Understanding and Untangling Teenage Emotions

Damour, Dr. Lisa.Headshot

Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Nov 12, 2023

by Katherine Martinko

“Intense. Varied. Exciting.” These are three words that clinical psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour uses to describe adolescence. This stage, which has a reputation for being complicated at the best of times, can be a rewarding time for parents who are able to recognize the positive power in teens’ supercharged emotions.

“That force of emotion powers their interest in things, their investment in the world, their enthusiasm and creativity, their boundary-pushing.”

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Welcome to where parents talk. My name is Lianne Castelino. Our guest today is a clinical psychologist, author of three New York Times best selling books, podcast co host and a mom. Dr. Lisa Damour latest book is called the emotional lives of teenagers raising connected, capable and compassionate adolescents. She joins us today from Shaker Heights, Ohio. Thank you so much for being here.

Thank you for having me. I’m really glad to be with you.

Teenage hood, adolescents complicated at the best of times, you’ve dedicated your entire career to the area of study of adolescence. What are three words that you would use to describe this phase of development from the standpoint of adolescence emotions?

Intense, varied and exciting.

Now, some people might be might be surprised to hear you use the word exciting. For example, why do you use the word exciting in this example.

So teenagers emotions are supercharged, they are very, very powerful. This is not so fun for the teenager or the people who love them when the teenager is upset, because they’re very upset. But all of that force of emotion also powers their interest in things their, you know, their investment in the world, their enthusiasm for things or creativity, their boundary pushing, which can make delta nervous. I have adolescent daughters, myself, I have a daughter who’s 19. And I have a daughter who’s about to turn 13. And at this moment, I am surprised by how much pleasure I am taking in watching a kid walk into the teenage years, because she gets more excited about things than she used to she is thrilled by her emerging independence that being on the brink of that and being able to exercise it well is so honestly the only word I can keep thinking of exciting for her and really fun to witness as a parent. So yes, there are downsides. But at least in this moment, in my own personal life, I’m also really savoring the joy of having a kid start to turn into more of an adult.

Now take us through some of the fundamentals doctrine, the more that you believe parents really need to be aware of, in general, in order to better understand their teenagers emotional lives.

So I would say the huge headline is to expect distress. I think we are operating as a culture right now with a lot of anxiety about negative emotions, a lot of fear around typical and expectable challenges. And that doesn’t help us as parents to feel calm or at least steady in the face of adolescent emotionality. And it doesn’t help our teenagers if we are frightened of their strong feelings. So my headline for all of this would be typical adolescent development involves ups and downs, you should expect to see several in the course of a week, you only need to worry if a teenager’s mood goes to a concerning place and stays there. Or if they’re handling their negative emotions in ways that are ultimately harmful. Substance abuse being awful to the people around them being awful to themselves. That’s when we worry. But I would say the number one fundamental is that adolescence is a bumpy and fun stage of development. And we should not be expecting it to be a smooth road. And we should not be unduly frightened when our kid hits a pop.

So along those lines, then what could you suggest that a parent’s approach be generally during the teenage years as it concerns their child’s emotions?

So when teenagers bring their big feelings our way, usually it’s because they’re complaining and they’re upset and something has gone wrong. And the instinct that I think almost every single loving parent has is to try to help them fix the situation to offer guidance and advice. And in my experience, overwhelmingly as much as adults want to help. Teenagers are not necessarily looking for advice. And the conversation doesn’t always go well when that’s where the parent starts. So what I would say, as teenagers come to us or live around us with their big, intense and sometimes negative emotions. The number one tool in a parent’s toolkit is empathy. That when a teenager says I had the worst day or this friend hurt my feelings or My heart got broken or I bombed this test. Before doing anything else, there’s no harm and a lot of good done in saying, I am so sorry, that really stinks. Of course you’re upset. I hate hearing that for you a huge percentage of the time, that is all the teenager wants and needs. Because what we’re doing is we’re saying, I see that feeling, I can make space for that feeling. I am not knocked off balanced by that feeling. And for teenagers, that is extremely reassuring, because they’re like, Okay, this felt really big. But you seem to think that empathy is all that we need right here. Maybe I can find my way through it. So start there, then, if there’s good advice to be given, there’s a decent chance your kid’s gonna want it. But I think most of the time, empathy is certainly the beginning. And it’s often the end of what teenagers need.

