Tuesday, February 21, 2023

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers (Part 1): Interview with Lisa Damour, PhD

Photo of Lisa Damour, PhD

[Episode 134] Today’s episode is the first of a two-part series with Lisa Damour about her 2023 book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents. In today’s episode we talk about the difference between adolescent distress and adolescent mental illness, how the COVID-19 pandemic made it more difficult for parents to distinguish between normative adolescent distress or pandemic-related mental health concerns. She talks about the most destructive myth that is out there about adolescent mental health and what we as parents, professional and a society can do about that. Along the way Lisa shared some practical tips about to manage a teenage meltdown, a story about swimming pools, and she encourages us to think critically about the research that is being done on adolescent mental health and how the news media is portraying adolescent distress. 

In Part 2, we’ll talk about how decades of research on the gender binary can provide insight into the emotional lives of adolescents across the gender spectrum. We’ll talk about intersection of race and gender. We’ll end our conversation talking about how it is important to help teens express their emotions, but perhaps more important to help them regain control.

Download MP3 [31:38]


Hey there podcast listeners, Jonathan here. Today’s episode is the first of a two-part series with Lisa Damour about her 2023 book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents. In today’s episode we talk about the difference between adolescent distress and adolescent mental illness, how the COVID-19 pandemic made it more difficult for parents to distinguish between normative adolescent distress or pandemic-related mental health concerns. She talks about the most destructive myth that is out there about adolescent mental health and what we as parents, professional and a society can do about that. Along the way Lisa shared some practical tips about to manage a teenage meltdown, a story about swimming pools, and she encourages us to think critically about the research that is being done on adolescent mental health and how the news media is portraying adolescent distress. 

In Part 2, we’ll talk about how decades of research on the gender binary can provide insight into the emotional lives of adolescents across the gender spectrum. We’ll talk about intersection of race and gender. We’ll end our conversation talking about how it is important to help teens express their emotions, but perhaps more important to help them regain control. 

Recognized as a thought leader by the American Psychological Association, Dr. Lisa Damour co-hosts the Ask Lisa podcast, writes about adolescents for the New York Times, appears as a regular contributor to CBS News, and works in collaboration with UNICEF. She is a frequent guest of the Social Work Podcast and can be heard talking about her two New York Times best sellers, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood in Episode 102, and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls in Episodes 122 and 123.

I would like to thank Grace Durbin for transcribing Episode 132, Loving someone with suicidal thoughts: Interview with Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW. If you would like to donate a transcript in exchange for a shout-out on the podcast, please contact me on Twitter at @socworkpodcast or on Facebook. If you want to talk about today’s episode with tens of thousands of other fans of the podcast, join the conversation at facebook.com/swpodcast. Links to Lisa’s book, a transcript of today’s interview and lots of other goodies are on our website at socialworkpodcast.com.

And now, without further ado, on to episode 134 of the social work podcast, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers – Part 1: Interview with Lisa Damour, PhD 


[0:03:36]  Jonathan Singer: So, Lisa, thank you so much for being back on the Social Work podcast, talking about the emotional lives of teens.

[0:03:43]  Lisa Damour: Jonathan, I'm so happy to be here. And this is how we met when you interviewed me for untangled. And it has turned into a wonderful collegial friendship, and I'm so grateful.

[0:03:53]  Jonathan Singer: I know it's so great. Like, it's so cool to see all the ways that your thinking is changing and evolving and responding to what's going on. So you've written these two New York Times bestselling books, right? Untangled and Under Pressure, both of which focused on teenage girls. And in our interviews, you've said that you love taking care of girls. And so I'm curious about why in your third book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, you decided to write about all teens, not just girls.

[0:04:25]  Lisa Damour: So there are probably a lot of reasons. You know, one is I heard over and over and over again spontaneously from different readers, you know what, 80% of what's in untangled and Under Pressure applies to kids of all genders. And that doesn't surprise me. Like, that to me, actually feels to be expected. And so then alongside that was a call both like, people should be reading those books regardless of the gender of their kids, or why don't you write about boys? Right. So I was getting that, which was fair.

