Understanding Today’s Teenagers

with Lisa Damour

How difficult is it to be a parent today? After a pandemic? With social media breathing down our necks? It’s so hard! Navigating the delicate balance between granting independence and providing guidance can be daunting as a parent.

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Dr. Lisa Damour (New York Times bestselling author of The Emotional Lives of Teenagers) has dedicated her life to unraveling the intricacies of adolescence and offering practical, heartfelt advice.

In this conversation, Lisa and Kate:

  • offer a more reassuring definition of mental health (hint: it’s about having the right-sized feelings that fit the situation at hand and managing those feelings effectively).
  • emphasize the importance of being a steady presence in kids’ lives, as well as offer scripts to try with your own teenager
  • give language to what parents might be feeling if they missed this kind of parenting themselves

 CW: Parenting teens, Mental Health awareness







Lisa Damour

Dr. Lisa Damour is the author of three New York Times best sellers: Untangled, Under Pressure, and The Emotional Lives of Teenagers. She co-hosts the Ask Lisa podcast, works in collaboration with UNICEF, and is recognized as a thought leader by the American Psychological Association. Dr. Damour is also a regular contributor to The New York Times and CBS News. She maintains a clinical practice and also speaks to schools, professional organizations, and corporate groups around the world on the topics of child and adolescent development, family mental health, and adult well-being. Dr. Damour graduated with honors from Yale University and worked for the Yale Child Study Center before earning her doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Michigan. She has been a fellow at Yale’s Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy and the University of Michigan’s Power Foundation. She and her husband are the proud parents of two daughters.

Show Notes

Lisa’s latest book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents, is an urgently needed guide to help parents understand their teenagers’ intense and often fraught emotional lives—and how to support them through this critical developmental stage.

Lisa hosts a podcast, Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting, where you can get practical parenting perspectives for timeless parenting questions. 

Lisa talks about how helping teenagers describe their emotions can reduce their stress, this is the gift of language. You can learn more emotionally descriptive words with a feelings chart, learn more about it in this article from Parent Cue, Using a feelings Wheel: Why it’s Helpful and How it Works. 

Kate also has a very helpful conversation with psychologist Susan David about how we don’t have to describe our feelings as good or bad, positive or negative. Kate and Susan explore what happens when you push down or bury your feelings inside. Listen to this podcast, Toxic Positivity.

Do you or your teen need someone to talk to? You can find a therapist in your area or online through Psychology Today website.

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Discussion Questions

  1. Adults can quickly jump to conclusions about teenagers’ “bad” attitudes, “dramatic” responses, and time spent  on phones and video games, but Lisa challenges these common stereotypes about teenagers’ emotions and behavior. After listening to this conversation, what surprised you the most about how these judgments misrepresent what is really happening?

  2. Lisa talks about the importance of allowing teenagers to experience the full range of emotions, helping them to find language to describe those feelings, and not shielding them from  failure and disappointment. Scripture shows us how God allows each of us to have a full range of emotions–from joy (Psalm 16:11), to anger (Psalm 58), to despair (Psalm 13). We also find language for how to describe feelings as beautifully complex love (1 Corinthians 13), and see in Jesus a wide expression of emotions, such as  what it looks like  to weep with compassion (Luke 19:41-44). And even though Jesus warns his disciples that they will betray (Matt 26:20-29) and deny him (Luke 22:31-34), he still allows them to fail and learn from their mistakes. What can we learn from these passages and Jesus’s example about how feeling our full range of emotions, including experiencing failure and disappointment, might allow us and our teens to grow?

  3. The role of a parent and/or trusted adult is vital for the tween and teen years (even it feels like everything you do is wrong–teenagers need you!). They need someone to listen, empathize, and walk with them. Who in your life either as a teen or as a young adult played a role in your life as mentor ? How did you feel when they would listen to, empathize with, or encourage you?

  4. Lisa says that there are two ways we can nurture empathy in teenagers. One is to show them radical empathy by listening non judgmentally, providing language for naming what they are feeling, and reassuring them that  it makes sense why they would feel this way. The other is to allow opportunities for teens to serve and volunteer (and not just to pad their college applications). The simple act of serving can make youth more confident and engaged, both by shifting their attention toward the needs of others and through realizing they can make a valuable difference. Could you help foster empathy in teens? Is there a teen in your life that may need your empathy? Could you encourage the teens who meet working in the grocery stores or restaurants? How can we get involved in the lives of teenagers in our world, and how might that help both us and them grow?
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Transcript

Kate Bowler: Hey, I’m Kate Bowler, and this is Everything Happens. So raising teenagers and or even just the thought of raising teenagers feels different today than it used to. Or so says my mom. Long gone are the land lines, mix mixtapes, and the three TV channels that I would fight my sisters over. You might find yourself beating a teenager to adult dictionary to help us decode their language of shoulder shrugs and whatever “mid” means. And yes, I think this rant officially indicates that I am gloriously and wonderfully old. But the world has changed, hasn’t it? And navigating that delicate balance between granting independence and providing guidance can be daunting, especially as we hear about the ways that teenagers mental health has been so affected by the pandemic, by social media, and by the social pressures that still exist from when we were young. I was once a teenager waiting for a reason to listen to the Reality Bites soundtrack and wear more eyeliner than the Lord intends. It was wonderful, but you just get the feeling that every person who’s young is doing it for the first time. And in a way, we all are. We get a lot of questions from you, beautiful listeners, about talking to young adults in your life about hard topics and navigating their mental health concerns. So I wanted to talk about this very subject with one of my absolute favorite experts, Dr. Lisa Damour. Lisa is, ah she’s the best. She’s a psychologist, author, and advocate for the well-being of young minds. She is the author of three New York Times bestsellers, including her latest, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, which I find myself referencing like about once a week. And I don’t even have a teenager in my house. She co-hosts the wonderfully practical Ask Lisa podcast. It’s so good. Every episode focuses on like just one topic that you have a question about. And she it’s just entirely like her, the way she has dedicated her career to unraveling the intricacies of adolescence and offering practical, heartfelt advice. And I also had the great joy of being able to talk to her about this in person over a cup of coffee, which was a complete delight. Guys, she really is the real deal. This is a conversation for anyone who works with teens, who loves a teen, or was once a teen. Yeah, that means you too. Here we go. Lisa, I feel so lucky that we’re sitting down because your work is so kind and sharp and insightful. And also when I realize that you also have a deep and abiding, I won’t say hatred, but maybe hatred of toxic positivity, my heart lit with joy.