One of the things that you talk about in your book is three trends that you believe has contributed to society’s current perception of psychological distress. And you talked about it there really briefly, and or negative emotions. So can you take us through these three trends?

Sure. So I’ve been practicing for more than 25 years, I can tell you that 20 Some years ago, our culture was not as frightened of adolescent distress. And something shifted. And I think actually, several things shifted, I can put my finger on three. So one thing that has shifted in that time, is the rise of a commercial wellness industry. So I’m all for wellness, wellness is practices can help us maintain our emotional equilibrium, they have real value in our life. I am not all for or I’m cast a cynical I, to be honest, on any suggestion that wellness practices can keep us from feeling distress, that if we just have enough of the right, meditation, or apps or oils, we can keep the stress at bay or make it go away quickly. I think that is sometimes part of the messaging that comes from commercial wellness. And I think that’s actually very dangerous, because it creates conditions where teenagers and or their parents believe that distress should be preventable. And so then when it arrives, you’ve got two problems, the kids in distress and also who messed up. So it’s not a great situation. So that’s one a second is we’ve seen a rise in the use of psychiatric medications over the last couple of decades, I will tell you, overwhelmingly, this is probably a good thing. psychiatric medications, improve and in some situations actually save lives. So I am not by any means saying that medications themselves with a problem. They’re also very, very highly prescribed, especially to adult populations. And so I think it’s sort of opened the door to the possibility for some people that like, maybe we don’t have to feel that, right, maybe there’s a way to get rid of that feeling. And this is not how any ethical clinician prescribes these drugs, or suggests that this could be true, but it’s hard to look at how much more antidepressant and anti anxiety medications circulate around us, without wondering if it has made us wonder if maybe we don’t have to feel sad or nervous. So that’s the second reason. And then the third reason is teenagers actually do feel worse. So part of what I think is making parents anxious, or headlines, noting a rise in adolescent depression and anxiety noting a rise in adolescent suicidality. There is no way to be a parent right now, who reads any headlines. And now I feel more nervous. And so I think that these forces and probably others that I am not able to put my finger on, have come together to create a condition where we have teenagers who are living in a very challenging time going through a very challenging developmental stage, need the adults to be as steady as we possibly can be, and everybody’s feeling more unsettled than they’ve ever been.

you’ve alluded to the fact that we are in the midst of a global health crisis in terms of youth mental health, as a trained clinical psychologist, how do you go about defining mental health?

This is so critical, because how we as psychologists talk about it is not how the culture is talking about it. So right now, what circulates around us in terms of a definition that I see on social media I see in headlines I see everywhere, is there’s often the equation of being mentally healthy. You know that you’re mentally healthy. If you feel good If you feel good or calm or relaxed or these that somehow is the measure of mental health, those are all nice things. Those are not the measure of mental health. When psychologists are assessing mental health, there are two things we’re interested in. Number one, do the feelings fit the circumstance. So negative feelings can be part of mental health, which is definitely not the measure that we’re hearing right now. An example would be, you know, if a teenager’s best friend moves away, we expect to see sadness, it would be weird not to see sadness. So in that situation, a teenager being sad or upset or even angry, is actually proof of the teenager’s mental health not actually grounds for concern. So number one, do the feelings fit the circumstance, even if they’re negative? Number two, are they managed well, and this is really where the rubber hits the road are teenagers managing these emotions in a way that bring relief and does no harm. So the kid whose best friend moves away, we would expect to see crying, crying actually soothes the central nervous system, it’s really often good for you to cry, we would expect to see them maybe wanting to talk about their feelings about the friend moving away talking helps, we would expect problem solving problem solving is how we reduce negative emotions, we sometimes if we can solve the problem that caused them, so figuring out how to stay in touch with that friend, we’d expect to see some healthy distraction. Maybe they’re like, enough with being upset. I’m gonna go watch Grey’s that for a little while. All of these are wonderful, absolutely wonderful, comforting themselves rolling around on the floor with a dog. That’s all great. That’s all actually the picture of mental health. A weeping teenager rolling around on the floor with a dog is the picture of mental health. This is as good as it gets. But we don’t want to see they’re smoking a ton of weed. They decide, well, if I’m miserable, we’re all going to be miserable. I’m going to take you guys down with me. And we’re going to go down for two weeks, right? We don’t want to see that. Or I’m so low, I’m so lousy. I don’t deserve to have friends. I’m not going to take good care of myself, I’m a risk to myself. That’s when we start to worry. Otherwise, it’s all what I say is like, it’s a Wednesday, like, distresses a Wednesday, it’s just part of the week.