[0:04:54]  And in truth, I have done work around boys or kids of all genders in many domains. I practice. I care for not as many boys as I do girls, and that's just the nature of clinical practice that they do. We tend to refer adolescent girls to female clinicians and the same opposite for boys. But I have cared for boys all through my practice, and I have written about the experience of boys and kids of all genders for the times for years. And then in my podcast, Ask Lisa The Psychology of Parenting, we often spend a lot of time on boys, and I will say, in fact, more since I've written this book and feel much more steeped in the literature around it.

[0:05:32]  And so that's one reason. The other reason is that the pandemic came along and pulled my attention to teenagers everywhere. Right. What became most critical was not in that moment for me, the particular experience of girls versus boys, whatever. And I felt like to the degree I had something to say on that, I probably said it, but it was much more like, whoa, we have to pull the lens way back now and just think about teenagers and what they are going through and what this means for them.

[0:06:05]  Jonathan Singer: So there's been a lot in the media about what teens are going through, and I thought it was interesting that you titled the book The Emotional Lives. So why are you focusing on that aspect of teens as opposed to some other aspect of teen life?

[0:06:23]  Lisa Damour: I think that really I haven't thought about it. It's a question no one's asked me. But I think because pandemic, I think that so much of what happened in the pandemic is like we were like, whatever school, whatever, everything else. These kids are suffering and they are suffering in close quarters with parents who themselves were also suffering. And the emotional lives of the teenagers was like I felt like it was all we were talking about because we were so worried and so concerned.

[0:06:54]  And yet I really, really aimed in the book, and I'll be interested to get your sense of how well I manage this, to not write a pandemic book, to really take the impetus of the pandemic and the fact that there is such broad concern about the emotional health of teenagers. I mean, the word mental health has got to be coming up in the paper at a rate that we've never seen before paired with the word adolescent.

[0:07:20]  We've never seen that level of discourse around kids inner worlds. And so I sort of feel like it was an incredible opportunity to share what we know as researchers and clinicians, hopefully level set a little bit as we come out of the pandemic about what emotionality looks like in teenagers with or without a pandemic, which is frankly bumpy, right, we know that. And then equipped families and anyone who's around teenagers to respond in ways that are really useful to kids.

[0:07:57]  Jonathan Singer: Well, my take on the book is that it is not a pandemic book, but I think it's interesting that the Zeitgeist, there was all this news media streaming series and movies and of course, lots of empirical research looking at anxiety and depression. And I'm curious what's your take? Are kids more emotionally distressed? Are they too emotional now? What's your take on that?

[0:08:35]  Lisa Damour: I'm so glad we're having this conversation because I'm going to turn around and ask you, okay, because there's a few different ways to walk up to this. First of all, there's the pre pandemic landscape. And what we know from the pre pandemic landscape is that we were seeing rising numbers of anxiety, distress, stress in kids depression. And I put more stock actually in those numbers because I think that work was probably done much more systematically and with more rigid definitions around defining anxiety, defining depression as disorders post pandemic. This is my experience, like, kind of hard to tell.

[0:09:13]  And the reason I think it's hard to tell, especially if you're going by the news media, is that I would say very rarely, if almost never, is a distinction made in news reports about adolescents between adolescent distress and adolescent mental health concerns. And that's a huge problem because you have worked with teenagers for a long time. I have worked with teenagers for a long time. We know from decades of experience pre pandemic distress with teenagers, like, that's a Wednesday.

[0:09:51]  There's nothing unusual about that. And so I want your thoughts on this. But I'll just say one thing, that's probably one of the biggest reasons I wrote this book, which is it is very scary right now to be the parent of a teenager or to be a teenager, if you look at the papers at all. And so one of the central features of this book is to work very hard to uncouple adolescent distress from an adolescent mental health concern because they are not the same thing.

