Reflecting on Lisa Damour’s New Book About Stress and Anxiety in Girls

April 29, 2019

By Deborah Offner

As I read Lisa Damour’s latest book, Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, I felt as if she had swooped into my counseling office and the schools where I consult to speak candidly about the girls I know. As a psychologist who specializes in adolescent girls, I counsel some patients whose symptoms—shortness of breath, sweating, shaking, rapid heartbeat, migraine headache, abdominal discomfort—are so debilitating they often spend extended periods in the nurse’s office or miss school altogether.

If you teach, advise, coach, or live with adolescent girls, then you are familiar with their unprecedented levels of stress and anxiety. According to Damour, 31% of girls and young women experience anxiety compared with 13% of boys and young men. Under Pressure puts anxious girls’ otherwise perplexing behavior in context. It is a pertinent sequel to the 2016 bestselling Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood. This time around, Damour—who is consulting psychologist at Laurel School (OH) and executive director of Laurel’s Center for Research on Girls—integrates her deep understanding of girls’ inner lives from her counseling work and immersion in school life with her facile knowledge of empirical literature on adolescent psychology.

After reading her book and seeing her speak about it, I noted some key takeaways for educators and school leaders.

Stress and anxiety. Stress is necessary for growth. And school, Damour notes, is actually supposed to be stressful, in the healthy way; it challenges students in order to facilitate their intellectual and emotional development. Pushing students beyond their comfort zones—academically, athletically, and socially—is what the most thoughtful independent schools do well.

“Stress becomes unhealthy,” Damour says, “when it exceeds what a person can absorb or benefit from.” The point at which that occurs is different for everyone. “Whether stress becomes unhealthy depends upon two variables: the nature of the problem and the person upon whom the problem lands,” she writes. This explains to all of us who work with students why some whose lives seem so privileged and secure might struggle emotionally while others in “objectively” difficult personal situations may seem calm and content.

She also describes how anxiety can serve as an important signal or warning sign. Damour tells a story of a patient who found herself inexplicably anxious at an ill-fated house party. In response to her nervous feelings, she (uncharacteristically) accepted a shot of liquor along with the beer she was already drinking, as she thought it would help her calm down. She ended up getting so drunk she landed in the emergency room. Damour explains how she helped the girl see that her anxiety at the party was acting as an ally, not an enemy, signaling to her that she was not in a good environment and needed to find an excuse to go home.

I’ve found that teen and even tween girls are remarkably good at understanding what might be driving their anxiety. But to use their anxiety as a friend and informant, girls need adults to be curious with them and to assume there’s probably a reason for their feelings. Using health class or advisory time to help girls reframe stress as important information encourages them to listen to themselves and restores them some control.

Coping strategies. Damour notes that while girls should avoid some situations that are truly dangerous, running away from situations that simply make them anxious is not helpful. She explains, “Everything we know in academic psychology tells us that avoidance only makes anxiety worse.”

My advice to schools is that when students have panic attacks, they should be given a space (the nurse’s office or infirmary, an advisor’s office) to let the physical symptoms such as racing heart, shaking, sweating, and dizziness subside. Once that’s happened, students should move right back into their usual routines. Otherwise, their avoidance of the place where the attack happened—a classroom, the gym, or cafeteria—can turn into habit. The fear of having another attack can become a reason to stay out of class, off the playing field, or away from school altogether. 

At one school where I consulted, we assumed it best to send one student home when her panic attacks wore her out physically and emotionally (and distracted her friend group from their studies). After speaking with her outside psychologist, however, I learned that their treatment plan prescribed staying in school after panic attacks. We quickly reversed the school’s practice, and the therapist’s advice worked.

Negative stereotypes. Sometimes when members of a particular social group perform poorly on a task, it isn’t because they lack proficiency or knowledge but because they’ve internalized a negative stereotype about their group’s abilities. For example, if girls believe that they are, by virtue of their gender, not strong in math or science, they may undermine their own performance out of fear of confirming this negative stereotype. Girls often don’t know they’ve internalized the stereotype. Naming the phenomenon, Damour says, and even sharing ample evidence that contradicts the stereotype, can reduce its power over female students.

Sharing scientific evidence debunking this myth with faculty (and parents) can be useful as well. I encourage schools to assign psychologist Claude Steele’s Whistling Vivaldi as a faculty summer reading book and to structure some conversations about how Steele’s research and concept of “stereotype threat” apply within the school community. I also recommend that schools offer a parent forum on the topic, with attention to how it affects girls and students of color in particular.

Sexuality. Damour encourages parents and teachers to talk candidly with girls about their sexuality. Talking to girls about their wishes and needs makes them less, rather than more, vulnerable to sexual coercion, she says.

High school (and some middle school) girls in my own practice describe boys requesting nude photos and sending unsolicited ones of themselves as a routine occurrence. Damour challenges schools to create technology policies that prohibit students from sending nude photos and requesting them.

I also recommend that schools include substantial technology training in a health and wellness class or advisory. This unit should detail the interpersonal and sexual aspects of digital communication and must be updated regularly, as this is a rapidly shifting and complex landscape. Keeping these conversations grounded in the complex dynamics of peer-to-peer relationships is important. According to Damour, “Experts note that adolescents aren’t enthralled by the technology—they’re enthralled by the peers at the other end of the technology they happen to be using.” I often remind parents and educators that students’ daily lives remain every bit as complex and challenging as they were before Instagram or cell phones existed.

Acknowledging that widespread anxiety affects at least one-third of female students’ ability to learn, work, and play can seem overwhelming for students and school administrators alike. Gaining a basic understanding of its mechanisms and effects can help school leaders support anxious students more effectively. Schools are uniquely positioned to help girls confront their fears and anxieties and to ensure they can utilize the stress they encounter to enhance their self-protection, motivation, and growth.

Why Girls Beat Boys at School and Lose to Them at the Office

The New York Times

Hard work and discipline help girls outperform boys in class, but that advantage disappears in the work force. Is school the problem?

Lisa Damour

By Lisa Damour

Ms. Damour is a clinical psychologist.

CreditWenting Li
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CreditCreditWenting Li

From elementary school through college, girls are more disciplinedabout their schoolwork than boys; they study harder and get better grades. Girls consistently outperform boys academically. And yet, men nonetheless hold a staggering 95 percent of the top positions in the largest public companies.

What if those same habits that propel girls to the top of their class — their hyper-conscientiousness about schoolwork — also hold them back in the work force?

When investigating what deters professional advancement for women, the journalists Katty Kay and Claire Shipman found that a shortage of competence is less likely to be an obstacle than a shortage of confidence. When it comes to work-related confidence, they found men are far ahead. “Underqualified and underprepared men don’t think twice about leaning in,” they wrote. “Overqualified and overprepared, too many women still hold back. Women feel confident only when they are perfect.”

As a psychologist who works with teenagers, I hear this concern often from the parents of many of my patients. They routinely remark that their sons do just enough to keep the adults off their backs, while their daughters relentlessly grind, determined to leave no room for error. The girls don’t stop until they’ve polished each assignment to a high shine and rewritten their notes with color-coded precision.

We need to ask: What if school is a confidence factory for our sons, but only a competence factory for our daughters?

This possibility hit me when I was caring for an eighth grader in my practice. She got terrific grades but was feeling overwhelmed by school. Her brother, a ninth grader, had similarly excellent grades, but when I asked if he worked as hard as she did, she scoffed. If she worked on an assignment for an hour and got an A, she felt “safe” only if she spent a full hour on other assignments like it. Her brother, in contrast, flew through his work. When he brought home an A, she said, he felt “like a stud.” If his grades slipped a bit, he would take his effort up just a notch. But she never felt “safe” enough to ever put in less than maximum effort.

That experience — of succeeding in school while exerting minimal or moderate effort — is a potentially crucial one. It may help our sons develop confidence, as they see how much they can accomplish simply by counting on their wits. For them, school serves as a test track, where they build their belief in their abilities and grow increasingly at ease relying on them. Our daughters, on the other hand, may miss the chance to gain confidence in their abilities if they always count on intellectual elbow grease alone.

So how do we get hyper-conscientious girls (and boys, as there certainly are some with the same style) to build both confidence and competence at school?

First, parents and teachers can stop praising inefficient overwork, even if it results in good grades. Gendered approaches to learning set in early, so it’s never too soon to start working against them. Recently, as I read “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban” to my 8-year-old daughter, I stopped at a passage in which Hermione — the fictional poster child for academic fastidiousness — turned in an essay that was “two rolls of parchment more than Professor Binns asked for.” Hermione, I pointed out, doesn’t make great use of her time. She’s a capable student and could probably do just as well without working so hard. “Right,” my daughter said. “Of course she could!”