Lisa Damour: Let’s hate it. Let’s say we hate it.

Kate: Hypothetically. You really make a strong argument about how our preference for positive emotion might actually not be good news when it comes to parenting. Will you walk me through some of that?

Lisa: Sure. Well, first, let me just say, it’s such an honor and a treat to be with you. So thank you for having me.

Kate: Thank you.

Lisa: So. I wrote a book recently, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, in which I truly lay out an argument that is not at all novel, not at all innovative. There’s nothing controversial about it. It is straight down the middle.

Kate: And yet.

Lisa: Of Psychological science. And basically the argument of the book is that the cultural discourse around what constitutes mental health has veered extremely far afield from what we know to be true as psychologists. And what I mean by that is that so often when people are talking about mental health or being mentally healthy, either directly or implicitly, they equate that with feeling good. Just feeling good, happy, at ease, you know, And those are lovely things. But psychologist, the rest of us were like. That has nothing to do with mental health like that. Actually doesn’t even figure in like, we have nothing against happiness. But that’s not that’s never been how we size this up. And so I wrote this book to do my little part to try to course correct about what mental health even is. And so in the book, I bring across a definition that I came up with, but it’s basically standard to the field, which is, mental health is about two things having feelings that fit the situation, even if they’re not pleasant feelings. And then probably more important, managing those feelings effectively, going about coping in a way that brings relief and does no harm. So we can unpack that 40 ways, but it’s, I think in the end, a vastly more reassuring definition of mental health because it does not hinge on the idea that you could get to a place of feeling good and stay there. That is never been on the menu. It doesn’t need to be on the menu. It is much more about how we handle the vicissitudes of life.

Kate: Just reminds me of one of the most sane early thoughts I had after my diagnosis was and it was just it was in the form of a prayer. It was like, God, let me see the world as it really is. And that. Because in I just felt so much pressure to be so performative. But when you describe, wouldn’t it be nice if we allowed people to have feelings that fit their situation? I think, wow, I initially I found I found that thought almost an impossible one to reach for. And you make an argument that culturally we may just I’m thinking maybe for the last 50 or so years, I imagine, like since the rise of an overwhelmingly certain kind of therapeutic paradigm, we we are more and more worried about negative emotion. And we have it now, you’re thinking like a cultural and maybe medical preference for grouping everyone on the more positive side.

Lisa: That’s. I think that’s exactly right. I’ll put it to you back in the inverse, because I think this is so often how it comes across. Is that we have all these headlines right now on the adolescent mental health crisis, which is real. But we also have all these headlines that equate psychological distress with a mental health crisis. You know, so often when I’m looking at the paper and how these things are communicated at scale, being in psychological distress is often seen as the equivalent to having a mental health crisis. And the way we actually think about it, as psychologist is often the opposite. And what I mean by that is there are plenty of times where we expect to see distress and are more concerned about its absence then its presence. So garden variety examples. So your kid has a huge test tomorrow and they have not even started studying. We want to see anxiety, under those conditions. We are much more worried about the kid who is feeling nothing in that moment. Yeah, your best friend moves away, we expect to see sadness. We’re much more worried about someone who has no reaction to that. And so my work right now is really around trying to advance a view that is quite literally 180 degrees away from the cultural message right now, which is, you know, psychological distress, mental health concern. And I’m like, unless it’s not. Unless it’s actually proof of your extremely excellent mental health,.

Kate: That’s something that happens and you feel bad.

Lisa: Yeah. You should be feeling bad. So so,.

Kate: Yeah.

Lisa: You know, when I say it, it’s so this is not earth shattering stuff. It’s just that the discourse has moved very severely in one direction.

Kate: Yeah. And then you worry that we might have such an intense over response that we’re like, okay, okay, okay. Then medication or one medication can be appropriate, but you’re just like. Really? It sounds like you want to stretch out the pause between, like, bad feeling and.

Lisa: What we do next. Right. And I think the worries I have, like the reason I’m committed to this effort right now is it’s scary under any conditions for a person to think I’m deeply distressed. Does that mean I have a mental health concern? Like that, that’s like I don’t want people to have to worry like that. And then, you know, I’ve worked on adolescence my whole career. I’m 30 years into taking care of teenagers. By its nature, adolescence is this highly disruptive time with a lot of emotionality and a lot of negative emotions. And so then, you know, the thing I think about all the time is these headlines come one after another. I think, like, what must it be like to have your first teenager to have them having these sort of garden variety meltdowns, which I promise you, teenagers have always had. Mine included.

Kate: Since the dawn of time. Yeah.

Lisa: Exactly. And looking at this in your kitchen and you’re thinking, is this adolescence or is this an adolescent mental health crisis? Because it looks like a crisis. Like no question.

Kate: Yeah.

Lisa: And I just ache for the parents and caregivers who are trying to raise probably typically developing adolescence in the context of a lot of worry about teenagers and I think a lot of misunderstanding about mental health and teenagers.

Kate: I can it just makes me think, too, that one of the interventions that I hear most commonly, because I’m writing a history of self-help right now. And then some of the recommendations, you know exactly where my brain is going. They’re like, great, well then what we need to do in order to prevent any kind of mental distress is self-care. And if we teach them a certain regiment of like and then it just becomes like, what? Like bubble baths forever? Like, how’s that going to go?

Lisa: It’s actually I don’t know. I wasn’t the person who had this thought. It came up in a conversation with a friend and it came actually through a religious leader in our community. And so I don’t know who said it and I can’t give proper credit, but I’m not going to claim it as my own. And this person made the observation you know like, so self-care, it’s very self-focused. It’s very, very focused on the self. And if we want to feel better, often it’s actually about thinking about what other people need and caring for others and making oneself of use. And, you know, not to some you know torturous extreme, you know, not just some martyrdom. But you know, there’s a real limit on how much self-care can help us feel good about ourselves.

Kate: In my mind, which just underlined that a few times. It does seem like it might run the risk of. If we’re so worried about an unhappy teenager and then more so, and then we want either to like bubble wrap it with a lot of at well, I study like the limitations of affirmations. But a lot of like attempt to just constantly reframe in a positive direction or then okay well then boundaries, boundaries around yourself. And then so when you say, well, actually it’s being attuned with other people, I think that is a worry that like, how do we create? Not that we create teenagers, but like nurture empathy in when our response might be like, okay, let’s just let’s just protect them more.

Lisa: So I would say let’s simplify it and say it’s a two part process. So I think a huge part of how we nurture empathy in teenagers is actually to be deeply empathic with them. I think that there’s a lot of good work that gets done in in modeling, like really feeling deeply with a teenager, taking their feelings very, very seriously. Caring very much about what they feel. I think that’s how we create the capacity for them to turn around and do that for other people. I think I think it’s actually really essential that we start there. But then I think the second part is to keep at the ready in terms of ways to feel better. So I’ve been very empathic with you, know what will help you feel better. Keeping very high on the list, going and making yourself useful. Like you will feel better. Right. And it doesn’t mean you’re going to enjoy it. It doesn’t mean you’re going to feel better instantly. But keeping that available as a key option in terms of how we help young people feel better.

Kate: How dare you advocate service? How dare you? We’ll be right back.

Kate: If people are noticing like a parent is noticing a really big feeling in their teenager, how can they have a little bit more framework around whether that feeling is like too big and they need help. Or if it’s in a reasonable range of up and down?

Lisa: It’s a really tough question for parents to be able to assess in the moment. And the reason for this is that teenagers have incredibly potent emotions and they just do. It’s the nature of adolescence and is true for their positive feelings. You know, they’re more like, yeah! About anything than they will ever be again. But but when they’re down, they are down. And it is scary. There’s some things that are very easy, easy red lines, right? Like, if you have any reason to think the teenager may be a risk to themselves or others, like obviously, like, you know, call out the brigades. Mostly what we want to see is that whatever mood a teenager has, it doesn’t last that long. The teenagers, you know, the term we use technically are highly labile, you know, they move from one feeling state to another. And so what I want to see is maybe they had a rotten night and they were really upset and the parent was tender and empathic and supportive and listened and said, what would help you feel better? And the kid says, Nothing, Nothing will help me feel better. And then you say, okay, well, I’m going to go watch TV. If you want to join me, feel free. It’s an hour later. It’s as though nothing happened or the kids actually gleeful about something. You’re looking at typical adolescence or the next day and they may have maybe really sad through the night. We only really worry about adolescent moods if they go to a concerning place and then hang out there and you don’t have to wait that long. And two days is a really long time for a teenager to be, you know, deeply upset, or paralyzed by anxiety, or horrendously angry. Two days is a really long time in the life of a teenager. So it’s more around how long it lasts and less around the the depths of the emotion because they feel things deeply.

Kate: I picture like elasticity when you’re talking.

Lisa: Yeah.

Kate: Like the expanding contracting.

Lisa: Yeah. You got to ride it. And and I think that the challenge, the ideal response of a parent is very easy to describe, enormously hard to do. It’s to try to be a steady presence. So you have this kid who’s having a massive emotion. And even in the midst of that, part of what they’re doing is they’re reading the response of the adult. And if the adult joins them right there, you know, the kid is deeply upset about how a grade came through or a breakup and then the adult is just as upset.

Kate: Like this is the worst! Will, will they will they match.

Lisa: It’ll scare the bejesus out of the kid. Because the kid will think like I thought this was a 15 year old size problem. This is apparently a 52 year old size problem. So that’s why even if we’re not feeling steady inside, if we can do our best to try to seem steady, that’s a real gift to kids. So we want to try to do that, which often also means getting our own support and our own having our own people to call.

Kate: And going to, pretending to go to the bathroom and breathing deeply.

Lisa: Exactly. that’s the gift we can give them, is to not overreact, to try to help them maintain a sense of perspective by keeping a grip on our own.

Kate: And would you describe that as like a, because I’m as you can already tell, like not great at robot face. Like very stretchy, easy to read face.

Lisa: Yeah.

Kate: So should someone like me go for, like, empathic and just empathic presence? A warm and not bananas? I mean, my face would do a lot of things.

Lisa: Well, of course, our kids can read faces better than anybody. I have two daughters. My younger one, who’s about to be 13, said to me recently she’s like, I can tell from the look on your face. When you have stopped listening to what I’m saying and are waiting for me to pause so you can tell me something. And I’m like, I’m sure you can.

Kate: You make such a good point about that. And I’ve been thinking about I love your book, and I just thought about it a lot. When you wrote it and the thinking about in terms of like parenting and friendships, but like, you really don’t want us to jump on. Jump on the problem.

Lisa: No.

Kate: Half a brief quarter of a breath.

Lisa: At least. At least. Because here’s the thing. That’s almost never what people want. And it’s funny. I’ll tell you an adult example, like I give a million in the book about parents and teenagers, but. Five, ten years ago, I went to the funeral of a friend’s father. It wasn’t a tragedy. He was an old guy. We were all there as friends to support our friend who’s dad who died. And I ran into a friend of mine named Mitha, and I hadn’t seen her for a while. Like “Mitha, how are you?” And she’s like, I need back surgery. And I go,”Oh Mitha, that sucks!” And she goes, thank you. Oh, my God, thank you. She’s like, everybody else is like, “Well, have you tried physical therapy?”.

