Book Review: The Emotional Lives of Teenagers (L. Damour, Ph.D.)

Being a parent of teenagers, and a educator that regularly interacts with teenagers in a high-stress environment (read: school), I found this book to be an incredible resource in the way it brings the neurological science, emotional science and practical tips and examples together.

…raising adolscents is even more emotionally demanding than caring for children under the age of five (pg. 91)

Yup, it sure feels that way for me, as a parent; however, as an educator I also see the other side of teenagers who are taking the opportunity to take risks, make mistakes, take on new challenges, with optimism, hope, fear and trepidation. This book brings to life the diverse ways teenagers express themselves, why they do what they do, and how to support their development of identity, safety, healthy relationships and more. In this book, Lisa Damour, Ph.D., addresses the different lived experiences and identity development and relationship development of racialized folks, and gender non-conforming folks. She does a good job, not great, of addressing these differing needs, but no doubt this will be an area of exploration in her next work.

The purpose of this book, is to provide adults with strategies and language to ensure the teenagers in our care can and are expressing the appropriate emotions in appropriate ways, at appropriate times. Seeing the world through the eyes and brain of a teenager.

You would be intersted in this book if you were a / an…

(1) Parent, looking to understand why your teenager simulateously acts as though they hate you, but also needs you desperately
(2) Educator, looking for ways to motivate and engage teenagers in learning both inside and outside the classroom
(3) Parent, wanting examples and language to support healthy discussions with your teens that don’t end in slamming of doors
(4) Educator, wanting to learn more about how the teenage brain work
(5) Parent and / or Educator seeking great analogies, stories and strategies to support teenagers in healthy identity development and in creating and sustaining healthy relationships

Three things need to be True:

The purpose of this book is to help us adults understand teens. Lisa Damour, Ph.D., does an excellent job framing this work, the language and strategies for us in plain language, through stories and analogies.

Here’s the key point: Normally developing teenagers experience pronounced highs and low, but that is not, in and of itself, rason to be worried that they are falling apart. We can be confident in their overall emotional health so long as three things are true: Adolescents should have feelings that make sense in light of their circumstances; they should find adaptive ways to manage those emotions (such as having a good cry); and they should rely on a range of defenses that offer relief without distorting reality. (pg. 31)

She goes on throughout the book to help us identify what feelings correlate to the circumstances appropriately. This is fraught from the start because some teens don’t open up to their parents¬† or teachers, so having the full picture of their circumstances is really difficult. However, as adults, we need to have a certain level of trust and a network to rely upon: good communication with teachers, with parents of their friends, etc… In this way, we can be proactive in knowing their circumstances.

For example, being home and around when friends are coming over provides an opportunity to overhear (NB not eavesdrop!) and engage in conversations with your teen’s world. So too, does setting up a planned conversation in a car, where your teen(s) know that the ride will end, and the conversation has a distinct ending point.

Anger is a common emotion felt by teens, and finding appropriate ways to express and manage such emotions is essential.

When any teen says something that is cruel or mean, it’s time to do some teaching. What’s the lesson: That their anger isn’t the problem, but the way they are showing it is.When your teenager goes to far, you can respond calmly with “I don’t think that’s how you meant for that to come out. Try again?” or “You might be made, you can’t talk to me that way.” Or “You may well have a point, but you need to find a more civil way to express it.” Or “I don’t speak to you that way. Y0u may not speak to me that way.” (pg. 54)

In this section, the author does take on how different racialized folks are perceived differently based on anger, in particular. “When black girls assert themselves because they are angry, or simply to sant up for tehmeslves, we need to take seriously the fact that they are often the victims of punitive racial bias.” (pg. 54)

Getting your teen(s) to develop healthy strategies of defences without distorting reality is something that I found really helpful as both a parent and two teenaged boys, and working as VP in an all girls independent school. Getting teens to open up requires parents and educators to set up the right environment and practices in their homes and schools. It is Fathers role-modelling showing and expressing emotions in healthy ways, it is something as simple as family meals with a ‘roses & thorns’ activity.

[Boys, in particular] are acutely aware of the risks of [being vulnerable with their emotions] and my be understandably reluctant to let down their guard. But it is still worth making the point that exposing vulnerability isn’t the problem; the [social] rules against it are. (pg. 61)

One of the most powerful things that we can do as parents and educators for teens in our care, is to that “voice in their head” that is suggesting, nudging and guiding them in the right directions. It is not about forbidding, nor making the choices for them.

Busting the Myths

The book actually begins with busting three huge myths that she has seen over her years. She delves into the following myths:

(i) “Emotion is the Enemy of Reason” ~ in this myth, she counters that emotions and thinking are inextricably linked. In fact, become more aware of our emotions is critical to understanding how and why we think, because they are another piece of information that provides them really helpful feedback to recognize their emotions and what brings them up. This is the first step to having appropriate responses at the right time and expressed in appropriate ways.

(ii) “Difficult Emotions are Bad for Teams” ~ it is good, she argues, for us all to experience powerful emotions, and they play a critical role in helping young people grow (pg. 17)

(iii) “With their amped up emotions, Teens are psychologically fragile” ~ Teens may express emotions and use language, such as “I have so much anxiety over XYZ”, and they may even upload these feelings onto their parents; however, Lisa Damour, Ph.D. argues that these are pretty common, and that teens are sturdier than we think. Giving voice, and even downloading their emotions to their parents are effective strategies, and not to be taken too the extreme in their interpretation.

CAVEAT: All of the above is qualified by the author, and throughout the book she provides really helpful guidance in how to know and when to go to a professional (for example, trauma and disorders)

Are Schools the Answer? / Problem? / Solution? / Danger?

One of the overarching themes of the book is the power of the educational environment: schools are social hives, full of mores, rituals and rites of passage; full of academic responsibilities that amount a pressure-cooker; and, places where emotions can run wild. Throughout the book, though she doesn’t handle it head-on, schools are the cause and location of much of the emotional lives of teenagers. Example after example in the book centre on school. In a section of the book devoted to school, she writes:

To be sure, there’s plenty about school that teenager do like, such as being with their friends,
enjoying particular courses, and spending time with tevoted teachers and coaches who truly
care for them, and don’t try to dide it. But the facto of the matter is that school, by its nature,
ofen cuts across the adolescent grain. Teens, now that htey are getting serious about their
automony, bristle at having to sbumit to adult authority all day long. And just when they are
working to develop their freestanding and well-defined identity, they’re herded into classes
that often don’t align with whatt htyey see as their brand. On top of all that, teenager crave
indepedence, but they often have loads of homework that prevent them from spending their
evenings and weekends the way they want to. (pg. 106)

As an educator, these are important considerations. She goes on to describe ways that teenagers mitigate and handle the stressors that schools raise. However, what I found really great about this book was to consider how schools can bend and flex to help teenagers be more independent, have more agency and get the challenge and support necessary to help them grow and form their identity.

As if it weren’t challenging enough to be attenditve to how we react to our teenagers’ potent
emotions, many parents find that having a teen in the house stirs up a lot of feelings about
their own teenage years. At times, raising adolescents can, quick unexpectedly, poke at old
psychological bruises.

Not only does this book provide the above for parents and educators, it also provides important considerations of how parents and educators can be activited by the behaviours and language of teens. Managing our own emotions, our own behaviours are an important part of this book as well.

The depth of engagement I had with this book cannot be understated. As a parent of two very different teenaged boys, and a Vice Principal at an all-girls schools, and in this educational landscape of identity, gender and race exploration and validation, this book provided the language, insights, examples and practices to be very helpful as I head into another academic year.


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