Untangling Teenage Emotions with Dr. Lisa Damour

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Written by: Where Parents Talk Staff

Published: Mar 12, 2024

By Katherine Martinko

“Intense. Varied. Exciting.” Three words 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.”

Damour is a mother of two teenaged daughters, a podcast host, and the author of multiple New York Times bestsellers, as well as a new book called, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents.

She spoke to Lianne Castelino, host of Where Parents Talk, in a recent interview 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.”

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When it comes to handling those emotions, Damour said 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.”

Book cover.Damour, Lisa.The Emotional Lives of TeenagersIn 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 said. 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.”

Related links:

DrLisaDamour.com

Related articles:

Understanding a Child’s Emotions
Understanding Anxiety Styles and their Impact on Parenting
A Social-Emotional Approach to Parenting
A Parent’s Role in Building Emotionally-Resilient Teens
Strategies to Build and Strengthen Emotional Resilience in Kids

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