So along those lines, then Dr. Damour, what would you say to a parent who perhaps their approach has been helicopter parenting, or just like many of us, they just want the best for their children, and perhaps haven’t let them face adversity? haven’t let them experience negative emotions and negative experiences. How would you? What could you offer to that parent to help themselves to stop that? For the benefit of that child?

Okay, so the first thing I would say is like, oh, my gosh, I get it, right, as a mother myself. When one of my kids is in pain, it is the worst, it is the worst, and you would do anything to keep your kid from feeling pain I am. So understanding of that. And, you know, if, when my daughters have been sick, when they’ve had like a crummy cough or a cold, I’ve always thought like, oh, I would do anything that I would have the symptoms and you not have them because I just I would rather be sick than what you’d be sick. You know, I just we hate it. So I get it. Okay, so there’s a couple of ways that we can reinforce ourselves to not jump in. Number one, we really need to own that there are benefits to negative emotions in kids. And that is a really hard one. So let me let me lay down some of the benefits. Number one, again, proof of their mental health, they’re having the right reaction, we expect to see distress. And it can be more worrisome if it’s absent. You know, if a kid has a huge test, and they have not started studying, and they’re not anxious, that’s more concerning that a kid who is anxious, right, so sometimes it’s just a good sign. It is growth giving, if a kid messes up, cheats, does something wrong, gets caught gets in trouble, and they feel lousy. being allowed to feel that lousy feeling sitting in that lousy feeling for a little while is the thing that’s going to keep them from doing it again, we learn by feeling bad. And so there’s value in that. There’s also maturation, right? It’s in that that we grow like, I hated how that happened. I’m not going to do that, again, I want to be a different version of myself. That’s not going to repeat that mistake. This is how I watched kids grow is not in the good times. But in coming to terms with it at times. And then the last is it’s where empathy comes from. I was just talking with a teenager who said she got dumped and she said, It’s only my friends who’ve had heartbreak who can really talk with me about this. And I’m like, That’s right, isn’t it because it’s in going through something painful that we can really be like, oh, yeah, I know what that’s about. She’s like my other friends who just give me advice. It doesn’t make sense. So it builds up to the to actually walk through pain. So I think we have to hold on to that. The other thing I will say and this is the big one Kids who can withstand distress, enjoy freedom, it means they can walk into situations where they don’t know how it’s gonna go, they can move to a city where they don’t know anybody, they can go to college where there’s going to be distressed for sure. Knowing that one has within oneself, the capacity to navigate painful emotions is actually the keys to freedom. Kids who are like, I can’t actually manage distress, I can’t do it on my own, they end up on these very, very narrow paths. They have to know it’s gonna be okay, they have to have a guarantee it’s gonna be all right, which very rarely in life can we offer about what’s coming. So I would say, it’s good for kids to feel distress and to build the skills and for us to watch them and help them build the skills, because it opens up so much of the world to them. So that’s how we have to just focus on coping and not the prevention of distressed.

Now, it’s been well documented that the youth mental health crisis began well before the pandemic, and was worsened as a result of the pandemic. I’m curious, you alluded to, you know, a client that you just saw, but I’m curious as to what you’re seeing in your practice, in terms of trends on a daily basis with the young people that visit with you.

