Understanding the emotional lives of teenagers

From Afternoons, 3:10 pm on 4 July 2023

It's harder than ever to be a teenager – and it's hard to be a parent of a teenager, too.

In the past 25 years, we've become afraid to let teens experience the stress and disappointment that's a normal part of growing up, says clinical psychologist Lisa Damour.

teenage boy with long hair in black and white

Photo: Nathaniel Chang

Clinical psychologist Dr Lisa Damour

Clinical psychologist Dr Lisa Damour Photo: Supplied

Lisa Damour's new book is called The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents. She also hosts the parenting podcast Ask Lisa.

The wellness industry presents a distorted view of mental health as "feeling good or calm or relaxed" and we all seem to have bought into this, Damour tells Jesse Mulligan.

The idea we can "get to a zen place and stay there" isn't how life works, though.

"Mental health is about having feelings that match the situation and then managing those feelings well."

Alarmist media coverage of the ongoing adolescent mental health crisis is also making teenagers and parents feel worse now than they have in the past.

"The heavy emphasis, at least in the American media, on alarming data or alarming reports … is going to make parents more anxious about their kids feeling any distress.

"If this is your first teenager, how do you tell the difference between a garden-variety meltdown that teenagers have always had and an adolescent mental health crisis?'

"We have to work all the time against wellness messaging or headline messaging that suggests the presence of distress is always a sign that something's really wrong."

Normally developing teenagers have emotions that are all over the map, from really upset one minute to totally gleeful the next.

This kind of emotional roller coaster isn't abnormal but a teen's mood getting stuck in a "concerning place" is.

"If they get low and they're low for two or three or four days or if they're paralysed by anxiety over days or if they're just horrendously angry and unpleasant, you know, day over day. That's not typical adolescence, and that's grounds for concern."

Parents and caregivers should also watch out for 'costly coping' – ways of managing stress like smoking a lot of cannabis or self-harming.

"Those things will actually bring relief but those are not the kind of coping that we want teenagers to be turning to."

The presence of distress – "our internal alarm system" – doesn't always indicate the presence of a mental health concern as long a threat is present and it is proportional to the threat, Damour says.

Anxiety has value in teaching young people to assess a situation, and learn their own depths and empathy for others.

"Most distress is orienting and growth giving for all of us and probably, especially for teenagers.'

Between the ages of 12 and 14, our brain remodels itself, becoming faster, more efficient and more powerful.

This process happens in the order that different parts of our brain first developed – starting at the back, where our emotions are generated, before getting to the front, where reasoning occurs.

"These poor teenagers ... they go through a period of time where if they get really stirred up, their emotions can override everything and kind of crash the whole system. I think the challenge with teenagers is, by their nature, a lot of the friction can feel much more personal."

Emotional Lives of Teenagers book cover

Photo: supplied

Teenagers can be helped with self-management by being put in situations where they can learn without irreversible consequences, Damour says.

For example, she recently stopped supervising what her two teenagers were packing for trips.

"It's interesting because sometimes they don't bring something they really wish they'd had ... This is a very minor thing, but I think it's also a good example where it's not the end of the world, they have to deal with whatever shoes they brought. They won't make that mistake again, they know. I think the goal, all the time, is to find situations and create conditions where teenagers can learn the hard way."

Generally, teenagers enjoy the company of adults but like their own parents to resemble potted plants, Damour says – present and quiet.

They especially need breaks from "our agendas and our questions" when they're upset.

"When they bring us pain, what they want more than anything else, and probably often the only thing they want, is just for us to be empathic, just for us to say 'Oh my gosh, I'm sorry, that really stink' Or 'Of course you're upset'.

"They very rarely are looking for solutions. They very rarely are wanting our questions or our guidance. Usually, the things they bring us are complicated and if they could have solved that they would have.

"If you do have good advice, that's great, but I would still hold it until after you've just straight-up empathised with your teenager. It's really hard to be a teenager. And then you can say 'Do you want my help or do you just need to vent?' And I promise you 99.4% of the time teenagers will say 'I just want to vent, I just want to tell you what happened'."

In The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, Damour named one section 'Why your teen hates how you chew'.

Reactions like this are a natural part of adolescent development known as separation-individuation, she says.

"It feels really painful and it feels really personal to the adult. You can have a willingness to appreciate that this is all developmentally typical and healthy and neurologically driven but in your house, when your kid's telling you that you look like a dork it's hard to remember about that."

The best way parents can teach their kids healthy coping skills is by modelling them, Damour says.

"It's one thing if we come home from a long day, and we're like 'oh my gosh, today was horrible. Where's the wine?' And it's another thing if we come home and say 'Today was terrible, I'm going for a walk ... anybody want to come with me? That's really where we teach our kids how to cope."

Where to get help:

Need to Talk? Free call or text 1737 any time to speak to a trained counsellor, for any reason.

Lifeline: 0800 543 354 or text HELP to 4357

Suicide Crisis Helpline: 0508 828 865 / 0508 TAUTOKO (24/7). This is a service for people who may be thinking about suicide, or those who are concerned about family or friends.

Depression Helpline: 0800 111 757 (24/7) or text 4202

Samaritans: 0800 726 666 (24/7)

Youthline: 0800 376 633 (24/7) or free text 234 (8am-12am), or email talk@youthline.co.nz

What's Up: free counselling for 5 to 19 years old, online chat 11am-10.30pm 7days/week or free phone 0800 WHATSUP / 0800 9428 787 11am-11pm Asian Family Services: 0800 862 342 Monday to Friday 9am to 8pm or text 832 Monday to Friday 9am - 5pm. Languages spoken: Mandarin, Cantonese, Korean, Vietnamese, Thai, Japanese, Hindi, Gujarati, Marathi and English.

Rural Support Trust Helpline: 0800 787 254

Healthline: 0800 611 116

Rainbow Youth: (09) 376 4155

OUTLine: 0800 688 5463 (6pm-9pm)

If it is an emergency and you feel like you or someone else is at risk, call 111.