[0:10:19]  Jonathan Singer: I love that distinction and I think it's spot on. And I mean, for decades we've talked as professionals about there's this continuum, right? And you can get kids that are distressed and then they resolve the distress, whatever that looks like, and then they go on. It's sort of like little kids who get a cold, right? The problem is not that a kid gets sick, it's do they get better, right? And that process of getting sick and getting better, that's part of normal development.

[0:10:51]  And I do think that there is a lot of panic in parents that we are entering this era where all of our kids are depressed and anxious and all of the things that go along with that. And so what is that distinction for you between adolescent distress and then kind of what we think of as more serious mental health concerns? Where are we landing on that these days?

[0:11:20]  Lisa Damour: So it's interesting, you reminded me of a really simple definition but not simplistic that it's actually not in the book, it's in other things I've written. But one is that cold definition is perfect, right? We fully expect kids are going to get sick. That does not tell us they are unhealthy kids. It means they have a virus and then they get better. And it means actually their immune system is stronger. On the back end of that, in that metaphor, what we worry about is kids who get sick and get sick or sick or sick or sick or don't get better, right? So that's a really clean and actually, I think, wildly accurate definition for this book.

[0:11:57]  I brought a few more steps into it because these steps then dictate how the book itself lays out. And so here are the steps. Number one, mental health is not about feeling good, which is, I will tell you, I think the greatest and most destructive myth that is circulating right now. It's wildly problematic. We can come back to that if you want. But rather mental health is a two part thing. One is having feelings that match the moment. So if your kid is at an out of control party and they're anxious, that's evidence of your kid's mental health.

[0:12:30]  And again, this feels so radical to suggest that distress is actually often evidence that kids work perfectly. We're not there as a culture. But I don't for a moment doubt that. I know that to be true. And so I think part of the work of this book is to bring that way of thinking across. So first, having feelings that fit the moment, even if they are painful, unwanted and negative. Right. I think that that's a really big push in terms of what I want to accomplish with this book.

[0:13:00]  And then the second part, and this is where for me, the question of whether or not there's a mental health concern comes to light is how they handle the feelings. Right. And what we want to see in mental health is that kids are using a range of adaptive strategies that help them get those feelings processed. And by adaptive, I mean no cost versus kids using strategies that are destructive, maybe effective. Right. That they do help them feel better. If you get really high, you're going to feel better, but come with a price tag.

[0:13:31]  And then the only other way I would inflect that a little bit more is we never want emotions to be calling all the shots. Right. So I think about your work and I think about depression and I think about suicidality and adolescence. So one of the other ways we consider that a problem is rather than emotions being one element that weighs in on daily decision making, emotions are dominating the scene, running the show and dictating how life is going to go.

[0:14:01]  Jonathan Singer: Yeah. I appreciate you laying out some of those steps. I would love to hear more about what you said about, like, feeling good means that you're mentally healthy. Can you talk more about that?

[0:14:18]  Lisa Damour: Oh, yes. Obviously I can't prove this conclusively, but I'm going to just go ahead and blame the wellness industry. And I'm not saying that it was like some diabolical plot that there's some, like, evil genius behind the wellness industry, but I do feel like there's a whole lot of money to be made in convincing people that there is some emotional zen that can be achieved and then can be sustained. And that if you just have the right products or oils or apps or weighted blankets or fruity teas, you can get there and stay there. Right. So I think that that underlies a lot of what is marketed.

[0:15:09]  And we know that's not true. We know that's a set up. What I will say, and I wanted to say, where do I think wellness comes into things? Because I have no problem with wellness per se. I'm much more at ease if we talk about using wellness practices to maintain a sense of emotional equilibrium where we fully expect. Right. Like, you wake up, who knows how your day is going to go, right? Like anything could happen and say something really upsets you.

[0:15:36]  There's plenty of room for wellness products, whether it's going to a yoga class or getting under your weighted blanket to bring comfort and a sense of finding one sense of well being again or balance again. I have no problem with that. What I get very uneasy about is anyone who is suggesting that you are okay or your kid is okay only when there is the absence of distress in a kind of ongoing and permanent way.