Kate: Exactly.

Lisa: She’s like “Of course, I have done all those things” like,.

Kate: Oh my God.

Lisa: I didn’t just sign-up for back surgery. She’s like. Thank you for just agreeing that this sucks, you know? And I was like, well, there it is. very rarely.

Kate: That is wild, what a powerful sentence.

Lisa: Yeah.

both: Oh, my gosh, that really sucks.

Lisa: So I tried. But of course, in my own parenting. I mess this up on like an hourly basis.

Kate:  I will fix problems no one’s asked me to fix. I mean, I’m like taking apart a car and putting it back together. And they’re like, It was fine.

Lisa: It was fine there’s no reason. Yes. Another one that has extreme value for teenagers. It’s valuable to anybody but has special value for teenagers. And I’ll say why, is to say, anybody in your shoes would be upset. And so it’s just it’s another version of just pure empathy, you know, not adding anything. For teenagers, they can find their emotions very destabilizing. And I remember in my training, I was in my postdoc or something, so I wasn’t like totally new but I feel pretty new as a clinician. And I had a senior supervisor say to me. Something that when she said it, I didn’t believe it. I thought oh that’s not true. She said, “You need to work with the assumption that all teenagers secretly worry that they’re crazy.”.

Kate: Yeah.

Lisa: And I was like, nahh? And now over time, I’m like, yeah. And I think it’s because a couple of things happened in adolescence. One is that emotions that were not so intense become more intense, you know, in 8-9-10-11 year olds like they’re cool, like stuff doesn’t really get to them. And so then you have a 13 year old who as a function of neurological changes, is feeling things very, very vividly. But can remember being 11 and not losing it over the same thing they’re losing it over now. So that’s very concerning to them. And then at 14, and these are all like averages, there’s a cognitive watershed, a neurological watershed where a new gear gets added to their thinking, like they add a dimension, they add the capacity for abstraction. And it’s got nothing to do with intelligence is just the brain developing. But they can start to think about thinking and they can start to imagine strange things and they can suddenly have very profound thoughts, which for a lot of kids can be pretty weird.

Kate: Yeah.

Lisa: But so you have these sweet 13 and 14 year olds who are like, their feelings are on steroids. They’re thinking thoughts they haven’t had before. It is scary for them. And so when they get upset to have a tender adult, say, “Anyone in your shoes would be this upset.” It’s a twofer. And here’s the twofer for like one is you’re giving empathy and the other is you’re not crazy.

Kate: Yeah.

Lisa And that’s really what they are needing to hear.

Kate: Yeah. One of the other things I really like about how you frame the validation experience is with the precision of language, because I remember how much I’ve cherished it. When someone says “You’re upset because this is really upsetting.” “You’re mad because this is infuriating.” Like, that was late in the game for me, but like the right language to even try to shade in some of the colors of my feelings. I also really felt like that was, I’m just thinking of the like, things that made me feel not crazy. Can they have precision in there? Is it hard for them to match up the feeling that they’re having in their body with like the word?

Lisa: I think it’s hard for most people. I think there is a, an interesting phenomenology around teenagers now that has emerged in the last 10 to 15 years. Where there’s a huge amount of discourse around using mental health terms. You know, a lot of social media arbitrated, you know, sort of remediated.

Kate: Oh, I have anxiety, I have like that kind of mass mythologizing?

Lisa: Yeah, or mass use of pathological terms to describe what may often be everyday experiences. You know. and I say this like mostly just as an observer. I, I just like to watch what they do. So one of the things is that I think it more now than even in earlier like at this point I’m saying decades when I practiced. Teens can be very quick to use terms like anxiety, depression, in this very, very broad way. It can rub adults the wrong way. And I understand why. But what I would say is treat it as an opportunity. You know, they’ve brought you to the neighborhood. Right. Like they’re feeling uneasy or They’re feeling sad, like down. And then your job is to help them locate a more precise house within that neighborhood. So you say you feel anxious now ok now we ae in the anxious neighborhood. Tell me a little bit more. Oh, you’re really angry at you and your friend are in a fight or you’re not sure what to wear to this party that you’re really excited about. So things I hear that you feel anxious. I’m wondering if you’re also feeling like, really frustrated with your friend? Or I wonder if, like, you’re anxious about the party, but also kind of like, excited to go? You know, so, if we can just take it as an overture that allows us to hone in on something more specific and blow past the fact that they may use these broad generic terms when they may not use them accurately you know.

Kate: As opposed to be to being like “You’re not OCD. We haven’t got through that evaluation process.”

Lisa: I’ll show you OCD. We don’t have to do that. And there’s there’s let me give you two good reasons why it’s worth doing that. So one good reason is language on its own reduces distress. So the act of saying I feel sad, I feel worried just uttering the word. We have objective physiological measures that tell us that the mere utterance of a feeling word reduces the intensity of the emotion. Is kind of an extraordinary and actually in many ways truly magical thing. Now the other is thinking Kate like, those people who you told how you were feeling. Like I’m mad. And they’re like, mad. You should be infuriated. That is a profound expression of empathy because they’re like, I’ll see you and raise you. You think you feel mad. I can actually listen so thoughtfully that I can return to you something even more precise than what you gave me. Which means I was really listening. You know? So there’s value.

Kate: That I feel known. That  I feel…

Lisa: Yes. Yeah. And what I love about all of it is, like, it’s not easy, but it’s very economical.

Kate: Right? This is all free.

Lisa: Yeah. Exactly.

Kate: And it doesn’t take that much time.

Lisa: It just doesn’t take that much. And I think that people just jump to the big project, of like, oh, I have a friend who knows how to do back surgery in your area, Right? As opposed to the like all of my

Kate: That’s a perfect analogy. Because I think the other temptation. I mean especially if someone I don’t know has an expertise in one thing, then they hear it and they’re like ahhh, I’m out of my league. Like out of my league is a big feeling.

