A Little Help from Dr. Lisa Damour to Manage the Pressures of Adolescence
Last week, psychologist and best-selling author Dr. Lisa Damour spent two days at Severn to address the alarming increase in stress among teens and how it impacts the daily lives of our students. Dr. Damour discussed key points from her latest book, Under Pressure, to help our community understand the difference between positive and negative stress and to share practical tips for managing the pressures of growing up today.
Changing How We Think About Stress
During her presentation to parents, Dr. Damour began with observations of stress and anxiety in teens over the life of her practice. She noted that although teens have always expressed feeling stress, it’s only within the past few years that they identify with “having anxiety.” This is due, in part, to our current culture.
“The culture now talks about stress and anxiety as if they are always and everywhere pathological and harmful, to be avoided at all costs. But here’s where psychology sits on this. We have seen stress and anxiety as normal, healthy human functions since the beginning of the field. We still see it that way. Both can reach unhealthy levels, but every one of you will experience stress and anxiety every day and that’s because you’re conscious. So there’s a grand canyon between where the culture is on this and what we know in psychology.”
Dr. Damour describes stress and anxiety as normal neurological responses to any situation in which we are challenged to work at the edge of our capacity. But as we work through that challenge, we adapt, grow stronger, and gain new abilities. She emphasized that this type of stress is not only unavoidable but positive. She noted that chronic stress, highly traumatic stress or feeling anxious when there is no external reason constitute negative, unhealthy responses and should be addressed as such.
Changing How We Think About Anxiety
Dr. Damour encourages families to think about anxiety in the same way that we think about pain. It’s uncomfortable and physical but teaches us that there is something we need to be aware of.
“Your anxiety is an alarm installed by evolution that keeps you safe. It tells you to pay attention when something’s not right. When your child feels anxious because they have a test they didn’t study for, that's telling them something.
We are raising a generation of kids who are stressed about being stressed and anxious about being anxious. In this rising tide of stress and anxiety, I think that is a big part of the picture. They are having these normal experiences and feel like something is wrong and, of course, that makes it worse. Stress and anxiety are normal and healthy functions — we have to be good with that. It’s really important for our kids that we be good with it.”
What Can You Do to Help?
Dr. Damour offered a wealth of practical advice to help teens manage stress and anxiety including:
Reframe everyday stress as necessary and normal. Teach your kids how to think about it as not only a given but a good.
Explain that while stress is normal, teens need recovery time or they will experience burn out. Help them find a recovery method that works for them, even something as simple as eating a favorite food or watching a show they enjoyed when they were younger.
If your adolescent is having a meltdown don’t try to investigate the problem or fix it. Ask if they’d like some time alone or would prefer that you sit with them. Offer a glass of water or a snack. Be calm, don’t react, and give them the time to let their emotions settle. Sometimes that’s all they need.
Don’t let your teen out of everyday situations that make them anxious. Avoidance feeds anxiety and can cause full-blown phobias. If your child feels anxious about everyday activities like a test or social event, they need the experience of getting through those situations to grow.
Teach your kids to manage conflict the right way. The only healthy way to manage conflict is to treat the other party with respect while you stand up for yourself or beliefs (acting as a pillar). Talk to them about what it might look like to be passive (let someone walk all over you), passive-aggressive (employ guilt or other techniques to subtly escalate the situation), or aggressive (bulldoze over the person) and then brainstorm ways to handle that same situation as a pillar.
Don’t force your kids to confront every instance of conflict; teach them to evaluate for themselves based on your family's values. If the conflict is related to something or someone they care deeply about, they should respectfully stand up for themselves. But if it’s a situation they could easily ignore, that might be the better solution.
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Severn regularly hosts experts in child development to speak with our community about topics that are relevant for families today. As we endeavor to give our students the best education possible, we hold their health and wellness highest in our priorities. Past speakers include: