A sensible take on raising teen girls

  • By Sharon Holbrook Special to The Washington Post
  • Friday, February 26, 2016 2:46pm
  • Life

Finally, there’s some good news for puzzled parents of adolescent girls, and psychologist Lisa Damour is the bearer of that happy news. Damour’s new book, “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood,” is the most down-to-earth, readable parenting book I’ve come across in a long time.

Damour takes the confusing, infuriating and sometimes even frightening behavior of teenage girls and breaks it down into what’s normal (almost all of it) and what to worry about (not as much as you think). “Untangled” puts sassy back talk, the ups and downs of friendships, baffling emotional upheaval, and much more into the clear context of seven necessary transitions that teens must undergo on the way to adulthood. In other words, it’s probably a good thing that your daughter’s personality and interests seem to have changed dramatically, and Damour explains exactly why.

Damour builds on and references solid research in psychology, but the heart of “Untangled” is the real-life examples and anecdotes from Damour’s decades of experience in counseling adolescent girls and their parents. Without preachiness or jargon, Damour illustrates how to talk to our girls, how to set limits, and how to respect and foster our daughters’ growing independence.

Q: From reading “Untangled,” I get the sense that you really enjoy adolescent girls. How did you develop a specialty in the psychology and counseling of teenage girls?

A: I do really enjoy them. Part of why I like teenagers so much is I actually really loved being a teenager. In my own life, that was a really transformative time — I got a lot more freedom, a lot more autonomy. I had a great group of friends.

I also feel like I have vivid memories of being a teenager; I think I might recall more about adolescence than other grown-ups do, so when I get to be with teenagers, I welcome the chance to enjoy their perspective on things. What works well for teenagers is when adults continue to act like adults — which is what teenagers want — but really want to learn about the teenager’s perspective on things.

My experience is that teenagers can very quickly detect when an adult’s curiosity is genuine and well-meaning, and they’re eager to share about their experiences when they can sense that there’s an adult who really wants to know. It’s really fun. You can fool kids and grown-ups, but I don’t think there’s a moment developmentally that’s as clear-eyed as adolescence.

Q: How did you develop this big idea of the seven transitions into adulthood? Did this framework emerge over your years of study and clinical practice, or did it come together more recently as you wrote “Untangled”?

A: Yes to all of the above. It’s not a new way of thinking in psychology. One of the thinkers whom I reference throughout the book is Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter, who worked with younger children, children under the age of 5. She articulated various developmental lines along which children are always progressing simultaneously. Sometimes if a child is reading at age 5, parents can feel reassured that everything must be fine and neglect the fact that she still wrestles kids to the floor when they have a toy that she wants. She might be coming along great on the intellectual line but need a lot of help on the social development line.

So that kind of thinking is not new to my work, but taking that kind of thinking and applying it to adolescents the way I did is new. One of my jobs as a clinical instructor in the Case Western Reserve University psychology department is to help young clinicians learn how to be psychologists. My young, wonderful graduate students get very chaotic adolescent cases, so almost out of necessity we had to think in terms of “Well, what are the tasks of adolescence, and how is this particular client coming along in those tasks?”

And it helped my graduate students when we could say, “OK, this is a girl who has friends. She’s gotten that job done. This is a girl who can actually manage her academics and has plans for the future. But this is also a girl who is feeling out of control and cannot harness her emotions, so that’s where we’re going to focus our attention.” It gave us a way to check some boxes and focus on the boxes where there still needed to be a lot more progress.

Q: I can see that that would be helpful to parents too — to be able to make sense of what’s going on with their teen.

A: The thing I am fascinated by about adolescents is that often the parents’ experience is they felt like they understood their daughter and then all of a sudden they feel like they don’t understand their daughter. It’s so jarring for your own child to suddenly seem inscrutable. And because I get to be with so many teenagers, I have the benefit of getting to see the patterns. They’re not inscrutable; they just do things in a totally different way than they did before. They’re aiming for things that adults have forgotten about, but if we see it from their perspective, they make a lot of sense. Even some of the really difficult or contradictory things that teenagers do start to make a lot more sense if we see what teenagers are aiming at.

Q: I just saw a headline the other day that read, “Parents, You’re Doing It All Wrong.” This doesn’t seem to be a book that strikes that tone with parents. Was that intentional?