Lisa: Yeah, it is. And and so I hope I can just offer reassurance. That’s okay. People don’t want your expertise. Right. Like they really don’t like. What they want is someone to acknowledge like you’re in a pickle, like. And I’m really sorry and I care about you. And I wish I went this way.

Kate: Yeah. I do really love when people have the right term from what they experience. Like, I had a friend recently who had a terrible travel experience and I would have said it was some kind of, like, socially displacing emergency. And he was like, “Oh, no, I just got boondoggled” and boondoggle is such a funny word, I like a “da da da”  feeling of like, accidentally being waylaid. And I was like, Wow, the right word really does sort of paint the picture. Of what actually happened.

Lisa: Yeah. And, and then contains it.

Kate: Yeah.

Lisa: And makes it, you can play with it, you can show it to people. You can look at it from different sides. I mean, that’s what therapy is at its best. I mean, all we have, the only tool we have is language in the kind of therapy I’m trained in.

Kate: A knives.. wait. Not in therapy. There’s are lots of tools.

Lisa: Not in my office. And but that’s why it works, because as soon as you have an experience that felt amorphous or overwhelming or isolating and alienating. As soon as you can bring it across into language. Now you can go do all sorts of things with it. And that’s like, I love my job because that’s what we get to do.

Kate: I was just thinking, I see so much joy, vocational joy, on your face when you talk about, like. Helping someone find the right.

Lisa: Yeah.

Kate: Like, hold it up to the light in a certain way.

Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. When we’re doing our job well as clinicians, that’s what we’re doing. We’re not fixing problems. We’re helping people talk about what they’ve been through.

Kate: We’ll be right back.

Kate: I wondered if you could help me understand a little bit about the gendered nature of these dynamics, that there’s different biological processes that might create a different category of experience for teenage boys and girls, for the most part.

Lisa: Yeah. I actually wouldn’t say there’s there’s very little biological. Yeah, very little. To the degree that there are biological precursors that set boys down one path and girls down a very distinct other path when it comes to the nature of how they express their emotions. Boys are a bit more active starting in utero, and that activity can look like aggression as they get into, you know, toddlerhood. And we have a lot of research showing that can easily be channeled into non-aggressive behaviors. But sometimes I think there can be like, oh boys will be boys, and then they’re allowed to be aggressive in ways that are not kosher.

Kate: These are cultural frameworks.

Lisa: These are cultural frameworks, but they’re powerful. So the cultural frameworks are hugely powerful and they start early, and they’re surprisingly basic and predictable, which is, you know, girls are supposed to be, you know, warm and tender and boys are supposed to be tough and invincible. And those messages are transmitted very, very powerfully to our kids.

Kate: How early? How early will they feel those differences?

Lisa: Early, early, early. Yeah. And I will tell you, though, the best part about writing a book, I’m sure you’ve had this experience is you end up learning all sorts of things. You know, like you go in with the things you need to say and then you’re like, “Oh. I thought I was going to say that.” But it turns out that actually what I really, really spend time on it, you know, it changes gears. And for me, in writing this book, what I thought I was going to say is girls get to be vulnerable and, you know sad, boys get to be angry and tough. The boys piece held up, right. In terms of the cultural scripts and what is allowable for boys. They ride in this incredibly narrow channel of emotion. Like, I mean, they have one lane and it really, no two lanes. They can express two emotions freely, anger and pleasure at someone else’s expense. That’s what the culture gives boys, it’s horrible. Girls actually enjoy many lanes on their highway. So they get to be sad. They get to be anxious. There’s plenty anger in girls that they show. And that piece was a little less expected for me. There’s a huge asterisk on that, which is if you are black, that is not a safe thing to do. But when we look at the data of the expression of anger in girls, what we see is little boys express more anger than girls do. Adolescent girls express more anger than boys do. And then you’ll like this. I like, laughed at this research paper. Except for one form of anger where girls outpace boys all through development, which is the expression of disdain. I was like, oh yeah the do. God, I love the researcher who’s like ask about this. Also, ask about who’s expressing as like they have a 13 year old daughter. I’m Sure.

Kate: Why do I feel condescended to and you’re younger than me?

Lisa: So. So that’s the nature of it. And then the other thing I learned in the writing of the book. So it kind of opened my eyes to something, which is, because girls and women are cultivated to talk about feelings, be comfortable expressing feelings. It came as no surprise as I got deep into this that so often when I would get the question of like, how do I get my son to talk about his feelings? It was the mother asking me this. And as I did the work, I’m looking at the research about boys and looking at how by third, fourth, fifth grade at the latest, boys start to feel like, oh, feelings are for girls, toughness is for boys. Then if the only person, let’s say in this heterosexual family who’s asking about feelings is their mother, they’re like, “See, there’s my point. Feelings are for girls.” And so for me, the big takeaway from writing through those sections was, if we really want boys to talk about their feelings, it actually is the men in their lives who need to be like, “Hey buddy, how you feeling? And hey buddy, here’s how I’m feeling.” Because I worry now in a new way that all these really well-meaning moms are entrenching the exact thing they are trying to get out.

Kate: Yes.Yes

Lisa: You know, you’re trying to change.

Kate: I have my child with this giant fishy eyes also has my same absolutely jello face like all the feelings and I keep looking at him, I’m kind of wondering when I won’t see all this, the range of feelings, because that’s just one of the most defining quality about modern manhood, is you get like the amusement and, and meanwhile I’m just like “dun dun dunalop” and trying to like, get the other. But I just, I would I one of the things I would really grieve is a is a flatness of affect when I just see this like technicolor face right now.

Lisa: Yeah. Well, You’ll see. You’ll see. I also think that can be home rules and world rules, you know, and and I hate that there end up being world rules for boys. You know, I but I’m also a pretty realistic person. And I think if you say to your son, you can cry on the playground. There will be no ramifications. Right? Like thats, thats not honest. But I think there can be conversations where you say, of course you’re sad, and of course you’re weeping. That’s exactly the right feeling at the right time. I think it’s really dumb that you can’t do this in front of, you know, your peers. And if anyone does do it in front of you, like you’re going to be the guy who supports him. Like, I think you can have those conversations, but I don’t think it’s an all or nothing.