[0:16:12]  Jonathan Singer: And I do think that that is the message that a lot of parents are getting directly and indirectly, because it sets up these polls, which is if you feel good, then you're mentally well, and if you feel bad, you're mentally ill.

[0:16:28]  Lisa Damour: Right. Which is so scary.

[0:16:31]  Jonathan Singer: It is scary because you talked about equilibrium and I imagine the waveform, right. Sort of up and down. Right. And that's what life is. And a flat line in the medical world means that you're dead. But there is this idea with the wellness industry and some ways of thinking that you will be able to reach that level of feeling good and then sustain it. And that means you're healthy. And we know that it's not at all what people do, but definitely not teenagers.

[0:17:10]  Lisa Damour: No, not at all. And it's interesting when you talk about the waveform, I've had the thought like, oh, and then with teenagers, it's just a more pronounced waveform. Yes, their highs are higher, their lows are lower. Right. That's a Wednesday. I think the more we can just sort of come back and say, offer reassurance. And that's actually, I think, the big piece right now, Jonathan, it's one thing if you've never had a teenager before versus if you know adolescents well. And I think a lot about what it's like to be a parent right now. Say a 13 year old and say that 13 year old is acting exactly like a 13 year old. Right. And like, they always have, which is spicy, reactive opinionated, that's beautiful development in a 13 year old.

[0:17:59]  But it's not always that fun for the people around it and it's not always that fun for the kid. But I imagine, like, if this is your 1st 13 year old and you're like, okay, I'm surrounded by headlines telling me that things are off the rails. My kid is actually happening to have a meltdown over there. How do I know? That one of two things. Either that this isn't actually a mental health crisis because it sure looks pretty bad right now and there's a lot of warnings about that. Or two, how do I know that the pandemic didn't break my kid? Like, how do I know that this is normal and expected development versus something that is the aftermath of the pandemic? And now I need to think about what damage was done to my child. So my heart just hurts.

[0:18:45]  For parents sitting with typically developing 13 year olds right now, and that was so much of the really of like, chapter three of, like, what to Expect When You're Expecting a Teenager. Like, this is the scene. It is a busy and demanding scene. Your kid is perfect, but it's not that fun all the time.

[0:19:07]  Jonathan Singer: It's such a, I think, really helpful frame, which is that you could get a kid who's doing the exact same thing, but the lenses that we're looking at them through post pandemic could make it look very different, I think so.

[0:19:28]  Lisa Damour: I think scary. And I don't think it's an idiosyncratic lens right now. I really feel like the headlines are harrowing for parents. And I'm not saying they're all wrong. I am saying they apply to a subset. But how do parents know if they're in that subset or not?

[0:19:49]  Jonathan Singer: Yeah. So two things. One, I think that your your example speaks to the relational nature of adolescence.

[0:19:58]  Lisa Damour: Right?

[0:19:59]  Jonathan Singer: You never have an adolescent that is well, almost never do. You have an adolescent that's by themselves, right, they are freaking out or having a great day in the company of others. And oftentimes it's a parent. And that the way the parent responds is perhaps just as important as the way the adolescent responds because it's a symbiotic relationship. And so how is it that parents should respond when their kids are having a meltdown?

[0:20:36]  Lisa Damour: Well, let me just say, like a wide frame comment and then this is exactly the question I think we need to be asking. There's so much concern about an adolescent mental health crisis and what that means and what we're going to do to address it. I am absolutely convinced that the solution is not going to be more therapy for more kids. It's actually pragmatically impossible.

[0:21:01]  Jonathan Singer: Right?

[0:21:02]  Lisa Damour: I am totally convinced that the most available and probably most powerful solution is improving the relationship between teenagers and the adults in their immediate environment, both from a preventative standpoint and also when the kid is having a meltdown. How the adult reacts is extraordinarily powerful. So what I'm saying, I would have said in 2019, but I think it takes on new meaning where we sit now, what I would say to parents, if your kid is having a meltdown is your number one job. The thing you want to try to do the most is to be a steady presence.