We can also encourage girls toward a different approach to school — one that’s more focused on economy of effort, rather than how many hours they put in. Whenever one of the academically impressive and persistently anxious girls in my practice tells me about staying up until 2 in the morning studying, I see an opening. That’s the moment to push them to become tactical, to figure out how to continue learning and getting the same grades while doing a little bit less. I urge my patients — and my own teenage daughter — to begin study sessions by taking sample tests, to see how much they know before figuring out how much more they need to do to attain mastery over a concept or task. Many girls build up an incredible capacity for work, but they need these moments to discover and take pride in how much they already understand.

Teachers, too, can challenge girls’ over-the-top tendencies. When a girl with a high-A average turns in extra credit work, her instructor might ask if she is truly taken with the subject or if she is looking to store up “insurance points,” as some girls call them. If it’s the former, more power to her. If it’s the latter, the teacher might encourage the student to trust that what she knows and the work she is already doing will almost certainly deliver the grade she wants. Educators can also point out to this student that she may not need insurance; she probably has a much better grasp of the material than she gives herself credit for.

Finally, we can affirm for girls that it is normal and healthy to feel some anxiety about school. Too often, girls are anxious even about being anxious, so they turn to excessive studying for comfort. We can remind them that being a little bit nervous about schoolwork just means that they care about it, which of course they should.

Even if neither you nor your daughter cares about becoming a chief executive, you may worry that she will eventually be crushed by the weight of her own academic habits. While a degree of stress promotes growth, working at top speed in every class at all times is unhealthy and unsustainable for even the most dedicated high school students. A colleague of mine likes to remind teenagers that in classes where any score above 90 counts as an A, the difference between a 91 and a 99 is a life.

To be sure, the confidence gap is hardly the only thing keeping women out of top jobs. Women also face gender bias, sexual harassment and powerful structural barriers in the workplace. But confidence at school is one unequal advantage that we can address right now. Instead of standing by as our daughters make 50 flashcards when they were assigned 20, we can step in and ask them why. Many professional men brim with confidence because they have spent years getting to know their abilities. Women should arrive in the work world having done the same.

Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist in Shaker Heights, Ohio, is the author of the forthcoming “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.”

Why Teenagers Become ‘Allergic’ to Their Parents

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The arrival of spring is often prime time for hay fever, but adolescents seem to be able to develop an allergy to their parents, either intermittent or chronic, at any time of the year. This allergy usually has a sudden onset around age 13 and can last for months or, in some cases, years. While it’s no fun to become the parent who cannot order food or hum along to a song without irritating his or her own child, we’re better able to ride out this temporary adolescent affliction when we appreciate its causes.

Growing up involves becoming separate from our parents. This project often begins in early adolescence with an abrupt and powerful urge to distinguish oneself from the adults at home. It’s no small task for teenagers to detach from those who have superintended nearly every aspect of their lives so far.

As teenagers begin to disentangle from their folks, they inevitably sort a parent’s every behavior and predilection into one of two categories: those they reject, and those they intend to adopt. Unfortunately for the peace of the household, each of these categories creates its own problem for teenagers intent on establishing their individuality.

You may think nothing of wearing dated athletic shoes, but if your teenager doesn’t agree with your choice of footwear he may, at least for a while, find it unbearable. Why should it matter to him what’s on yourfeet? Because his identity is still interwoven with yours; until he’s had time to establish his own look, your style can cramp his.

Given this, you’d think that teenagers wouldn’t be allergic to the proclivities they share with their parents. But they are, precisely because the interests are mutual.

The son of a colleague stopped running with his dad once his membership on the cross-country team became the organizing force of his high school identity. The boy still ran, of course, but now with friends or alone. He could not, at least in the near term, feel separate from his father and still go out jogging with him.

In short, adults can find themselves in a season of parenting when nothing they do sits right with their teenagers.

While we wait for this season to pass, what should we do when our teenager can hardly stand how we operate our turn signals?

For starters, we might view it as a reassuring marker of normal development. While we know, intuitively, that our children will not always admire and enjoy us the way they often do when they are young, it’s easier to part with our pedestals when we remember that our adolescents’ new allergies herald the next chapter in our relationships with them.

From there, we can either ignore their annoyance or remind our children that they are free to be aggravated, but not rude. If necessary, we can gently point out that it won’t be long before they’ll be driving and operating the turn signals just as they please.

Finally, we can sometimes welcome teenage self-consciousness as an opportunity to connect. When I was growing up and a friend of mine’s allergy to his parents was at its absolute height, his mother would allow him to choose her outfit when they needed to attend school events together. Of course the case can be made against indulging adolescent hypersensitivities. But the case can also be made that eighth-grade orientation is already stressful enough. If wearing one sweater rather than another makes little difference to you, why not do what you can to ease your tween’s mind?

