THE EMOTIONAL LIVES OF TEENAGERS: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents, by Lisa Damour
IT. GOES. SO. FAST.: The Year of No Do-Overs, by Mary Louise Kelly
You know what’s enjoyable about living with teenagers? Nothing. Truly, not one thing. They might distract you by appearing to be deeply interesting and funny, but don’t be fooled — teenagers are diabolical. They have studied their parents and caregivers enough to know what we’ll find most irritating. And now, adding insult to injury, our worries about them have amplified over the past few years, with good reason. Studies show that adolescent rates of depression and anxiety had a sharp uptick during the pandemic. On Feb. 13, the C.D.C. released a report saying that teen girls in particular are experiencing “record high levels of violence, sadness and suicide risk.”
So how are we supposed to get our kids through these daunting years? There are countless books on the subject, but “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers” is the nuanced, empathetic one I wish I’d had when I was in the trenches. Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist, disagrees with the idea that adolescence is a time of great frailty, and she marshals the science to back up her theory. She also dismisses the idea that fear, guilt, shame, anger and sorrow are to be avoided, fixed, or are somehow unsafe. Powerful feelings are “a feature, not a bug,” she writes, then goes on to explain how we should encourage kids to incorporate theirs into decision making.
Most important, Damour stares down the very real mental health issues that teenagers increasingly face; throughout the book we are given sound guidelines about when to ask for professional help, how to distinguish distress from trauma and how to address signs that a teenager might be in danger.
“The Emotional Lives of Teenagers” also explores gender differences in coping with distress (“boys are likely to turn to distraction, and girls are more likely to turn to discussion”); racial bias in emotional expression; and one of the most perplexing hallmarks of teenagerhood: Why would my kid tell me the most horrible thing that’s going on in his life, rant about it, forbid me from doing anything to solve the issue — and then feel better, while I am left with another sleepless night? It’s called “externalization” and it’s common. You manage “an unpleasant emotion by getting someone else (often a loving parent) to feel it instead.” Damour sums it up like this: “Think of externalization as handing off the emotional trash.”
And then there’s the Mess Around and Find Out School of Parenting: When a bad decision is cataclysmic, you may need to swoop in and rescue your kid — but it’s also important to remember that there are very few bad decisions that aren’t reversible. We can (and often do) spoil our teens by saving them too frequently.
Tips for Parents to Help Their Struggling Teens
Are you concerned for your teen? If you worry that your teen might be experiencing depression or suicidal thoughts, there are a few things you can do to help. Dr. Christine Moutier, the chief medical officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, suggests these steps:
Look for changes. Notice shifts in sleeping and eating habits in your teen, as well as any issues he or she might be having at school, such as slipping grades. Watch for angry outbursts, mood swings and a loss of interest in activities they used to love. Stay attuned to their social media posts as well.
Keep the lines of communication open. If you notice something unusual, start a conversation. But your child might not want to talk. In that case, offer him or her help in finding a trusted person to share their struggles with instead.
Seek out professional support. A child who expresses suicidal thoughts may benefit from a mental health evaluation and treatment. You can start by speaking with your child’s pediatrician or a mental health professional.
In an emergency: If you have immediate concern for your child’s safety, do not leave him or her alone. Call a suicide prevention lifeline. Lock up any potentially lethal objects. Children who are actively trying to harm themselves should be taken to the closest emergency room.
Resources If you’re worried about someone in your life and don’t know how to help, these resources can offer guidance:1. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Text or call 988 2. The Crisis Text Line: Text TALK to 741741 3. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention
“Mental health is not about feeling good,” Damour writes. “Instead, it’s about having the right feelings at the right time and being able to manage those feelings effectively. Not that there’s such a thing as a ‘wrong’ feeling; what we’re getting at here is whether emotions make sense and are proportional to the situation.” You can help your kid get there — and help yourself get there too. Damour fulfills the promise of her subtitle — “Raising Connected, Capable and Compassionate Adolescents” — by making us more connected, capable and compassionate parents.
Mary Louise Kelly is a helicopter parent, by which I mean a parent who has spent a good deal of time in helicopters. She is currently the co-host of “All Things Considered” on NPR, but for many years her beat was national security, which often meant dropping into war zones.
Perhaps Kelly should have written a straightforward memoir about her life as a journalist. I’m not sure why she decided to write a book on parenting, except for the fact that, as she tells us in the intro, her agent told her to do it.
“It. Goes. So. Fast.” is actually a fine idea for a book. Kelly’s peripatetic life meant she’d missed a lot of little moments of her sons’ childhoods and she didn’t want to miss the final year before her older son went away to college — the last one with her nuclear family all living under one roof. She set out to write “a book about what happens when the things we love — the things that define and sustain us — come into conflict. It’s a book about the unsettling but exhilarating feeling of glimpsing that life as I know it is about to swerve.”
This all misleadingly suggests a book that, like Damour’s, gives us insights into the joys and challenges of parenting teens.
Sure, there are lessons to be mined from Kelly’s professional experiences. Consider her headline-making interview with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in January 2020, when she pressed him to explain why he hadn’t defended Marie Yovanovitch, the American ambassador to Ukraine, when she was attacked by President Trump and ultimately fired. Kelly describes how Pompeo then summoned her to a private room where he shouted at her and challenged her to find Ukraine on a map (she did).
Kelly uses this hair-raising story to create anodyne life lessons to impart to her kids, like “never give up” and “the necessity, sometimes, of standing up to bullies.” OK. Sure. But this doesn’t have much to do with the year she spent supposedly hanging with them; in fact, we barely get acquainted with them at all. I did enjoy knowing that when Kelly channeled Martha Stewart and carved tiny pumpkins into soup tureens for a special holiday meal, nobody noticed. Now that sounds like real teenagers.
It seems that Kelly was not exactly home, observing her children, the entire year — when she blocked out six weeks to write this book, she retreated alone to her summer home on Nantucket. We also don’t learn, until more than 200 pages into the book, that she and her husband were separating; a life-changing event shouldn’t be thrown in as an afterthought, unless you really aren’t interested in digging deep.
And, while Kelly does write movingly about her father’s death, she seems more interested in keeping the shades of her family life drawn. At one point she writes, “Not every day was great. I’ll elide the details of the less glorious ones, out of respect for the boys’ privacy.” That is perfectly understandable, except that this is a chronicle of family life. You are writing a memoir, not a press release.
Still, there’s much here for Kelly fans (and count me among them) who will enjoy spending some domestic time with her. We look forward to a memoir that’s less hand-wringing about work/life balance and more time in the helicopter.
Judith Newman writes the Help Desk column for the Book Review. She is the author of “To Siri With Love: A Mother, Her Autistic Son and the Kindness of Machines.”
THE EMOTIONAL LIVES OF TEENAGERS: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents | By Lisa Damour | 256 pp. | Ballantine | $28
IT. GOES. SO. FAST.: The Year of No Do-Overs | By Mary Louise Kelly | 240 pp. | Henry Holt | $26.99
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