[0:21:44]  Now, this is hard and it's harder with the headlines, right? I mean, I think that that's like really what is one of the major forces now. But your kid needs you to be a steady presence for many, many reasons. So, number one, they are very scared by the intensity of their emotions and they are looking very carefully at how we respond to their emotions to get a read on how scared to be. And so if they come home with this failed test or this fight with a friend or this disagreement with a teacher and they are feeling it like a teenager feels it, which is acutely, and they think they have a 15 year old size problem.

[0:22:30]  And then they tell us, and we're like, right, and we're reacting strongly or we're grabbing the phone or we're on the ceiling, we have just taken what felt scary to them and made it way scarier. Because, like, oh. They're like, I thought this was a 15 year old size problem. This is apparently a 52 year old size problem. With all you've seen in the world, like, you think, this is bad, this is worse than I thought.

[0:22:52]  Right? So that's huge. The other piece that I think is so essential is what they need in that moment, almost always, is actually a container for the adult to serve as a containing function. What that looks like in your kitchen is you say, oh, okay, well, tell me more. I can handle this. In fact, keep it coming. And then for the adult to say something empathic, right? That sounds awful. Like, I'm so sorry. Right?

[0:23:23]  That act of curiosity followed by empathy communicates so much. One, I'm not scared. In fact, I'm curious. I'm so not scared. I actually just lay it out for me. And two, I am convinced that most of what you need to get through this is a sense that you're not alone in this and that you are heard and that if I give you that, you're going to probably be okay or able to figure it out or able to take a next step.

[0:23:58]  That conviction, like, I'm bringing empathy, I'm not bringing much else, is another way that we communicate. Like, this isn't terrifying. And at 52, I'm not that scared. And I'm going to help you bring this back into perspective by being a steady presence in the face of it and not letting it rock my day and not letting it rock my world. Now, sometimes you may feel pretty upset, right? And that's okay. Like, we care about our kids.

[0:24:22]  I would say even in those moments, if you can fake it, you're probably better off, right? And if you can't, you'll figure it out, you can come back and repair things. But our initial reaction is, I agree with you, exquisitely important. And so much of this book is about options for how to react that can help kids feel like they don't have to be so terrified of very big and painful feelings.

[0:24:55]  Jonathan Singer: I think the advice to parents of don't make it more than it is really does kind of counter a lot of what is out there in the news media these days. And also companies that offer online therapy, right, where everything is like, if your kids freaking out, get them therapy. If they seem overwhelmed, here's the number for the nine eight eight lifeline, right? Which I think can be great resources. But I really like that you're speaking to this idea of a sort of a proportional response, understanding full well that adolescents responses are more intense than adult responses. And if you think of your adolescent response with the same metric as your own, because if as a 52 year old, if I am flipping out in the same way that my 15 year old is, then that is a problem.

[0:26:04]  Lisa Damour: Right? I mean, it reads like, okay, you've seen a lot and you think it's this bad, which is scary for kids. It's interesting. Another version of this that I hear about from educators is a big uptick in parents calling to advocate for their child. And of course, everything parents do, I really would say almost all of it is extremely well meaning. Like, I really don't feel that anyone's looking to make it bad for their kid.

[0:26:30]  But it's interesting because if the parent has to call an advocate, which sometimes they do, it does suggest the scale of the problem to be pretty large. And what I would say is any time we can respond with a steady presence and with curiosity and empathy, it's also a vote of confidence in the kid. Right. Like, I think you can handle this level of distress. I can handle you being in this level of distress.

[0:26:58]  I have some strategies to help you handle it, like being attentive and empathic, but I don't feel that this is outside the range of what you can really reasonably be expected to find your way through.

[0:27:15]  Jonathan Singer: So as you were talking, it reminded me of one of my favorite quotes. Don't mistake my bad days as a sign of weakness. Those are actually the days I'm fighting my hardest by jumping in and saying, I'm going to manage this for you, or we're going to get you outside help. It's sort of like, you can't handle this yourself. Right. Which is a terrible message to send to a kid who what ultimately we want is for them to learn how to manage things.