So I’m seeing a really mixed picture. So some of what I’m seeing is like, what I’ve always seen, you know, that a lot of teenagers, you know, they hated the pandemic, they got through it, they put it in their rearview mirror, and now they’re back to the garden variety, unpleasant, but timeless challenges of being a teenager, you know, difficulties with their parents, difficulties at school social difficulties. Nothing new. Not fun, but nothing new. That’s one end of things. At the other end. I am aware of I don’t have any in my practice, right now, kids who were completely knocked off of their developmental trajectory by the pandemic, kids who have stopped going to school, whose social life was T boned by the damn pandemic, and never recovered, who have developed tremendous anxiety and are fearful of leaving their home, but very rarely do it. So we’re seeing much more like kids who developed eating disorders in the pandemic, we saw this huge, huge surge in eating disorders in the pandemic. And eating disorders can be really, really sticky and without proper treatment can last for a very long time. So we see there’s some it’s not it’s, you know, percentage wise, thank goodness, it’s a minority, but there’s that. And then there’s just like, post pandemic stuff. That’s not great, that I’m hearing a lot about. Kids are having a hard time socially, they are not handling conflict. Well. I think there’s been I’m very often reluctant to use this word. I think there’s been a real resurgence of bullying kids can be real jerks right now, when they’re not in agreement with somebody. I’m hearing about more hate speech in teenagers, kids engaging in like flagrant misogyny, flagrant anti semitism, like really gross stuff that wasn’t. I was certainly around before the pandemic, but I feel like it’s in many ways, much more mainstreamed than it’s been. And what I will tell you educators are seeing is kids not being entirely sure about their place in the learning process, or the role of the teacher, like kids sort of struggling to know how to engage the work sometimes know how to ask for help when they need it. So we’re still seeing aftermath? Like, there’s no question and it’s both at a clinical level, and then also what we would just call a subclinical level, like not great, but not rising to the threshold of like, you know, you know, crisis.

So if you’re a parent listening to or watching that description that you just provided of what you’re seeing in your practice, you know, what is the takeaway for parents there? What do you say to parents, not make them more anxious themselves, but also to empower them in their own roles in role modeling in you know, helping and supporting their kids?

So, number one thing I would say is, I want parents to take really good care of themselves. You know, parents and caregivers also were so stressed by the pandemic, right, we went through so much, and it’s very hard for kids to out function their parents. So if the parent is struggling, the number one job is for the parent to actually get the care and support they deserve because they can’t actually be the parent they want to be until they do. So that is, I think, critical. The other thing I will say, and this is why I love caring for kids and teenagers. Yes, we’ve been through a very hard time Yes, we are still seeing an impact. Yes, of course, we’re going to see an impact. You take kids out of school for 18 months. And if they went back and everything was exactly as it was, I think we’d have a lot of questions about why we had been requiring kids to go to school all this time. Right. So I don’t think there’s benefit to hand wringing about the fact that we are continuing to see a long tail from the pandemic, what I would say is set high expectations, provide a ton of support. Those two things together usually gets kids where they need to go. The flip of it is do not lower expectations, maybe adjust them a little, but eventually go back to what we would have always asked of kids. What I am hearing from teachers is that kids are coming to school with very low distress tolerance, very low sense that they can do hard things. They can, we can provide extra support, a lot of kids deserve extra support right now. But I think lowering our expectations and keeping them there is not in the end going to be very helpful to get.

We mentioned at the outset that you have researched and studied extensively, the topic of adolescence, and certainly adolescent emotions, in the course of writing the emotional lives of teenagers, anything strike you in particular in the research, and also what has struck you the most about how the book has been received.