As for my colleague, he dearly missed going on runs with his son, just as many parents of adolescents long for the days when their preteen laughed at their jokes and happily came along on errands. We are rarely as ready to separate from our teenagers as they are ready to separate from us.

Even when you don’t take your child’s secession from your union personally, it still hurts. Having other interests and supportive relationships can help. Go out for coffee with friends whose teenagers also look at them askance and reassure your wife that she’s still got it, even if her dance moves do cause your ninth-grade daughter to break out in hives.

For teenagers whose allergies manifest as persistent disrespect, laying down some ground rules can help. A wise friend of mine tells her adolescent son that he can be friendly, polite, or clear about needing some time alone; insolence, however, is off the table. And though it’s painful to be treated as an irritant, holding a grudge can sour those unexpected moments when even the most reactive teenager welcomes our company.

Once teenagers have had time and space to establish their own skills, interests and tastes, their allergic response to their parents usually dies down. Plus, neurological development is on our side. As they age, adolescents’ evolving cognitive capacities allow them to think beyond seeing their parents only as being like, or unlike, how they themselves want to be.

Now they can sort what they see in us into categories that could not exist before. We can have bothersome quirks that our teenagers view as entirely our own; we can have characteristics they admire, but don’t care to cultivate. And our teenagers can embrace interests that they happen to share with us.

Teenagers’ allergies to their parents may make a brief return at moments when they want tight control of their personal brands — such as during college visits, or when highly regarded peers are nearby. But at some point you may be able to return to blowing goodbye kisses without causing your teenager anything more than mild discomfort. And your dance moves might even get a little long overdue respect, too.

Why Your Grumpy Teenager Doesn’t Want to Talk to You

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Most parents have seen their teenager start the day in a reasonably good mood, but then return from school draped in gloom and chilly silence. As hard as it can be to support our children when they tell us what’s wrong, it’s that much harder to help the obviously upset adolescent who turns down a warm invitation to talk.

These interactions usually unfold in an awkward and predictable sequence. We earnestly ask, “Is everything O.K.?” and our teenager responds with a full stop “No,” an insincere “Yeah,” or freezes us out while fielding a flurry of texts. We then tend to nurse a sense of injury that our teenager has rebuffed our loving support.

But when adolescents hold their cards close to their chests, they often have a good reason. To better ease our own minds and be more useful to our teenagers we can consider some of the ordinary, if often overlooked, explanations for their reticence.

They Worry We’ll Have the Wrong Reaction

Our children often know us better than we know ourselves, having spent their young lives learning our reflexive responses. When a teenager feels lousy about bombing a test but knows that you are likely to tell her that she should have studied more, she won’t be eager to talk.

If you suspect this might be a barrier and can listen without getting defensive, just ask, “Are you worried that I’ll have a bad reaction?” You might start a valuable conversation — even if it’s not the one you were looking for — while paving the way to better talks down the line. And we should probably think twice about the long-term implications of saying “I told you so” to our teenagers (even when we did tell them so).

They Anticipate Negative Repercussions

Parents focused on the narrow question of what went wrong can forget that our adolescents, who have more information than we do, are probably thinking about a bigger picture. Impassive silence can hide a teenager’s whirring deliberations: “Will Dad limit my driving privileges if I tell him that I put a ding in the car?” or “If I explain that Nikki had a pregnancy scare, will Mom be weird about it when I want to hang out with her next weekend?”

We can’t always keep ourselves from feeling judgmental about teenagers. And, to be sure, there are adolescents (and adults) who get stuck in worrisome ruts. But as a psychologist, there are two rules I live by: good kids do dumb things, and I never have the whole story.

Recognizing that teenagers (and, again, adults) screw up from time to time can improve communication. On the days when they do feel like sharing, we can alert adolescents to our compassionate and forgiving stance by saying, “I know you’re bummed about the car. How do you want to make this right?” or “That must have been really scary for Nikki. Is she doing O.K.?

They Know That Parents Sometimes Blab

Teenagers are often justly concerned that we might repeat what they tell us. Sometimes we only realize in retrospect that news we divulged to others felt top-secret to our teenager. And sometimes they tell us critical information — such as word of a suicidal classmate — that must be passed along.