[0:27:47]  Yeah. It's interesting because first of all, we have to get the idea that distress is part of life back into the discourse. Right. We're not really there. Then I think the next step is to say, actually, the more distress your kid can tolerate, the more freedom they're going to enjoy. And I think we don't equate those enough. Right. That an easier way to explain. It is. If kids have to feel guaranteed of comfort, they can do very little.

[0:28:21]  And so one of the things I've been thinking about more, and it's interesting how the book comes out and then your thinking proceeds is like there's a lot to be said for helping kids see that they can tolerate a pretty high level of distress. Because what it means is that they can take the class where they're not sure it's going to go well, whether they're going to like the teacher or where they don't know anybody.

[0:28:46]  They can eventually move to a city where they're starting fresh. That's terrifying. Right. But what they're learning is like, yeah, I'll be pretty uncomfortable, but I can do that. That is something that's within my capacity. And it's interesting. I swam not at the college level, but I swam for a long, long time and raced as a high schooler and then did master swimming all through graduate school and also just like, swam for exercise for most of my life because it was my favorite way to exercise.

[0:29:20]  And I think this is true in so many sports. There's a point at the end of a swim race where you stop breathing, you stop coming up for air, and it's usually as early into the last lap as you absolutely can. And it is horrible. You are exhausted and you are sprinting and you are not breathing. And if you've raised correctly, you are a disaster when you hit the wall, right? You have spent everything and you have deliberately put yourself in a position of being quite uncomfortable.

[0:29:57]  And all through high school and college and graduate school for me, and I don't think I've ever said this out loud, I really paired my capacity, my voluntary capacity to do that with my ability to sit down and get myself through a dissertation, which is a, you know, public experience. And if we think about that as a muscle, it's a really valuable muscle. And then the really fun thing is I have a 6th grade daughter who's gotten into swimming.

[0:30:31]  And to hear her talk about when they do sets that are very hard and like the pleasure I can hear in that. And I'm like, this is really important that kids get used to the idea or build that muscle to tolerate distress. Because you can then write dissertations and move to fresh cities and do all sorts of things that you want to be able to do in life. If those are up your alley, your.

[0:30:56]  Jonathan Singer: Comments speak to not necessarily what kids can handle, but what parents think kids can handle.

[0:31:06]  Lisa Damour: Yeah.

[0:31:08]  Jonathan Singer: I'm Jonathan Singer and thanks for being with me today for another episode of The Social Work podcast. If you missed an episode or have suggestions for future future episodes, please visit socialworkpodcast.com. To all the social workers out there, keep up the good work. We'll see you next time at the Social Work Podcast. 
Transcript by Deciphr.ai


Recognized as a thought leader by the American Psychological Association, Dr. Lisa Damour co-hosts the Ask Lisa podcast, writes about adolescents for the New York Times, appears as a regular contributor to CBS News, and works in collaboration with UNICEF. She is the author of two New York Times best sellers, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girlsand the new book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents.

Dr. Damour serves as a Senior Advisor to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University and has written numerous academic papers, chapters, and books related to education and child development. She maintains a clinical practice and also speaks to schools, professional organizations, and corporate groups around the world on the topics of child and adolescent development, family mental health, and adult well-being.

Dr. Damour graduated with honors from Yale University and worked for the Yale Child Study Center before earning her doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Michigan. She has been a fellow at Yale’s Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy and the University of Michigan’s Power Foundation. She and her husband are the proud parents of two daughters.



  1. Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood  (2016)
  2. Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls (2019)
  3. The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents (2023)

APA (7th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2023, February 21). #134 - The Emotional Lives of Teenagers (Part 1): Interview with Lisa Damour, PhD [Audio Podcast]. Social Work Podcast. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkpodcast.com/2023/02/Damour2023-1.html


Unknown said...

Thanks for this - when is part 2?

Jonathan B. Singer, Ph.D., LCSW said...

Thanks "unknown" Part 2 will be published next week.