Lisa Damour, a psychologist and clinical instructor, loves teenage girls. “There is not a moment as clear-eyed as adolescence,” she says.
Parents of teen girls don’t always feel so starry-eyed. Daughters who not-so-long-ago hugged you suddenly seem to hate you. They confide in you, and then turn on you. They call out your weaknesses, roll their eyes, and whipsaw between four moods before breakfast. Anna Freud, Sigmund’s daughter and an accomplished psychoanalyst, said “There are few situations more difficult to cope with than an adolescent son or daughter during the attempt to liberate themselves.”
Damour wrote Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood to help parents cope with these mercurial creatures. Her thesis? We’ve got it all wrong. “It’s not personal; it’s not you,” she says. All that time alone in her bedroom? Her general familial contempt? The stony silence which greets your incisive questions? “It’s her job,” Damour says. “It’s a requirement, it’s normal and acceptable and healthy.”
Damour constructs seven stages that teen girls must pass through, with gems of research and anecdotes for each one: Girls who are happiest have one to two good friends and we unfairly give boys more privacy than we do girls. When talking about risky behavior, we should focus on risks not rules. On high-pitched battles around eating disorders: “A power struggle where the teenager holds all the power.” Get professional help, and stay clear of daily show-downs.
As a psychologist, Damour doesn’t want to tell people what to do, but rather offer context and options. “I pull back the veil on all the complex dynamics going on,” she says. Consider the teen brain: it re-models itself in adolescence. It does this back to front, starting with emotions and ending with controls. Adults chalk it up to hormones. But it’s not: it’s the brain’s natural, but uneven development.
“Teenagers love to hear this. You see relief on their face,” she says.
Liking teen girls doesn’t mean that Damour does not see the challenges in dealing with them. When she recently spoke to more than 300 parents in Toronto, tears were flowing as she talked about why girls do some of the mean things they do. “This is a painful process.”
Here are some tips, culled from Untangled and our interview with Damour:
Ask genuine questions
Teens often find parents’ questions highly irritating and not worthy of expansive responses. Damour spent years asking girls what it is that adults do to get kids to tune them out. They told her they stop listening when grown-ups lecture, use a suspicious tone, level moral judgements, and overstate risks.
In other words, they have great bullshit detectors.
Damour’s advice: pick your moments carefully—the car is always good—and ask genuine, specific questions. Try: “You were not looking forward to that English quiz. How’d it go?” instead of “How was your day?” Require that they be polite (she does not like the term “respectful” as it is vague), but forgive them if it’s not exactly a heart-to-heart.
Be their dumping ground
Like grown-ups, teens need to unload sometimes. And since they have to be cool to friends, attentive to teachers, and cooperative with coaches, they let loose on you. Do not try to solve every problem they throw at you (you probably tried this and found she thought your ideas sucked). Explain the difference between venting and complaining and ask, simply, does she want advice, or does she want to vent?
Damour also explains “externalization” by which your daughters toss their problems at you like “emotional hot potatoes.” They text you to tell you something horrid has happened and that they are despairing. Then, things brighten, and they get on with their day while you pass the hours in a wretched state of worry.
At some point your daughter may well ditch her best friend for the popular girl. You worry: the friend was a good egg, the new one, not so much. Damour suggests you ask your daughter what makes the girl popular. Do people like being around her (“sociometric popularity”) or is she powerful, i.e. people are friends with her because they are afraid of her (“perceived popularity”)? “Give your daughter a good reason to take popularity off its pedestal,” Damour writes.
Own your crazy spots
Damour describes the Wizard of Oz moment in adolescence. Kids go along believing everything grown-ups say until they develop the neurological capacity for abstraction. Then poof, all that blind faith evaporates.
“They suddenly see how inconsistent we are, how biased we are, how we make a lot of stuff up,” she says. ”They have this taxing project of not believing anything and having to check everything for themselves.”
One way to deal with this is to fess up to your own weak spots. As in, when you shout at the top of your lungs because your daughter has once again dumped her sports clothes in the front hallway, own it later. “That was bad behavior. But I have asked you so many times to not leave your clothes right where everyone walks in the house. Please try to be more considerate.”
You are modeling the behavior you want to see (apology; self-improvement) and you are heading off the glaring hypocrisy: we demand our girls be respectful and polite and sometimes, we fail to do just that.
Pause. Most teen emergencies last 24 hours, or fewer
Do not react to everything. Due to that brain thing, teens are emotional. Because they dump on you, you might be on high alert to aggressively problem-solve. Don’t. “Our job is not to overreact. It is to stay steadily present,” Damour says. See whether the issue disappears and whether your daughter can fix it. Remember: you are preparing her to solve her own problems. If she procrastinates, let her suffer the consequences. If you want to see what she is doing locked away in her room, resist (unless she is suddenly doing poorly in school and fighting with friends and other things are going wrong).
“Parents are made to feel more anxious than they need to be,” Damour says. “If it is a crisis, it will last more than 24 hours.”
Damour does not discount real risks: every chapter has a section on when you should worry, and she talks at length about eating disorders. But she really wants us to understand that even as our daughters are acting like people we would never dream of inviting to dinner, we probably haven’t totally messed up.