Whether you owe your teenager an apology for past indiscretions or are trying to get ahead of the issue, I think it’s fair and kind to promise adolescents a very high degree of confidentiality at home. Our teenagers deserve to have a place where they can process, or at least dump, delicate details about themselves or the scores of other kids with whom they must find a way to coexist.

Parents, like therapists, can lay out the limits of what we can keep private. Adolescents are usually sensible; they expect adults to act on news that they or a peer might be in immediate danger. But we can help teenagers speak more freely by making it clear that, barring a crisis, we will keep their secrets and offer moral support as they and their friends weather typical adolescent storms, such as painful breakups. And when our teenagers do share critical information about their peers, we can include them in the process of deciding how to pass along what they’ve told us.

Talking Doesn’t Feel Like the Solution

A wise teenager in my practice once said to me, “You know, I’m 90 percent of the way over what happened at school by the time I get home. Rehashing it all for my mom isn’t going to help me get past it.”

Even when we don’t know the source of our child’s turmoil, we should operate from the assumption that our teenager will soon feel better. Of course there are real grounds for concern when adolescents are miserable day after day and cannot bounce back from their emotional downturns. But most of the time psychological well-being is like physical well-being: Healthy people fall ill, but they recover.

We don’t take our adolescents’ viruses personally and we probably shouldn’t take their grumpy moods personally, either. Happily, the support we offer the flu-stricken also works when teenagers come down with grouchy silence. Without delving into what’s wrong, we can ask if there’s anything we can do to help them feel better. Would they like our quiet company or prefer some time alone? Is there a comfort food we can offer or is there something they want to watch on TV?

There’s more value in providing tender, generic support than we might imagine. It is difficult for teenagers to maintain perspective all the time. The speed of adolescent development sometimes makes teenagers lose their emotional footing and worry that they will never feel right again. We send our teenagers a powerful, reassuring message when we accept and are not alarmed by their inscrutable unease: I can bear your distress, and you can, too.

Advice on Helping Teen Girls Thrive

The Wall Street Journal

Stumped by a teenager’s mood swings? Read the latest research on helping girls between 10 and 15 years old flourish

New research offers insight into helping teenage girls thrive. 

Screaming, slamming doors and careening from one emotional outburst to the next—all can be part of life with a teenage girl.

Although girls approaching their teens are often years ahead of boys in gaining height, language and social skills, those strengths mask some important vulnerabilities.

Questions about helping teen girls thrive are a source of interest for psychologists and neuroscientists, sparking more than three dozen studies in the past year. Here’s a guide to the findings:

Ages 10 to 11: Early signs of puberty set in sooner than many parents expect. Girls begin staying up later and having their first crushes. Many are beset by strong, volatile emotions, ending a period of relative calm from ages 6 to 11, says Lisa Damour, a psychologist and director of the Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls in Shaker Heights, Ohio.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

Some girls mature faster and begin menstruating at age 10 or 11, compared with an average of 12 to 13. Early-maturing girls are at higher risk of behavior problems and depression. Girls who look older than their years often attract older peers who may lead them into risky behaviors.

Early-maturing girls who hang out with school friends the same age, rather than older friends from outside school, fare better. Also, those who say they’re close to parents and can talk with them about many things have a better chance of thriving, research shows.

Ages 12 to 13: Girls typically are more skilled than boys at expressing their emotions and interpreting others’ moods at this stage. They’re quicker to grasp nuances of humor.

Girls are also more vulnerable to stress than boys.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

A stress hormone that has a calming effect on teen males and adults may make teen girls more anxious, based on research on female rats. And teen girls are more sensitive to rejection, showing a sharper rise in stress hormones when trained peers in laboratory simulations exclude them from conversations, according to a 2017 study of 59 children and teens led by Laura R. Stroud, a senior research scientist at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School.

Girls whose parents give them strategies for solving social problems—by suggesting they join a school club to meet peers with similar interests, for example—have stronger friendships, according to a 2017 study which surveyed 123 middle-schoolers and their parents and teachers twice over 10 months.

Girls also need help managing strong emotions, Dr. Damour says. One eighth-grade girl screamed in distress after finding out about a bad grade online, as if “she walked into a mass-murder scene,” the girl’s father told researchers in a 2016 study.

Teenage girls are hardwired for drama, according to Family therapist Colleen O’Grady, author of “Dial Down the Drama.” But there are key ways daughters and mothers can find common ground. She offers tips for keeping the peace on Lunch Break with Tanya Rivero. Photo: iStock

Parents should avoid overreacting. “The No. 1 mistake parents make when their kid is in distress is to jump in to solve the problem,” says Michael Y. Simon, an author and school counselor in New Orleans.

