I have been a middle school teacher for nearly 15 years, and I can confidently say that some of the most significant shifts in education have aligned with the awareness of mental health challenges taxing our teens and how to support them. Under Pressure by Dr. Lisa Damour is a refreshing look at stress and anxiety, and explores how we as parents and educators can help our girls during their tumultuous teenage years. I was fortunate enough to see Dr. Damour speak a few months ago on her book tour. I took pages of notes during her presentation with ideas of how I can best support my students, and I couldn’t wait to read her book for more. While Dr. Damour focuses her work on girls, I found so much in her speech, and in her book, helpful for both boys and girls.
Dr. Damour begins her book by sharing the framework through which we should look at stress and anxiety. Stress and anxiety have a bad reputation, and it’s important to remember that stress and anxiety are often healthy for us. She says, “Stress is what happens when we operate at the edge of our capacities, and when we operate in this arena, we stretch ourselves and grow.” Anxiety is closely connected. She describes anxiety as, “the gift that keeps us safe.” (She also acknowledges that chronic or traumatic stress and anxiety are real, though different than everyday/healthy stress and anxiety.)
Secondly, we have good kids. Our teens (boys and girls) are the best generation on record. They drink less, smoke less, have less sexual partners, and are doing the most interesting things. This is a hopeful book. Technology has changed the landscape of youth, but it has not made it worse as we may be quick to believe.
With all of that in mind, Dr. Damour explores five areas where girls experience stress and anxiety: at home, with their friendships with other girls, with boys, at school, and as part of the culture society builds for women.
In each chapter, she shares specific examples of girls she has worked with and her advice for coaching them through stressful periods of their lives. Rather than taking a negative view on stress and anxiety, she offers specific language to help girls manage tricky situations in a thoughtful way, so they do not get overwhelmed or scared by their emotions. For example, when a student says she’s feeling really nervous about a test, you can reply, “Good! I’m glad you’re worried. That’s the ideal reaction, because right now you know you’re not ready. As soon as you start studying, your nerves will calm down.”
Under Pressure is a helpful book for parents, educators, counsellors or anyone else who finds themselves in coaching situations with teens. From my teacher lens, it gave me much to draw on the next time I need to help one of my students who is feeling stressed or anxious. Through my parenting lens (even as a boy mom), I found much of the book transferrable to how my son may encounter stress and anxiety, and it made me think about how I want to talk to him about his relationships with girls as he grows.
Disclaimer – I received a complementary copy of Under Pressure from Penguin Random House Canada for review purposes, and my school covered the cost of my ticket to see Dr. Damour speak. All thoughts and opinions are still entirely my own.