Kate: Yeah. I hope so.

Lisa: Yeah.

Kate: You had this umm, description of how different. I don’t know the right word, but like disorders, I guess also have gendered aspects because our cultural scripts like box gender’s in a different way. Could you describe those for me a bit?

Lisa: So there are a few cardinal roles in psychology, like some things you learn along the way that like no one disagrees with and you know, in the field and one of them is under distress. Girls tend to internalize and boys tend to externalize. So so girls tend to collapse in on themselves. And in the extreme it shows up as depression and anxiety disorders. And boys tend to act out, to misbehave, to be hard on others. And truly, there’s minimal biological coding for this. It really is the cultures of these are that this is what’s allowed. Right girls if you’re upset, you collapse. Boys, you act out. And so there’s a lot of problems with this. I mean, you know.

Kate: It sounds crazy.

Lisa: It is not good.

Kate:  I don’t have this as an adult this is totally normal.

Lisa: This is not good for anybody. And partly because, you know, we have a lot of boys who are suffering a whole lot. But it’s going seen as, you know, a disciplinary response as opposed to recognizing that there’s a lot of pain underneath.

Kate: Because like on the girl side, then we worry about bulimia, anorexia, nervous kinds of. I don’t know, It makes me sound 19th century nervous disorders, hysteria, traveling moods.. and just joking. But like things that fold in the like. What is the language then? If we were going to like, sharpen our focus on the distressing.

Lisa: Yeah. How do we know when to worry about a boy, right? I mean, I think so. Cure. This is hard because it ends up being anecdotal and I don’t usually like to hang out in the anecdotal world. Like I come from the scientific side. I like to be like, well, we have studies show this and studies show that. And so I will say those things. The rumbling song and I hear rumblings, right? The kinds of things where I’m like “ugh” right, I worry. I worry about boys who are spending a lot of time in digital environments that are like misogyny central. I mean, like vilely, misogynistic and violent video games are an interesting thing. The data don’t say what people want the data to say. But people want the data to say is that if your boy plays violent video games or if your kid plays violent video games, they will suddenly become violent. We actually don’t have those data. What we do have tells us that they will move up on the violence scale. So if your kids pretty mellow doesn’t do a lot, you may be a little more irritable or something, but it’s not going to cause them to become very dangerous. If a kid has a lot of trouble with aggression, they should not be playing violent video games. We can say that with a lot of confidence. Everything in between is murkier and one of those places where I know what we can say, as a scientist is not actually as satisfying to parents. As I think they wish it were. And actually as I wish it were. But I worry about that. I worry about here’s the thing I worry about. You can tell this is unfocused. Like I’m still feeling my way. Yeah. Suppression of emotion as a default response, and the ease with which one can suppress emotion by spending a lot of time online and spending a lot of time gaming, you know, whatever the gaming is.

Kate: Yes, self-soothing in such a flattening way.

Lisa: Yeah. So I think. If if somebody were like tomorrow, you need to make a measure that gets at early indicators of distress in boys. I think it would move into that neighborhood of.. Where are you spending the most time online? How many hours are you playing video games? You know, when you’re upset, how do you help yourself feel better? And having the talking about you know, distraction, distraction, distraction, like giving lots of options. We got to pick it up faster in boys than we are.

Kate: Yeah. I was in, sometimes I go to these like, structured debates and one of them was about like the kind of version of masculinity created by the first sort of come into adulthood, generation raised on video games. And that the form of masculinity which when I, when I heard your description of like under duress like girls might discuss, and then boys might distract. And then I thought, wow. A generation very accustomed to a an an immersive, but also not emotionally dynamic kind of like hobby turned salt. Just sounded like a self-soothing strategy.

Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. I’ll just go beyond this channel. Yeah, right. Like, I’ll just go to that channel and then I don’t have to be on that other channel.

Kate: This is how I wind down.

Lisa: Yeah. And, and I will say just another thing I learned in writing this book. I actually came to be more, I came around a bit on distraction. Like, I came to value it more because, you know, it’s so easy to be like, Oh..

Kate: Yeah. You don’t make it so bad.

Lisa: I don’t think it’s that bad actually.

Kate: I like this.

Lisa: And I’ll tell you, I think a lot of it is the pandemic, you know, that like it’s how we got through it, was like watching as much television as we could. And then just trying to wait the thing out with distractions and then post-pandemic. I don’t know, maybe you have this experience too. Like I distract all the time too, to regulate myself.

Kate: Yes, it’s great.

Lisa: It’s fantastic!

Kate: I don’t want to engage, and I actually need a minute.

Lisa: Yeah. Yeah. And I’ve come to see on distraction. I’m like, it’s not distraction, it’s dosing. That’s the issue. And that and I had that thought after the book was done, but it’s really improved my.. and though I say it essentially in the book. I don’t say it that way.

Kate: Yeah. And dosing is like.

Lisa: It’s got to be the right dose, like enough that you get the relief you need, but you don’t cause a whole bunch of new problems, you know, And so.

Kate: That the thing that is going to set off all the dominoes.

Lisa: Exactly like you haven’t done your homework and now you’ve got a huge problem there. So I am, I’m having better conversations with teenagers about distraction.

Kate: Yeah.

Lisa: When when I make it clear, like, no, I’m totally like, I think distraction definitely plays a key role in how we maintain emotional equilibrium. You got to dose it so you’re not causing trouble for yourself and that those are more successful conversations.

Kate: Yeah. Yeah. If someone has a I’m just going to say this in a way that feels realistic to me. What if your teenager just has like a horrible personality for a while and you’re like, kind of, I know I love you in some deep and ontological way, but I feel horrible after I spend time with you and you are intimately cruel to me and I’m not really enjoying our person are who and whatever end.. and and, like I’m and I’m sure there’s grief in that. Like you used to love me for the love of God. We used to get along.To that parent. What do you say?

