Lisa Damour is a clinical psychologist, author, and a senior advisor to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University. We caught up with her about how psychologists understand mental health and solicited her advice on how parents can encourage healthy social media use for their teens. Damour spoke at the 2023 Aspen Ideas Festival.
Your latest book, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, really challenges how our culture has come to treat negative emotions and suggests that there’s deep developmental value in experiencing psychological distress. Can you tell us more about that — how do you define mental health, and is that different from how our culture defines it?
The current cultural discourse tends to equate being mentally healthy with feeling happy or calm or relaxed. While those are all valuable, positive emotions, they do not factor into how psychologists understand mental health. To us, being mentally healthy is about two things: having feelings that fit the conditions and managing those feelings well.
For example, we experience sadness and longing when we lose a loved one. These negative emotions are unpleasant, but they are also evidence of mental health given that they are perfectly acceptable under the circumstances. What really matters is how we handle the negative emotions that are an unavoidable aspect of life. Ideally, we manage them in ways that bring relief and do no harm, such as by talking about how we're feeling, finding ways to comfort ourselves, or enjoying brief relief-granting distractions. Psychologists only become concerned when individuals engage in what I call “costly coping” — when they gain relief by using strategies that come with a price tag, such as by abusing substances or mistreating others.
The latest CDC data shows that teenage girls are experiencing record-high levels of violence, sadness, and suicide risk. What have you seen in your practice that helps explain this data?
The latest report from the CDC is very concerning, especially given the high rates of distress reported by girls. But there are two important caveats to note with regard to those data. First, they were collected in the fall of 2021 and the survey asked about mood over the previous year. Needless to say, teens were especially miserable in the months leading up the survey and also at the time the data were collected. The high levels of distress captured in the CDC report map very cleanly onto what I was hearing from teenagers at that time given that they were deeply unhappy about undertaking their third school year disrupted by the pandemic. I'm glad to say that early indications suggest that mood improved substantially for many teens once their routines returned to normal.
Second, a cardinal rule in psychology is that, under distress, girls and women are more likely to experience depression and anxiety while boys and men are more likely to mistreat others or actively suppress unwanted emotions. The CDC survey asked teenagers about low mood, which girls are far more likely to report, but did not ask teens if they were being unkind, involved with delinquent behavior, or engaged in chronic distraction — the indicators of distress that boys are far more likely to report. This is to say that boys, too, were likely experiencing high levels of distress at the time the CDC data were collected, but the kinds of questions that might have brought their distress to light were not included in the survey.
Big IdeaWhen teens bring problems or upset feelings our way, they want one response above all else: empathy. While it can be challenging to hold back advice when a teen is struggling, offering guidance as a first response can make a teen regret having opened up.Lisa Damour
Social media is now ubiquitous in the lives of teenagers, and there’s concern over how it’s affecting them. What’s your take on social media, and what advice would you give to parents on how to foster a healthy relationship between their teens and technology?
Managing social media is an incredibly complex issue for adolescents and their parents, largely because being on social media is almost always a simultaneously positive and negative experience for teens. On the positive side, teens use social media to deepen their friendships, find community, and happily entertain themselves. On the negative side, social media can expose teens to harmful content and displace activities that are critical for healthy development. Accordingly, I have three main pieces of advice for parents:
First: go slow. If your tween or teen needs technology to connect with friends, consider starting with texting alone. You can provide a cell phone that can only text and call, or you can provide an iPhone without a browser or social media apps and set it up so that these can only be added with adult permission. While we don't want teens to rush into social media, we also don't want them to become socially isolated. So long as your tween or teen can stay connected to friends through texting, social media is unnecessary. As teens age, parents can consider granting access to social media if it feels necessary for maintaining friendships and if the teen has handled having access to texting well.
Second: beware of harmful content. Teens are often exposed to dangerous content through social media platforms. And if a teen engages with that content, the algorithm driving the social media platform will flood the teen's feed with similar posts. Talk with your teen about the algorithms behind social media platforms and know what your teen is looking at online. If your teen's feed is filled with cat videos, sports clips, or recipes, you can probably rest easy. But if your teen is spending time online engaged with content that promotes hate, eating-disordered behavior, self-harm or the like, it's time to intervene.
Third: don't let technology disrupt healthy development. Rather than being against technology — a losing battle to be sure — position yourself as being for the activities that are essential for a teen's mental and physical health: in-person interactions, being of help to others, regular physical activity, and adequate sleep. Make sure that using technology comes second to these aims. Around sleep in particular, consider making a family-wide rule that phones and computers stay out of bedrooms, especially at night.
Big IdeaTeenagers are eager to engage with adults who treat them as the perceptive, interesting, and complex people that they are.Lisa Damour
You’ve said, “the finding that helps me sleep at night is the knowledge that the strongest force for adolescent mental health are caring relationships with loving adults, that teenagers need adults who get them and back them and are connected to them. Ideally, this would be adults at home, but it doesn’t always work out that way, and it doesn’t have to.” How do we cultivate those relationships with the teens in our lives? If you had to give adults a cheat-sheet for having conversations with teens, what would be on there?
To cultivate strong relationships with teenagers, there are a few key points that adults should remember:
Adolescents, like all of us, want to be treated with respect. Teens are acutely aware that they are negatively stereotyped and they are sensitive and reactive to adults who hold a dim view of them. In contrast, teenagers are eager to engage with adults who treat them as the perceptive, interesting, and complex people that they are.
Be open to engaging with teenagers on their terms. Teens are organized around autonomy and don't always want to be on an adult's program. Teens tend to engage most deeply when we allow them to have say on the timing and topics for conversation.
Don't underestimate the value of your agenda-less presence. Teens appreciate adults and want to spend time with us, but they are not always in the mood for our questions and advice. Indeed, adolescents welcome the times when we act as "potted plant" parents — when we're quietly present and available and not trying to advance an agenda.
When teens bring problems or upset feelings our way, they want one response above all else: empathy. While it can be challenging to hold back advice when a teen is struggling, offering guidance as a first response can make a teen regret having opened up. Instead, listen carefully and offer empathy and validation by saying, "I'm so sorry that happened!" or "You're right, that stinks!" or "Of course you're upset — anyone in your shoes would feel that way." Doing so usually provides all of the support that teens want or need, leaves the door open to helping with problem solving if needed, and keeps the lines of communication open.
The views and opinions of the author are their own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Aspen Institute.
By Maya Kobe-Rundio, Associate Digital Editor, Aspen Ideas