Powerful emotions are ‘a feature, not a bug’ for teens. New book helps navigate them with grace and humanity. – Chicago Tribune newstrendslive

At this point, Lisa Damour could write a book about harvesting your own quinoa and I would devour it. And I hate quinoa.

Damour — a clinical psychologist, podcaster and bestselling author — is so consistently spot-on and humane in her approach that I find myself not only seeking out her wise counsel, but understanding myself and the people I love in whole new ways each time I read her words.

Her new book, “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents,” is no exception.

It’s a road map for guiding your teen toward young adulthood with grace and good mental health. I found pearls of wisdom on the pages that could just as easily be applied to friendship, marriage or any relationship where emotions run high and hearts are at stake.

“For teenagers, powerful emotions are a feature, not a bug,” Damour writes. “This has always been true, but these days it seems to be less widely understood. The past decade especially has been marked by a dramatic shift in how we talk and think about feelings in general and, in particular, about the intense emotions that characterize adolescence. To put it bluntly, somewhere along the way we became afraid of being unhappy.”

She points to a trifecta of contributing factors: the proliferation of effective psychiatric medications, the rise of the wellness industry, and a growing number of young people suffering from mental health disorders.

She’s careful not to demonize the first two, and she credits them with providing tremendous benefit in many cases. She’s careful to back up the third with statistics: From 2009 to 2019, according to Centers for Disease Control and Prevention survey data, the percentage of high school students who reported feeling persistently sad or hopeless jumped from 26% to 37%. The percentage who told survey takers they had made a suicide plan grew from 11% to 16%. The percentage of high school students reporting significant levels of anxiety rose from 34% to 44%.

And those were pre-pandemic numbers.

Her book aims to debunk the myth that teenagers are only mentally healthy when they feel consistently good.

“In its place,” she writes, “we’ll get to know a truly useful and psychologically accurate definition of emotional health: having the right feelings at the right time and being able to manage those feelings effectively.”

She encourages readers to help teens regard their feelings as data.

“Whether painful or pleasant, emotions are fundamentally informational,” she writes. “They bubble up as we move through our days, delivering meaningful feedback. Our emotions give us status reports on our lives and can help guide decision making. Noticing that you feel upbeat and energized after a lunch with a particular friend might inspire you to spend more time with that person. Realizing that you’re dreading an upcoming office party might get you thinking about whether it’s really worth attending this year. Rather than viewing our emotions as disruptive, we’re usually better off if we treat them as a constant stream of messengers arriving with updates on how things are going.”

But teens are prone to doubt the validity of their emotions, she writes, making it difficult to trust the messenger. This can be especially true when they’re witnessing peer behavior that makes them uncomfortable. (Am I uncomfortable because that’s the wrong thing to do? Or am I just uncool?)

Teens will sometimes run a scenario by their parents — a friend got drunk the other night, a classmate cheated on a test. Instead of going into lecture mode, Damour writes, try a gentle, “Hmm. How do you feel about that?”

“(It) lets our teen know that we’re not comfortable with what her classmates did, and that we suspect she may feel the same way,” she writes. “Now we’re pointed in a promising direction. When we show that we are curious about our adolescents’ feelings — especially around the topics they bring up — we invite them to treat their emotions as informative and trustworthy. Teenagers almost always rise to meet us when we treat them as the deeply insightful souls that they are.”

Careful listening is a theme throughout the book.

I especially like her hack for resisting the temptation to jump in and solve the problem our teen is telling us about.

“We hate to see our teens suffer, and reflexively we attempt to ease their distress by trying to chase from the field whatever caused it,” she writes. “A teen says she doesn’t like the timing of the shifts she’s been assigned at work, and we tell her that she should talk to her manager. A teen is angry that a classmate swooped in and stole his prom date, and we list off other classmates he could ask.”

But often putting their feelings into words is its own relief, and we have to be careful not to shut their words down with our solutions. Our best bet is to truly listen. Here’s the hack:

“Imagine that you are a newspaper editor and that your teenager is one of your reporters, reading you a draft of a newspaper article about an aggravating teacher, or a classmate she’s worried about, or some other troubling news of the day,” Damour writes. “Here’s your task: As soon as your reporter comes to the end of the article, you have to craft its headline. In other words, you need to distill a long and detailed story down to its compelling essence.”

Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Damour’s high school daughter was listing all the ways that school had become a joyless experience: no clubs, no games, no hallway chatter. Just tests and homework.

“I listened like an editor, and when she was finally spent, I said: ‘It sounds like school is now all vegetables and no dessert,’” Damour writes. “She appreciated and accepted that headline and, at least for the time being, felt better. Putting her frustration into words and then hearing me use my words to encapsulate her experience was enough to bring her discomfort down to a tolerable level.”

Brilliant. I’m so grateful for this nudge away from lectures, and toward listening; away from control, and toward connection.

“We strengthen our connections to our teenagers when we come to notice and admire the very impressive work they are already doing to regulate their emotions,” Damour writes. “Further, we equip our teenagers for independent emotional lives by helping them learn to regulate their feelings effectively. And we set them up for full emotional lives as well, so they won’t live in fear of strong feelings.”

And we won’t have to either.

Heidi Stevens is a Tribune News Service columnist. You can reach her at heidikstevens@gmail.com, find her on Twitter @heidistevens13 or join her Heidi Stevens’ Balancing Act Facebook group.

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