Lisa: First of all, what I say is you’re almost certainly describing a typically developing a 13 year old girl or 14 year old boy. So, I mean, so like your audience, your kid isn’t horrible. No, your kid isn’t horrible. And it’s actually incredibly right on time and predictable. And I have a section in the book called “Why Your Teen Hates How You Chew.” And it really is about this point in development where you can do nothing right. Like, everything you do is just so annoying to them. And. And I unpack in there something that became clear to me actually, in my own parenting. I’m like, oh, it’s this separation individuation stuff. The theoretical description does not do justice to what it feels like in your house. Where your kid is like, oh my God, you’re. breathing, in a way I just can’t be around. So I lay out in the book why this happens. And I think it does help to have.

Lisa: And why. It’s happening for a reason. They’re trying. The way I describe it is they’re trying to build their own brand and it’s kind of a corny way to use it, do it, but it actually works.  Like, okay, so you’re you’ve got your kid, they’re 13, 14. They’re like, I need my own brand. This is the separation and individuation.

Kate: I’m me. You’re you.

Lisa: I’m me. You’re you. So what that means is at that time, as your teen is trying to build their brand, anything that you do that is like the version of themselves they see themselves becoming, that is annoying to them. So like, if you have always, liked Beyonce and then suddenly your kid likes Beyonce, it will terrorize her that you also like Beyonce. Because Beyonce is part of her emerging brand. But also, anything that you do that is not like how they see themselves. Like that dorky sweater you want to wear to eighth grade, you know, orientation, is also horrible for them because it does not fit with their emerging brand. And because they’re 13, 14, we’re still pretty closely intertwined. So you see where this is going.

Kate: So the good things and all teh bad things, means you’re the worst.

Lisa: You’re the worst. If it’s like how they see themselves becoming, it’s awful. If it’s unlike how they see themselves becoming, it’s awful. Everything we do is awful! Now, it’s horrible. Okay, So here’s the it’s gets better speech. But then I’ll also tell you what to do in the meantime, because it’s really not fun as a parent. The it gets better is kids start to consolidate a sense of brand. Like they start to get a sense of like what they’re good at and what they’re into and how it’s distinct from you. And they also have time to develop skills. So the reason this tends to settle down at 14, 15 is they’re into high school, they’ve joined the Latin Club or they’re a pitcher on the baseball team and you don’t do these things like this is their distinct universe. So you can wear that dorky sweater that has nothing to do with me. I’m over here on cheer team, right? Like and that, and so then they don’t mind us so much. And so that is coming. While you’re in the thick of it. It feels personal. It is not as personal as it feels. Right. This is really separation individuation doing its job.

Kate: Yeah.

Lisa: But the advice I gives you can say to a kid doing this, so the kid who you’re like, I love you, but I do not like you right now. Yeah, you can say to them you have three options for how you can interact with me: you can be pleasant, that’s my favorite. You can be polite. Or you can tell me you need space. Everything else is off the table. And that can help keep a little bit of civility while they’re figuring out their brand.

Kate: You may not berate me. You may not humiliate me. You might think that you may not use me as a punching bag for your catharsis.

Lisa: Yeah. Yeah.

Kate: That is nice to feel that like, even in the awful part. That it is modeling also just a form of conflict that we want for them in every other way. We would never want them to treat other people even in the worst moments. That sounds like its sets, a really nice painful template with a horrible, painful template.

Lisa: Well, and it’s interesting that’s a good example of where there’s not home rules and world rules. Right. So there may be home rules where you’re like, You can cry here, but I get it. You can’t cry at the fifth grade playground. But I really feel strongly as a parent, and I’m not the first person to say this, like no one will think our kids are as cute as we think our kids are. So, like I really don’t believe, like, you get to be a jerk at home. Because I’m like, yeah no, you can’t treat us that way. You can’t treat anybody that way. It won’t fly here. It won’t fly there. You can’t do it. And so I think on the darker stuff, it’s. It’s not fun to put ones foot down, but I think it’s really important.

Kate: Yes. Yes. This is not who we are to each other.

Lisa: And actually. If a parent has never treated their child that way, which of course, I would always recommend. It’s very powerful to say I have never spoken to you that way. You cannot speak to me that way. And so then if a parents well actually I have spoken to my kid that way. Well now is the time to revisit and say, you know what, I I’ve spoken to the way in the past I was wrong. What I hear coming from your mouth that was wrong. I will never speak to you that way again. And we’re turning over to the new leaf, and I’m going to ask you to never speak to me that way again. But I think. You can hold the standard if you’ve said it.

Kate: Yes. Yes. It also sounds like a very emotional time for the parent, especially if they haven’t been parented in that way. I know all kinds of people who the second that they’re there, they’re developing their own parenting philosophy has opened up a lot of like, “Oh, my gosh. I probably should have gotten some of this input.  Yeah, I probably should have gotten empathy.” What’s commonly known as empathy. So hypothetically nurture, a sense of perspective in one’s own feelings.

Lisa: Yeah.

Kate: What would you say to a parent who’s like, I am not right now. I’m on really shaky ground because I just didn’t. I didn’t get that.

Lisa: Oh, man, I you know, I talk I tell a story in the book about someone whose daughter goes through something that was not unlike what they went through.

Kate: Yeah.

Lisa: The term I use in the book was that for her, it felt like a harrowing psychological hall of mirrors. And and what she described to me, and I’ve heard it more than once, is becoming a parent and you know, which is just an experience like you can’t describe.

Kate: You can’t do that in the lab.

Lisa: Yeah. You just, you have to live this thing. Allows one to then revisit one’s own childhood experience and be able to stand in both spots. Because, you know, as a kid, you just didn’t the kids bite and you’re like, I guess this is how families work. And then when you’re a parent, you’re like, No, it is it? I would never speak to my own child that way. And it, like, brings all of this stuff back with a new added dimension of like. Woh, like my parents made choices that they didn’t have to make or that a different choice could be made. And because I think as a kid, you know, one of the things I remember learning in my training is kids work so hard to hold on to their good feelings about their parents. And I think that’s really true. And so then I think when parents, you know, have a lot of limitations because they’re like, Yeah, but that’s the only option. I’m sure they did the best they could. And then I think for a lot of those people, when they become parents are like, No.

