Whether adolescents are struggling with the impact of Covid-19 on their lives or more ordinary issues around friends, grades, extracurriculars or graduation and what comes after, psychologist Lisa Damour offers clear prescriptions for parents.
Parents’ primary job, she said, is to help “guard our kids against an overall sense of hopelessness.” Easier said than done — these days, especially — but the stakes are too high not to try.
This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
CNN: Protecting kids against hopelessness is no easy feat when we adults are struggling. What insights into the brains of teens and tweens can help parents in these moments?
Lisa Damour: Teenagers’ brains are neurologically gawky as they undergo an extraordinary remodeling process that makes the brain faster, more efficient and more powerful. This proceeds back-to-front, from the more primitive regions of the brain to the more sophisticated.
Because the emotions are housed in the more primitive regions, the capacity to feel things intensely gets upgraded before the ability to maintain perspective. By around age 13, if a teenager becomes upset, the activated emotion centers of the brain are sufficiently powerful that they can outmatch the reasoning frontal lobes and cause a real crashing emotional meltdown.
It’s important for parents to remember that — given a little time, space and loving support — teens will usually reregulate on their own. When their frontal lobes come back online, their reasoning is excellent. Everybody’s exhausted, everybody’s tired. That hamstrings everybody’s patience and perspective. Adults are neurologically advantaged here, so our job is to take very good care of ourselves so that we can provide the auxiliary support.
Damour: First, anxiety is only pathological when a person overestimates the danger they are in or underestimates their ability to manage it. If kids are feeling anxious about returning to school during a peak in Covid infections, rather than minimize their fears, we want to explore with them the actual level of danger and what control they have to mitigate it.
My older daughter is vaccinated, will be expected to wear a mask at school, and has a decent amount of control over regulating the physical distance she keeps from others.
Talking through those precautions helps clarify her own ability to minimize risk. Identifying what we can control helps. Hopefully you can control enough variables to get the danger to a level that feels tolerable. But feeling anxious right now is not at all out of line or irrational.
CNN: You write that anxiety and stress offer gifts as well as discomfort, even in theset extraordinary times. What benefits do these emotions bring?
Damour: Anxiety is an alarm system that alerts us to possible threats. That makes it an extraordinarily beneficial emotion. It’s a gift handed down to us by evolution. Adults might experience it when somebody swerves in front of us while we’re driving. A middle schooler might experience it if they haven’t started studying for a big test. That is good, healthy feedback on what’s going on around us and where or how we want to better position ourselves.
Stress is an absolute given in life. It occurs anytime we are adapting to new conditions, stretching beyond our established capacities. There’s no growth in the absence of stress.
In fact, school is supposed to be stressful. We want kids to be doing work they find challenging. We only worry about stress if it overwhelms someone’s coping capacity or if it is chronic and unrelenting, and there’s no opportunity to recover and take a break and consolidate those gains. Weightlifters work out hard and then deliberately create time for muscle rest and repair. That recovery process is as essential to growth as any challenges we deliberately seek out or inevitably encounter.
CNN: How can parents know if their child has reached a point of problematic stress?
Damour: The weightlifting recovery metaphor helps us here again. If a young person has a chance to rest but things don’t get better, there are probably grounds for concern. The analogy here is injury. If you have a tough workout at the gym then rest, you should feel good a couple of days later. But if you injure yourself, just resting for a couple of days won’t fix the problem. Constructive stress comes from challenges that help us grow, not those that leave us incapacitated after the fact.
CNN: How can a parent gauge the difference between an adolescent who’s in recovery mode and one who’s withdrawing out of unhealthy avoidance?
Damour: Avoidance is something that people of all ages instinctively want to do when they feel anxious or overwhelmed. Problematic avoidance will offer short-term relief but create long-term difficulty. We want to be on high alert for avoidance as the go-to strategy for managing distress, because it doesn’t work, over time.
The beautiful thing about teenagers is, we can ask them to reflect with us on how they’re doing. A terrific first step for a worried parent is to say, “I noticed you’ve been sleeping a lot lately. Part of me is so glad to see you resting and recovering. Part of me is wondering if everything’s okay. Is there anything that you are worried about or that I need to be thinking about?”
With that approach you’re likely to recruit their mature side into the conversation. Our teenagers have two sides: their immature, impulsive, sometimes regressive side and their thoughtful, broad-minded, ambitious, self-protective side. The side that you speak to will be the side that shows up for the conversation.
CNN: You say parents need to worry about kids feeling alone with psychological pain — that, like all of us, kids need to feel seen. How can we do that?
Damour: Parents underestimate how powerful empathy is in terms of helping kids feel better. Too often we jump straight into problem-solving mode when they just want us to listen and say, “Oh, that really stinks. I’m so sorry.” Either that’s as much of a solution as they need, or they’ll go figure out their own solution. The two most useful lines in all of parenting teenagers are:
- Do you want my help, or do you just need to vent? And…
- Is there anything I can do that won’t make this worse?
Those will usually cover your bases.
Jessica DuLong is a Brooklyn-based journalist, book collaborator, writing coach and the author of “Saved at the Seawall: Stories from the September 11 Boat Lift” and “My River Chronicles: Rediscovering the Work that Built America.”