Untangling Teen Wellness Issues: A Conversation with Psychologist Lisa Damour

How can educators and parents best help teens cope with the challenging issues they face today, whether it’s social media and technology use, alcohol consumption, peer conflicts and bullying, romantic relationships, or academics? For answers, I recently spoke with psychologist Lisa Damour, author of the new book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. Damour is also head of the Laurel Center for Research on Girls at the Laurel School (Ohio).

You can listen to our entire conversation (28 minutes) and/or read selected excerpts below.

The Seven Transitions to Adulthood (0:40)
“There are seven distinct developmental tasks that move girls from childhood into adulthood: Parting with Childhood, Joining a New Tribe, Harnessing Emotions, Contending with Adult Authority, Planning for the Future, Entering the Romantic World, and Caring for Themselves.”
“In the course of normal development, most teenagers are working on several of these simultaneously. They don’t necessarily follow in lockstep, and yet… in some ways, you could almost map them [by] the grade levels of sixth through twelve in terms of what becomes a really big deal grade by grade.”
Social Media and Technology (2:39)
“We don’t want [social media and technology] to interfere with sleep, a student’s ability to focus in an academic way, students’ safety, or their social skills.”
“If we don’t want it to interfere with sleep, then what we really know is that teenagers and adults need to turn off their technology at least a half an hour before bed and not have it in their bedrooms.
“[Social media] should be nowhere near teenagers when they’re doing their homework. That’s hard because often they need to do their homework on a computer, and in those moments, helping teenagers to use the applications like anti-social that shut down their access to social media for a limited period of time can be a useful way for them to be efficient in getting their work done.”
Drinking (When 80 Percent of Teenagers Have Tried Alcohol) (4:52)
“I will say to girls ‘Look, you all know you’re not supposed to drink both for legal reasons and for health reasons, but you and I both know that lots of kids get to parties on the weekend and they’re drinking anyway. Can you walk me through why they’re drinking? Can you walk me through what’s really happening there? What gets between what they know and what they do?’
"And it’s not as if we walk out of that conversation with every girl resolving to be sober until she’s 21, but I feel like those are more successful conversations because I get them to examine the gap between what they say they’re going to do and what they’re really going to do, and hopefully recruit some of their better thinking into that.”
Peer Conflict vs. Bullying (7:33)
“Unfortunately, a lot of adults these days mistake conflict for bullying, and I think all of us on the school side get those phone calls from parents, ‘Oh, my daughter is being bullied,’ and we’re thinking yeah, some days she’s being bullied, or some days she’s being given a hard time and other days she’s giving other kids a hard time. So I think that conflict range is actually where it gets gray.
“Conflict gets really complex. We want girls to be able to stand up for themselves. We want them to do it in a way that does not stamp on other people’s rights. I think girls need a huge amount of support around this; assertion is something that we should be teaching girls much more directly than we do.”
Resolving Bullying Incidents (11:32)
"In a true bullying situation, it is very unhelpful to sit the victim and the bully down together. It is usually known to actually expose the victim to further bullying.
“[In my book], I tell an amalgam story of a girl who is truly a victim of bullying. She is being targeted by a group of classmates, both boys and girls. She’s in a coed school. She’s being harassed around her size and her shape, and she’s unable to defend herself and she’s really suffering.
 “The principal did a really beautiful job of handling the situation in that he interviewed bystanders to confirm the victim’s story and then met directly with the bullies, separate from meeting with the victim, and developed a disciplinary approach around their behavior and made it very clear what they needed to do to make reparations within the community and also made it clear what the consequences would be for any further behavior, but he handled that separately from his care of the victim who was not ever forced to confront her bullies or try to come to some negotiation with them on her own.”
Changing the Conversation About Girls’ Sexual Health (14:01)
“By the measures of sexual health that we have, which tend to be unwanted pregnancies, STD transmission, and things that we can easily measure, American girls have the worst sexual health in the industrialized world; Dutch girls have the best sexualized health in the industrialized world. When we look at the Dutch, we see that parents and the education system in that culture talk about physical romance in terms of joy and responsibility. And enjoying it and doing what you want and being allowed to want is central to their understanding of why we get involved physically at all.
