Lisa Damour Guides Parents Through Teen Turbulence in “Untangled”

Parenting teens can be frightening. We experience fear for the challenges and dangers our daughters (and sons) will face, for the memories of our own (not so spotless) past and the knowledge that this begins the slide toward true separateness.

Dr. Lisa Damour is author of Untangled

With Dr. Lisa Damour’s Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood in hand, raising teens is just a bit less frightening. Her book is grounded in the most up-to-date research yet reads as a practical and heartfelt guide. The book traces the path through the toughest years of parenting showing parents what to expect and how to grapple with the challenges of the teen years. Dr. Damour softens the blow with humor when you least expect it and, frankly, need it most. She is that wise best friend that every mom of a teen girl wishes she was lucky enough to have.

Dr. Lisa Damour writes about teens in "Untangled"

One of the best features of Untangled is the “When to Worry” section that comes at the end of every chapter. As a mom who has braved the fires of adolescence with three kids, this is the trickiest bit. So many of the turbulent times that teens face are made far scarier for parents as they struggle to surmise if what their kid is facing is a passing stage or a real cause for concern. Dr. Damour answers the questions we ask ourselves every day.

Our biggest concern as parents is missing something serious either because our teen has gone underground and hidden the signs, or even scarier, because we were too naive to know those signs. It was eye-opening to learn that teens don’t exercise poor judgment because they are “highly irrational, think they are invulnerable or can’t calculate risk.” It seems that it is easy for parents to underestimate the most important factors that lead kids astray. Dr. Damour gives her readers the signposts of trouble, telling them what to look out for and when to seek out help.

To say that we are parenting in a different era is a great understatement. We straddle two worlds. Yes, the issues surrounding sex, drugs, depression, and fitting in socially are all familiar to parents who grew up in the 20th century but technology has so altered the landscape that we often find ourselves parenting in a seemingly foreign world.

Dr. Lisa Damour lives in that world. She directs  Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls, writes a column for The New York Times’ Motherlode blog, maintains a private psychotherapy practice, consults and speaks internationally, and is a faculty associate of the Schubert Center for Child Studies and a clinical instructor at Case Western Reserve University. Every day she is immersed in the problems and challenges our kids face.

In Untangled, Dr. Damour gets behind, in her words, “the veil” that teenagers put up to keep adults out. She examines the world of teens that parents don’t always see. Dr. Damour takes a hard look at the high incidence of teen drinking and sexual activity and provides parents with suggestions on the best way to guide their kids through the very real risks inherent in each.

 Interview with Dr. Lisa Damour

G&F: In Untangled, you discuss something I never heard of but, as a college parent, have experienced – externalization. This is the practice of teens managing their negative feelings by handing them over to their parents. You call it an “emotional hot potato” when we empathize so much with our kids that we take on the burden of their unpleasant feelings. “Your willingness to hold your daughter’s emotional hot potatoes from time to time is a thankless and charitable act, but it will help her get through.”

Should we avoid doing this? Is it harmless and, as a parent, frankly, how do you keep from feeling bad when you see your teen or young adult suffering? You advise parents to do nothing when their daughters try to dump their feelings on them, but what about discussing practical options in the cold light of day?

LD: We couldn’t avoid taking on some of our teenagers’ hard feelings if we wanted to, and we probably wouldn’t want to. Teenagers tend to dump feelings on their parents without being consciously aware of that they are doing, and they usually feel better once they’ve done it. For example, a girl who bombs a midterm might glibly text the news to her folks, then refuse to acknowledge their response. The girl will feel the relief of having unloaded feeling, and her parents will feel the weight of her distress. Most of the time, nothing further needs to be done, especially when teenagers capitalize on their psychological relief to constructively address the problem. But, if a teenager isn’t learning from experience and hard-feeling-handoffs keep happening in the same domain (e.g., failed tests) it’s time for parents to strategize with their adolescent about how to avoid making the same mistakes repeatedly.

G&F: Conventional parenting wisdom says that you pick your battles with kids and teens and don’t put up as much resistance around the small stuff. You suggest otherwise and argue that the small battles are very important. Why?

LD: I do believe in picking battles – we don’t want to ride our teenagers about everything big and small – but I wouldn’t want parents to underestimate the value of the small battles they pick. Normally developing teenagers look for friction with adults. They test boundaries to make sure that boundaries are in place. Though they don’t express it, teenagers are greatly reassured by parents who are willing to go toe-to-toe with them about messy bedrooms, the timing of curfew, the dishes left in the sink, or any other arena for low-grade conflict. Finding the friction and boundaries they are looking for on the small stuff can keep teens from upping the ante to see what it takes to get an adult to step in.

G&F: As parents, we often dread our kids rebelliousness, but you suggest that in and of itself it is not a cause for worry and is actually desirable. Why is rebellion good for our kids?

LD: We want to raise clear-eyed young people who will question established structures and help make the world a better place. Unfortunately for parents, we cannot encourage our teenagers to think for themselves and simultaneously be exempt from their defiance and critiques. However, there are some things we can do to point adolescent rebellion in the right direction:

  • we can emphasize the reasons for our rules (usually, safety) over our power to enforce the rules,
  • we can help them make tactical decisions about when to challenge authority and when not to,
  • and we can accept that they will accurately identify shortcomings in our personalities and use their observations to improve ourselves, even in middle age.

G&F: You point out that lecturing is an oft used but unsuccessful technique for teaching teens. Your book has many techniques for avoiding this dead-end, can you share just one here with us?

LD: My clinical practice has taught me that when it comes to parents and teenagers, everyone’s doing the best they can with the tools they’ve got. I find that it isn’t helpful to look for good guys and bad guys. Instead, I’d rather help parents understand the developmental dynamics behind adolescence so that they can have a more successful relationship with their teenager. Parents who have solid, working relationships with their adolescents have teenagers who thrive.

You Might Also Want to Read:

How to Find a Therapist for Your College Student

Lisa DamourLisa Damour is a psychologist and author of best-selling books Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls

Dr. Damour is in private practice in Shaker Heights, Ohio, is a senior advisor to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University and the executive director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls. She is a regular contributor to CBS News and writes the monthly Adolescence column for the New York Times’ Well Family blog.  Connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

About Lisa Endlich Heffernan

Lisa (Endlich) Heffernan is the co-founder of Grown and Flown, the #1 site for parents of teens, college students and young adults, reaching millions of parents every month. Lisa is a New York Times bestselling author.
She started the Grown and Flown Parents Facebook Group and is co-author of Grown and Flown: How to Support Your Teen, Stay Close as a Family, and Raise Independent Adults (Flatiron Books) now in paperback.

Read more posts by Lisa

Don't miss out!
Want more like this? Get updates about parenting teens and young adults straight to your inbox.