Simply helping a girl name what she’s feeling and talk about it can have an almost magical calming effect, Dr. Damour says. Teens who are able to ask for and receive support and problem-solving help from their mothers at age 13 tend to be more independent and better educated at 25, according to a 12-year study of 184 subjects.

Some girls try to cope by sharing too much or attacking others on social media, which tends to amplify bad feelings. Dr. Damour advises curbing social-media use and guiding girls toward face-to-face activities instead.

Ages 14 to 15: Girls’ interactions with parents can take a negative turn, and some become pessimistic in the face of challenges. Boys offered a chance to win rewards in a Wheel of Fortune-like game became excited and motivated, while girls said the challenge made them anxious, says a 2017 study of 167 teens with an average age of 14.

ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

Girls tend to have more negative conflicts with parents than boys. A certain amount of arguing helps teens learn to control themselves and negotiate differences, Mr. Simon says. Parents who can listen with respect and disagree calmly make teens feel as if their opinions matter, helping build a sense of identity.

Some teens, however, unconsciously dump negative feelings on a parent so Mom or Dad will feel bad in their stead, says Dr. Damour, author of “Untangled,” a best-selling book on raising adolescent girls. They also tend to make bad feelings worse by ruminating or brooding over them. Rumination is linked to depression in teen girls, who suffer the malady at nearly twice the rate of boys.

If a girl is ruminating on a problem she can do something about, help her get started on working toward a solution, Dr. Damour says. If it’s something she can’t change, help her find a happy distraction. Preteen and teenage girls posted lasting improvements in feelings of mastery and closeness with others after taking part in a one-week mountain-biking program where they were also coached on goal-setting, self-expression and team-building, according to a 2016 study of 87 girls.

Teen girls who embrace goals that involve helping others also have a higher likelihood of thriving. Such teens tend to have parents who trust them and listen when they talk about problems, says a coming study of 207 girls led by Belle Liang, a professor of counseling and psychology at Boston College.

Write to Sue Shellenbarger at sue.shellenbarger@wsj.com

Appeared in the Apr. 12, 2017, print edition as ‘Teenage Girls: An Expert Guide.’

What Do Teenagers Want? Potted Plant Parents

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CreditKim Murton

Many parents feel that their adolescents hardly need them anymore. Teenagers often come and go on their own schedules, sometimes rebuff our friendly questions about their days, and can give the impression that interacting with the family is an imposition that comes at the cost of connecting, digitally or otherwise, with friends.

So here’s a complaint one might not expect to hear from teenagers: They wish their parents were around more often.

I spend part of my time as a consultant to schools, where I see teenagers as they go about their regular days. On several occasions over the years students have explained to me that their parents are rarely home. Sometimes, they tell me why — a single mother works long hours, the parents have saturated social lives, a sibling is in crisis — and sometimes they don’t.

Regardless of the surrounding circumstances, the teenagers who say they are longing for more time with their folks invariably seem self-sufficient and independent. Knowing this, I often suspect that the same adolescent who laments her parents’ absence might only faintly acknowledge their presence when they are in fact home.

A new study from Australia confirms the importance of a parent’s physical presence on adolescent health. Researchers from the University of Western Australia studied 3,000 middle- and high school students, including 618 adolescents with one parent who lived away from home for long stretches because of work, like a job on an offshore oil rig or a distant construction site. The researchers wanted to know how the extended absences of these “fly-in, fly-out” parents might affect the emotional and behavioral health of their children.

Overall, most adolescents felt their parents were present in their lives regardless of their work hours. However, a slightly higher percentage of teenagers who experienced the long work absence of a parent had emotional or behavioral problems compared with those whose parents worked more traditional hours.

This echoes research finding high rates of emotional distress in teenagers who routinely returned to an empty house after school or whose parents were rarely at dinner.

Notably, research also shows that Australian “fly-in, fly-out” parents often stay connected during their long absences by regularly checking in by social media, texts and FaceTime — letting their kids know that even though they were away, they were still watching.

And findings also suggest that parents don’t have to be home all the time to be present in their children’s lives, but it helped to be home at certain times. A classic study connected the total time at least one parent was home before and after school, at dinner and at bedtime to improved psychological health in adolescents. Importantly, the studies of parental presence indicate that sheer proximity confers a benefit over and above feelings of closeness or connectedness between parent and child.

In other words, it’s great if you and your adolescent get along well with each other, but even if you don’t, your uneasy presence is better for your teenager than your physical absence.