“In the US, we paint it in a very different light. What we basically say is the boys are on offense, and the girls are on defense. The boys get to want, and the girls get to try to decide what they will and won't allow. Girls who are made to think about their physical life in this way don’t take such good care of themselves.
“What we can do is say to girls, ‘Hey, when it comes to your romantic lives and the physical side of your romantic lives, the most important thing you want to think about is what do you want? This should be fun for you. This should be something that you’re able to really enjoy. The next thing you want to figure out is what does your partner want, and does your partner want what you want—and whoever wants less, they win.
"The next thing to figure out is: Are there any risks on the table here? If you both want to have intercourse, well, then you’re going to need to prevent against sexually transmitted diseases. If it’s heterosexual intercourse, you’re going to need to prevent against pregnancy.’ But the risk question, which does need to come up, needs to come up third.”
Test Anxiety (20:52)
“The first thing I always like to do when thinking about anxiety is to not talk about it as if it were a factory setting. I think so often when girls are saying, ‘Hi, I have test anxiety,” it’s as if they’re saying, ‘Hi, I have blue eyes,’ like this is something I have and will always have.
“The other thing that we can do is to start a careful line of questioning about where that anxiety is coming from. The first place to start always is to ask girls and boys: ‘How do you prepare for the test?’ Because a surprising amount of the time what turns out is they actually didn’t prepare.”
“I think the next line of questioning if they said that they prepared a lot is to actually ask how they studied, because we have a great body of research these days that I summarized and untangled about how there are effective and ineffective ways to prepare for tests, and we know a lot about what can be done to make things quite a bit more effective.
“If a student is preparing effectively, and they’re still anxious, clinical interventions [can work] to reduce anxiety. A lot of it is relaxation. A lot of it is reframing.”
Failure and Avoidance (23:14)
“[When it comes to planning for the future], one red flag [to watch for] is students who aren’t learning from their mistakes, and this is where Carol Dweck’s incredible work on growth mindset really should be at the center of any conversation. We have some students, typically those with the fixed mindset, who cannot tolerate making mistakes, will not take risks that involve making mistakes. And if they make mistakes, they can’t even look at the mistake and learn from it.
“The other [red flag comes] when students get into patterns of avoidance. Often when students are under-functioning academically, what’s happening is that they’re avoiding their work, or they’re saying they’ll get it done or they’re missing assignments. The problem with avoidance is that it’s a highly reinforcing behavior, but a student who is anxious about work and then chooses not to do it or manages to leave it at school so they can’t face it at home [experiences] very immediate relief. Often it’s a long time before everybody gets talking and they say, ‘Wait, that student is not doing work in your class or my class or my class,’ and then we realize the student basically hasn’t done anything for three weeks.
“It’s critical for schools to help students manage that avoidance and help students come up with strategies that actually make the avoidance impossible, even if that means having a study buddy, or a supervised study hall, or needing to check in with an adult to prevent the avoidance.
“We sometimes mistake avoidance for laziness or dishonesty. Usually, there’s much more avoidance underneath, and addressing that directly gets things back on track faster.”
Success and Autonomy (25:51)
“The number one thing I would recommend is to promote girls’ autonomy because adolescence for both boys and girls is about autonomy. When adults are anxious about how a teenager is coming along, we sometimes forget about their autonomy and want to take over.
“It’s more helpful to say things to teenagers along the lines of, ‘Hey, you have all the power here, and if you want things to go well at school you can absolutely make that happen. And if you don’t want things to go well at school, you can make that happen, too. You’re the one calling the shots. You let us know how we can be helpful, and we’re going to make that happen.’ I think that’s usually the best way to keep people on track.”
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Ari Pinkus

Ari Pinkus is a former digital editor and producer at NAIS.