. How do you think parents should think about teens and technology?

Lisa Damour: I think there is a few different ways to think about it. One is the technology do; a lot of the impulses that get complicated around technology those are ancient all right. Even the teenager who wants to text all the time, that is the same exact impulse that had you dragging your phone and me dragging my phone you know all through the house. They want to be together all the time you know. And there is really nice work done by Dana Boyd whose a researcher who looks at teenagers and she has this great quote, I have it in the book, you know they are not addicted to technology they are addicted to each other you know we were addicted to each other and we were addicted to each other also. So I think its one thing a parent should always start with when it comes to technology piece is what part of this is familiar to me, right what part of this is from my adolescence can I remember you know we wanted to be together. I think even on the things like the topic of Internet pornography right, which isn’t a big deal. All teenagers are curious about sex, I mean almost all of them and I am sure a lot of adults can remember ways in which they tried to find out more about sex when they were teenagers we just didn’t have very much access. So you know that impulse is the same so I think its first helpful for parent to tune into the side of the impulse that is universal and timeless and then to think about the technology and the potential it gives to that impulse. And not necessary to vilify the teenager or the technology but that’s said I think there’s a lot parents need to do to keep technology from undermining development so you know if technology is interfering with the teenager’s ability to have healthy and personal relationships or if they are acting on online in ways that are really going to cost them you that’s a huge problem obviously. Technology is undermining there capacity for sleep, which is does a lot, you know that’s a huge problem so I actually think a relatively useful way for parent to think about technology is what are we trying to protect, not what am I trying to shut down. So you know there are a lot of things we want to protect, I think we want to protect kids sleep, the quality of their social interactions, there grades, you know their ability to study in a meaningful and focused way. You know its almost like when your on a diet, you know its harder if its like the food you cant have vs. here are the foods you can have you know. So I think its like saying the phone is bad, ban the phone, its might be more useful for parents to say okay look the phone is okay if it doesn’t mess with your sleep, doesn’t mess with how you function socially, doesn’t get in the way of your school work, you know things like that. That’s sometimes gives parents a frame that can make it easier to know how to parent in the face of technology. I will tell you I’m ideally really an adolescent, I don’t think any technology should go into a kids room, and I think there should be negotiations with the adolescents for how long it stays in that room in how late in the evening. I do think there should be no technology in the kids’ bedroom as they are sleeping or while they are supposed to be sleeping. Bedrooms should be where kids sleep and relax and we have so much data at this point showing that you know having access to that kind of technology really, profoundly interferes with our capacity to sleep and relax. I think that’s a fight worth having.

Jonathan Singer: Again, I really like how you presented a framework for thinking about technology rather than saying you know snap chat is bad, twitter is good, Facebook is bad, because those things are going to change and aren’t there ways that you talked to parents about ways that they can talk to their kids?

Lisa Damour: Yea I think first starting with that idea that a lot of the technology is foreign and there is a lot that’s not you know a lot of what kids are doing with technology is the same stuff we were doing with just really bad technology of the time you know. I think that’s a good place to start because I think it helps parents to feel like it’s less of an enemy, they understand better what’s happening. A lot of the questions I get from parents are about how much to monitor, how heavily they need to monitor their teenager. And I think this is an incredibly complicated question in parenting at this point. So I think if you had a kid who has struggled to manage impulses online, who’s then mean or looked up stuff they weren’t supposed to look up, I think that’s a teenager who needs a pretty heavy dose monitoring and until their impulses seem to be in better control. I think if you monitored and you know your teenager and they managed themselves incredibly well both in person and online I think the parent can take the license as the adolescent progresses to not monitor so carefully and at the same time I always think there should be some conversation along the lines of you know what this is your phone, this is your computer everything you do it public and permanent, if you do anything you shouldn’t be doing and if I find out were going to have a big issue I think those kinds of commentary are really important. But I feel like sometimes I see parents who have kids who are struggling with how they use technology and the parent just throws in the towel and then I feel like I got other families where we have a really solid kid who is not misusing technology at all and the parents somehow feels like there not doing their job if they don’t watch it like a hawk anyway and I think its a really tough piece of parenting right now but I sort of of feel happy to give parents permission to not try to track every single thing a teenager does especially when the teenager is handling themselves quite well. You know if your going to treat a kid sort of a mildly criminal way there’s going to have to be a reason for that.

Jonathan Singer: Right, so Lisa earlier we were talking about how much fun you had looking at the research on attachment and being able to translate it for the general public, so you what is the research basis for your book?

Lisa Damour: What you want is a really faithful representation of what the research says but it also should be readable and interesting and educational without being dry. And so what was really fun for me and writing this was to work with what I know as a clinician and work with what I see in the day to day, work with my own training and experience but then walk up to certain bodies of research, like the research on attachment and eruption and repair and try to wrap my arms around it and say okay what’s a story that I can tell from this research that’s accurate but really helpful to a parent. That’s really the research basis of the book and its especially useful the research piece especially useful when there are some unexpected facts at the end of the book in the chapter on risk I talk about this extraordinary research study that tracked the impact of MTV’s television shows 16 and pregnant. On pregnancy rates in the US and it turns out that watching that show did a huge amount to drop pregnancy rates among teenage girls.

Jonathan Singer: Wow.

Lisa Damour: Yea it’s a great story of research and the research methodology is fantastic and it’s a great story because it also shows if you show girls the truth. If they have to confront what it means to be pregnant as an adolescent they are smart and they will react by using contraception or delaying sex. So the research always becomes a friend through the book to in places where I want to make a point and want to make it really strongly and having research behind that point always helps to do that.

Jonathan Singer: Well and I think that’s one of the things that I love about reading your book was that you managed to, like with the same page tell a beautiful anecdote, talk about a kid, cite some research, and you did it all so seamlessly. It never felt like I was being lectured to or that I was just reading like o this is Lisa’s latest therapy session, she just happened to jot it down because she had an idea and a thousand words to get through or whatever you know.

Lisa Damour: I think that for me the take away about taking care of teenagers and their parents is that its a huge time of growth for everybody involved. And I think the more adults can open themselves to growing and changing and seeing things in new ways as their teenager does I think the better it goes and I think when everybody is anxious, everybody is afraid, its really hard to grow and change. And if there is anything I hope I can do with this book would be to lower anxiety a little bit and give parents a way to stand back and look at the big picture so that they can enjoy their teenager more and feel less nervous that they are going to miss something that would be critical to have picked up and sort of enjoy the day to day a bit more.

Jonathan Singer: Well Lisa thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us about teenage girls, transitions to adulthood, and your new book “Untangled”

Lisa Damour: Thank you for having me! This has been a total delight to talk to you about it.


References and Resources

APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2016, February 9). #102 - Parenting teenage girls: Interview with Lisa Damour, Ph.D. [Audio Podcast]. Social Work Podcast. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkpodcast.com/2016/02/untangled.html

1 comment:

Maggie Macaulay said...

What a terrific interview! Thank you! I will share this in our weekly newsletter for parents, Parenting News.