That there’s value in simply being around should come as a source of comfort for parents raising adolescents. With younger children, we have plenty of opportunities to put our parenting muscles to work. We can read stories together, make up knock-knock jokes, build towers, or go to the museum. Our youngsters still like to join us for a trip to a grocery store and they usually come to us first with their questions or problems.

But with teenagers, it’s not always easy to know how to connect. By their nature, adolescents aren’t always on board with our plans for making the most of family time and they aren’t always in the mood to chat. Happily, the quality parenting of a teenager may sometimes take the form of blending into the background like a potted plant.

Many parents of adolescents instinctively know this to be true and find ways to be present without advancing an agenda. One friend of mine quietly folds laundry each evening in the den where her teenagers watch TV. They enjoy one another’s company without any pressure to make conversation.

Another routinely accepts his daughter’s invitation to work or read nearby while she sits and does her homework. Of course, sharing the same space sets the stage for the possibility of actively interacting, and we have plenty of research attesting to the benefit of talking with or advising our teenagers.

We don’t really know why our mere company would have such value for teenagers, but decades of research on parent-child attachment suggests an explanation. Ideally, children use their parents as a safe and dependable base from which to explore the world and exert their autonomy. Indeed, studies tell us that securely attached toddlers quietly track their parents’ movements from room to room, even while carrying on with their own activities.

While normally developing teenagers seek new levels of emotional and physical distance from their parents perhaps they, like toddlers, feel most at ease when their folks balance active engagement with detached availability.

The giving season is at hand and the holidays hold the promise of families having more time to spend together. Our hopes for joyful engagement with our teenagers shouldn’t keep us from embracing the benefits of simply playing the role of a potted plant. In the swirl that can come at this time of year, we might offer our teenagers a gift we know they can use: Our quiet and steady presence.

The Best Way to Fight With a Teenager

The New York Times

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CreditiStock

Lisa Damour writes about adolescent behavior.

When raising teenagers, conflict usually comes with the territory. A growing body of research suggests that this can actually be a good thing. How disagreements are handled at home shapes both adolescent mental health and the overall quality of the parent-teenager relationship. Not only that, the nature of family quarrels can also drive how adolescents manage their relationships with people beyond the home.

In looking at how teenagers approach disputes, experts have identified four distinct styles: attacking, withdrawing, complying and problem solving.

Adolescents who favor either of the first two routes — escalating fights or stubbornly refusing to engage in them — are the ones most likely to be or become depressed, anxious or delinquent. But even those teenagers who take the third route and comply, simply yielding to their parents’ wishes, suffer from high rates of mood disorders. Further, teenagers who cannot resolve arguments at home often have similar troubles in their friendships and love lives.

In contrast, teenagers who use problem solving to address disputes with their parents present a vastly different picture. They tend to enjoy the sturdiest psychological health and the happiest relationships everywhere they go, two outcomes that would top every parent’s wish list.

So how do we raise teenagers who see disagreements as challenges to be resolved?

Compelling new research suggests that constructive conflict between parent and teenager hinges on the adolescent’s readiness to see beyond his or her own perspective. In other words, good fights happen when teenagers consider arguments from both sides, and bad fights happen when they don’t.

Conveniently, the intellectual ability to consider multiple outlooks blossoms in the teenage years. While younger children lack the neurological capacity to fully understand someone else’s point of view, adolescence sparks rapid development in the parts of the brain associated with abstract reasoning. This leads to dramatic gains in the ability to regard situations from competing viewpoints. We also have evidence that parents can make the most of their teenagers’ evolving neurobiology by being good role models for taking another person’s perspective. Adults who are willing to walk around in their teenagers’ mental shoes tend to raise teenagers who return the favor.

But research findings rarely translate cleanly to the realities of family life. Conflict comes with heat, and we can only contemplate another person’s viewpoint when heads are cool. Imagine an adolescent announcing his plan to spend Saturday night with a former friend known for serious wrongdoing. Any reasonable parent might respond “Absolutely not!” and trigger an eruption, retreat or gloomy submission in a normally developing teenager.

An interaction that ends here is an opportunity lost. But hard starts can be salvaged if we allow for the possibility that first reactions can give way to second ones. The parent in this scenario might soon find a way to say, “I’m sorry that got ugly. I need you to help me understand why you want to spend time with Mike when you don’t even like him that much. And can you put words to why I’m so uncomfortable with the idea of you hanging out with him?”