A: Yes. I think it’s human nature, when things get difficult, to look for good guys and bad guys. And I think the reality is that being a parent is challenging, and I think that being a parent of a teenager can be especially challenging. It’s very easy to default to a narrative of “Who’s messing this up?” Sometimes we’re pointing our finger at the parent and sometimes we’re pointing our finger at the teenager, and there’s probably some useful insight that can be gained in those frameworks. But my experience is that no one’s trying to mess this up, and conflict and stress in relationships is normal and expectable. It’s not necessarily evidence that somebody’s doing it wrong.

Everything good that happens in a parent-child relationship is grounded in the parent and child having a working relationship. And to have a working relationship, the parties have to try to understand each other. I feel I can be most useful when I’m giving parents a better way to understand their teenager and, often, when I’m with teenagers, I’m trying to help them get a better understanding of their parents. That feels like the soil in which the rest can grow. But when everyone’s taking sides and pointing fingers, it doesn’t seem the posture from which we want to be parenting.

Q: One thing that surprised me is how often you mention meeting with parents rather than just their daughters. When should a parent consider bringing themselves to an expert in adolescent psychology?

A: I think under two conditions — either when things are really great and the teenager does not need help but the parent could use some support in understanding the teenager. Again, even when things are going well, the more that parents understand their adolescents, the better things go.

Or, sometimes when things are really bad and the teenager refuses help. So when I’ve had parents in my practice, and I’m meeting with them alone — not with their teenager present — either it’s because the teenager really does not need help and is doing great but the parent could use and deserves some support or because things have come to a place where the teenager will not even talk to a psychologist. Then my job is to help the parents do what they can from their end to improve their relationship with their teenager and maybe ultimately help the teenager feel like they could make use of some therapeutic support.

It’s better if you can get everybody in the room together, but you can’t always make that happen and we don’t throw up our hands at that point.

Q: It’s been a couple of decades since you and I were teenagers. What do you think is the best thing about being a teen girl today, and the worst, compared with back then?

Honestly, the technology makes it better, and the technology makes it worse. That’s the dramatic shift. Developmentally, they’re doing the same things we were doing in terms of what they need to manage and accomplish as adolescents.

So on the one hand, the technology makes it possible for them to be connected to each other and have so much fun together. That’s a really fun part about the technology. The other thing that’s really fun for them is the on-demand entertainment. Teenagers watch ungodly amounts of Netflix. I see how much they enjoy the on-demand 22-minute doses of really fun stuff. We never had anything like that.

The flip of it is technology can turn into a full-time pursuit — playing with your friends, dealing with whatever social drama is going on. It can of course be a venue for kids to be really awful to each other and not leave it at school. And kids get sucked into watching not just 22 minutes of something; they watch all four seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy” before they start their homework at 4 a.m., and that’s really problematic.

So they have access to many more pleasures than we do, and pleasures we would have very much enjoyed, but it complicates their choices about how they’re going to spend their time.

And it can absolutely get in the way of much less fun things like trigonometry.

Q: I have two elementary school girls. What do you wish parents like me were doing to lay a strong foundation for the coming teen years?

That’s a great question. First of all, I wouldn’t want them to be so anxious about adolescence. I think parents worry too much that it’s going to be bad, and I don’t think anxiety is a great position from which to parent. I think parenting kids in latency, which is sort of 6 to 11, is really a fun time to be a parent. Kids think you’re great. They think you’re funny. They like it when you play with them. They’re really cute. They want to cuddle. It’s actually a very, very gratifying time to be a parent.

The way I was trained to think about this is that our good relationship with our children is money in the bank and we write our disciplinary checks against those accounts.

So, I think that parents of younger children should really take those years to build up happy, joyful times with their kids and to build up routines: having dinner together, having some goofy family game night on Friday, establishing habits around kids starting to take good care of themselves and demonstrating independence in small ways. Those are the years when parents can demonstrate that they enjoy their kids, that they like their kids, they have fun with their kids, they think their kids are funny, and that’s a great position from which to enter adolescence, having demonstrated that home is a fun and warm place.

And a structured place. That’s a time when you can make and enforce rules much more easily, and that’s a great time to lay down a groundwork. I think the safest adolescents are the ones who have parents they trust, parents who like them and parents who have their backs. And those are all things that can be laid down at 8, 9, 10 and 11.

I wish parents knew that the road to an ongoing relationship involves getting out of this position of “I’m the authority, and it’s my job to chase my teenager into being civilized.” You can actually play with your kids and have rules. “I’m still in charge, and as much as I have structure for you and as much as I have to hold the line, I do that while enjoying you and wanting to have fun with you and being curious about your perspective.”

The most successful parents I see are open to the possibility that having a teenager is going to help them grow, too.

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