So you know, you go in thinking, you know what you’re going to say, and then you use up all the research papers. And I think if you’re doing your job, right, you like, change some of what you’re going to say. So, the stuff that shifted for me the most actually had to do with gender. So one finding, that wasn’t what I expected, I thought the story I was going to tell was, girls are allowed to be sad and nervous boys are allowed to be angry and aggressive, right, though that’s how the emotions distribute themselves. Okay, the boys piece actually held up pretty well, that when we look at the research on boys in terms of what is culturally allowed, this is a huge problem. They’re allowed to be angry or do enjoy pleasure at someone else’s expense. Those are the two sanctioned emotions for boys. Girls, however, actually, when you look at the research, they are allowed to be sad, they are allowed to be nervous in our culture. By adolescence, girls express more anger than boys. And this was surprising. The critical like asterisk on this is unless you’re black, right, at which point it becomes quite dangerous as a girl or a boy, to express even assertion. There was also this is actually a very amusing finding, I thought, there’s so in childhood boys express more anger, and then it flips in adolescence, and girls express more anger. But there’s one form of anger that I learned girls express more than boys all the way through development. And it’s disdain, which I thought was good, very funny. tracks with my experience as a mother of two daughters. So that was surprised. On the boys side, the piece that surprised me the most. It was more of an insight I had while I was writing. We want boys to be able to talk about their emotions, and we want them to be able to talk about vulnerable emotions, right that this is ideally what we should be shooting for. And the problem, of course, is that in our culture, boys adopting a heterosexual identity often decided by fifth grade, you know, guys, being a macho guy, we don’t talk about feelings, and we sure don’t talk about feeling sad or scared or any of those things. Often, in two parent heterosexual homes, the person trying to get her son to talk about feelings is the mother. She’s the one initiating the conversations asking talking about her own feelings. This is so well meaning. But in my writing, I started to think, is this actually proving the boy’s point? Right? If he’s got a mom and a dad, and the only person who’s ever talking about emotions is his mom, does he make him does it make him think, see, talking about feelings, it’s a girl thing to do. So the other takeaway for me for boys, because if we really, really want them to talk about their emotions, it is the men in their lives who need to be asking about their feelings, talking about their own feelings, being more expressive, and it can be their dad, it can be their coaches, it can be their uncle, it can be a wonderful teacher. But it can’t all be women’s work to talk about feelings.

Dr. Damour, we’ve talked about a lot of different aspects of adolescent development emotionally. And I wonder what gives you hope on this topic moving forward in the world that we live in today.

Well, actually, to pick up with something I didn’t address like was how the book has been received, like I’ve been so pleased by its warm reception and truly actually the ongoing coverage of it. like that I continue to be in wonderful conversations about it. And it’s connected to what gives me hope. Okay, so here’s what gives me hope. We know from the research that the single most powerful force for adolescent mental health is strong relationships with caring adults. And so, the fact that there’s been such an interest in reading about and talking about the lives the emotional lives of teenagers, makes me think like, okay, there’s a lot of caring adults out there who are trying to have strong relationships with teenagers. This is how we fix a mental health crisis.

Dr. Lisa Damour, clinical psychologist, mom of two, co-host of a podcast and author of the emotional lives of teenagers. Thank you so much for your time, your expertise and your insight today.

Thank you for having me.

Damour is a mother of two teenaged daughters, a podcast host, and the author of multiple New York Times bestsellers, as well as a book called The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents. She spoke to Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, from her home in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

Parents should “expect distress,” Damour says, since it is a natural and fundamental part of the adolescent developmental stage. Our culture has a lot of anxiety about negative emotions, but “that doesn’t help us as parents to feel calm… It doesn’t help our teenagers if we are frightened of their strong feelings.”


A better approach is to view ups and downs as normal: “You only need to worry if a teenager’s mood goes to a concerning place and stays there, or if they’re handling their negative emotions in ways that are ultimately harmful.”

Book cover.Damour, Dr. LisaWhen it comes to handling those emotions, Damour says a parent’s number one tool is empathy. Don’t jump to give advice; instead, express sympathy and understanding for whatever feelings your teen expresses: “What we’re doing is, we’re saying, ‘I see that feeling. I can make space for that feeling. I am not knocked off balanced by that feeling.’ And for teenagers, that is extremely reassuring, because they’re like, ‘OK, this felt really big. But you seem to think that empathy is all that we need right here. Maybe I can find my way through it.’”

In an era of helicopter parenting, Damour urges parents to recognize the benefits of negative emotions. These help them to grow, mature, and empathize with others. “Kids who can withstand distress enjoy freedom.” Otherwise, they may end up on narrow paths, limited by their incapacity for the unknown.

In a post-pandemic world, parents can support teens by taking care of themselves, first and foremost. “It’s very hard for a kid to out-function their parents,” Damour says. Relatedly, teens recover best from pandemic-induced setbacks when parents set high expectations and provide a ton of support. “Do not lower expectations. Maybe adjust them a little, but eventually go back to what we would have always asked of kids… Keeping them [low] is not in the end going to be very helpful.”

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Related articles:

A Social-Emotional Approach to Parenting

A Parent’s Role in Building Emotionally-Resilient Teens

Strategies to Build and Strengthen Emotional Resilience in Kids

Understanding a Child’s Emotions



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