No parent or teenager can, or needs to, turn every dispute into a thoughtful consideration of opposing outlooks. And some families weather toxic battles that go far beyond the squabbles inherent in raising adolescents. Still, the balance of research suggests that garden-variety disagreements offer the opportunity to help young people better understand themselves and others, building in them the lifelong skill of finding room for civility in the midst of discord.

No parent looks forward to fighting with his or her teenage child. But the friction that comes with raising adolescents might be easier to take when we see it as an opening, not an obstacle.

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Gossip: The Best Gift Your Teenager Can Give You

NY Times Motherlode Blog

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CreditIllustration by Allison Steen

“Hey Mom, you know Josh, the junior I played basketball with last summer? He’s selling Adderall to ninth graders.”

The sudden appearance of controversial “news” mid-conversation is standard teenage behavior. You can substitute the revelation of any number of transgressions, from dangerous drinking to precocious sexual behavior, for the drug sales, but the result is the same: one speechless parent, one teenager waiting for a reaction. Get it right, and what started off as a dropped bombshell becomes an opportunity.

Option one: Hit the ceiling.

This would be the knee-jerk reaction for many of us. Understandably, because the news and its delivery signal at least two problems. First, we’ve learned that a local teenager is trafficking in a controlled substance. Second, we’re getting the impression that our own teenager thinks this is no big deal. A forceful response – launching into a lecture, threatening to call the cops or at least Josh’s parents – might serve to hammer home the message that the sale of drugs, prescription or otherwise, actually is a huge deal.

But here’s the problem. Most healthy teens have knee-jerk reactions of their own when a parent voices a strong opinion: they feel compelled to take up the opposing side. In fact, I’ve had teens in my practice explain to me that they will refuse to do something they were about to do, such as put away a backpack or take the dog for a walk, if a parent tells them to do it. Blowing a gasket all but invites a teen to retort that “lots of kids take Adderall, why are you freaking out?” even when the teen has his own doubts about Josh’s behavior.

Option two: Let it slide.

Your teen is actually talking to you and telling you about what’s going on at school. A tirade will certainly ruin the moment and might shut down the possibility of valuable future communiqués. Perhaps it’s best to follow your teen’s lead; be cool and leave the line open should other concerns arise, especially ones closer to home.

This isn’t good, either. In my experience, adolescents run other teenager’s behavior past their parents when they’re bothered by it. They usually know that their peer is out of bounds, and they’re confused by his or her apparent comfort with the misconduct, and maybe the fact that other teenagers seem to be too. So adolescents take a flat, even supportive, tone and float these scenarios by adults to gauge their reaction. When parents don’t respond appropriately — when grown-ups don’t act like grown-ups — adolescents feel uneasy.

Option three: Unwrap your present.

Your teen just gave you an opening to have a valuable conversation. Go ahead and accept that gift. Imagine that you’re a journalist who has just been handed a scoop, and begin your evenhanded investigation.

Consider starting with a head tilt and a, “Huh, really?” or gently inquire, “What do you think about that?” (Your child will feel less uneasy already.) Or invite your teenager to join you on a fact-finding mission. Hop online together and research the dangers of taking un-prescribed stimulants, and the legal implications of selling them. If it becomes clear that someone needs to do something, engage your teenager in helping to decide who should do it, and how.

What if it’s too late? You’ve already gone through the roof or taken the alarming news in stride, and the moment has passed. This is still an opening. My favorite parent-teenager interaction is one where the adult finds an opportunity to apologize to the adolescent. It makes the parent more real and imbues the adolescent with dignity, two essential components of any effective parental relationship with a teenager.

Find the moment to say: “It wasn’t helpful when I freaked out. We got distracted from the serious risks that those ninth graders, or Josh, might face if he’s selling his Adderall.” Or “I wasn’t tuned in when you told me about Josh. I understand that you’re not involved in this situation, but there’s some stuff I want you to know.”

Even when they aren’t in the mood for a discussion, there’s value in treating teenagers as the thoughtful young people we want them to be. One longitudinal study asked parents of seventh graders to share their opinions on teenagers in general, then examined how the parents’ views linked to their children’s late-adolescent behavior. Parents who believed teenagers to be difficult, and immune to adult influence, went on to have twelfth graders who were involved in more troubling behavior than those whose parents held a generally positive view of adolescence. In short, teenagers live both up, and down, to expectations.

When we engage earnestly with adolescents around provocative hearsay we are allowed to have critical conversations, communicate high standards and make it clear that we’re available to offer help when needed. Sometimes with teenagers, the best moments start off in the worst way.