Kate: No, it’s horrifying realism.

Lisa: Yeah, and it’s really painful and it’s really, I think, kind of shocking. I think that’s the experiences that they’re like, wooh, like I see this with new eyes and it’s a very painful thing. That’s the sad part. Here’s the other thing I’ve heard repeatedly. That the act of doing differently for your own kid ends up having a therapeutic effect on one’s self. And I just I don’t know that I’ve ever heard that really talked about enough or written about enough. But of course, I’m a huge fan of therapy, and that’s probably a great time if you’re like, “There’s a lot more than I realize. I need to unpack.” That’s a great time to go back. But also like to turn around and do for your kid what you wish had been done for you. Like, that’s a beautiful thing. Yeah, yeah.

Kate: Yeah. And to practice modeling by creating the template is a lot of work. But man, when you see the the cost of doing it otherwise.

Lisa: That’s right.

Kate: It just feels like someone’s got to pay it.

Lisa: Yep.

Kate: Sometimes it’s just got to be you.

Lisa: Yep.

Kate: Your intense compassion. Also, I’m pretty sure I’m in the age group now where movies are being shamelessly marketed toward me as the parent. Who then is like, actually that kid? That’s a that’s an irresponsible choice. In the movie, I’m like the parent waiting up late. I worrying that their kid isn’t going to. I don’t I don’t think I can watch Netflix teen shows anymore. I think I’m pretty sure this is where I’m landing with that. Lisa, your ability to be empathetic and realistic and scientifically grounded and kind and cool has made you an absolutely beautiful person to talk to. Thank you so much for doing this with me.

Lisa: Thank you. That is a really lovely thing to say.

Kate: I want to have a lot of problems in the future. I’ll be right there.

Lisa: This has been a total pleasure.

Kate: The best.

Kate: I just love the way that Lisa makes it feel like we’re all going to be okay. Our teenagers are going to be okay, that big emotions are okay. She gives us such soft, gentle language for acknowledging that this is hard for us and for them. So before I go, here’s a blessing. A blessing for parents of teenagers, or just those who love teenagers. I also feel like this should come with one of those slightly heretical votive candles with like a picture of Lisa on the side so that we can all pray to Saint Lisa Damour, to give us strength as we navigate these hard seasons of parenting. But no, really, I think I think we all need some of those. Also, though, if blessings are your thing, just know that I do this every week on social media, on Instagram and what was once Twitter and Facebook, but regular blessings, especially on Sundays for a variety of topics. So if this is one that you want to share, you can head on over to Kate’s C. Bowler, and you’ll find it there. All right. Here is a blessing for parenting teenagers. Bless you who love a teenager, you whose worries about them keep you up at night wondering if you’re doing it right, if they’re going to be okay. If you overreacted or under reacted. If you’re going to make it through tomorrow without losing it, or how you have to have that hard conversation without them shutting down or shutting you out. Bless you in this hard, beautiful work. In those moments of big feelings, may you remember to take a beat and offer a “If I was in your shoes, I’d feel the same way.” Even when you’re tempted to give them advice or to solve their problems for them, or to offer how they could have maybe avoided that problem in the first place. Bless you in your restraint. And may your constant love relieve their fears. And yours. May laughter and joy fill your home, fueling even the hardest of moments or most difficult of conversations. And bless all of you who wish you could have gotten this kind of parenting. And bless you who want to do it differently even when it’s imperfect. Bless you, my dears.

Kate Bowler: This is my favorite part because I get to thank everyone who makes this work possible. Oh, my word. Thank you to our generous partners. The people at the Lilly Endowment and the Duke Endowment have been such incredible supports from the very beginning. They love storytelling about faith and life, and I am so grateful to them for it. Thank you also to my academic home, Duke Divinity School, and our new podcast network Lemonade, where their slogan is “When life gives You Lemons, listen to Lemonade.” It’s just honestly, it makes me laugh every time. And of course, a massive shout out to my incredible team who really does all the behind the scenes work Jessica Richie, Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Higgenbotham, Brenda Thompson, Hope Anderson, Kristen Belzer, Catherine Smith. And a special shout out to Jed Burt for this episode who endured canceled flights, disconnections, oversold rental cars, baggage claim issues, and a flat tire for 4 hours with no cell phone service just to make it in time to tape this conversation with Lisa. So, yeah, that dude was boondoggle. Jeb, you really are the best. I heard you complain not once. We have some really fun things coming this fall, and I don’t want you to miss anything. So if you go over to Katebowler.com/newsletter, you can sign up for my free weekly email, which has tons of insider information, video clips from this episode, you can see Lisa’s beautiful face, discussion questions, must read books, free printables, all kinds of things. And I’ll be sure then to send you a link to Lisa’s podcast called Ask Lisa, where she asks those difficult parenting questions like, You know, what do I do about vaping? Or how much gaming is too much? You know, easy questions like that. Oh, thank you, Lisa, and my lovely listener. If it is at all possible, could you do a very, very helpful thing and leave me a review on Apple Podcasts or on Spotify? It makes a huge difference for people who are wondering, Is this for me? And while you’re there, if you want then to subscribe to our feed, then you won’t miss any new episodes that air every Tuesday. We love hearing your voice, so leave us a voicemail. We might even use it on the air. Call us at 919-322-8731. All right, my dears. I’m going to talk to you next week. And I’m going to be speaking with writer Emi Nietfeld, who is just giving the most gorgeous, damning takedown of what it means to be resilient. You are seriously not going to want to miss the moment where I start clapping for her on the podcast. It was so, so good. But in the meantime, come find me online at Kate C Bowler. This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.

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