MICDS, John Burroughs School and Whitfield partnered to bring renowned author and psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour to St. Louis Thursday. Dr. Damour visited all three schools, spending time with students, parents, faculty and staff. At MICDS, she offered an interactive presentation to Upper Schoolers in the afternoon. As an expert on stress and anxiety, she challenged the students to build “the most stressful day” that they could imagine. Freshmen to seniors chimed in throughout Brauer Auditorium with details of this most stressful day: waking up late for school, taking a physics or macroeconomics exam, getting rejected from college, and the list goes on. Then, Lisa shared some important words of wisdom.
“Whenever you’re having a difficult feeling, the only way out is actually through.” – Lisa Damour
She talked about how each person has their own way of handling stress. Some folks take naps, others exercise, some people have a good cry. “Your job is to know your recovery system.” By reflecting on Lisa’s presentation, students will hopefully embrace their unique methods of handling stress for many years to come.
In the evening, parents from all three schools packed Haertter Hall at JBS to hear Dr. Damour. She began by talking about why she has devoted her career to studying normal adolescent behavior. She noted that there are tremendous resources for unusual behavior, but no one was providing resources that helped parents cope with normal, average adolescent behavior, “which is fraught with emotion anyway,” she said. Drawing largely from her first best-selling book, Untangled, she proceeded over the next 90 minutes to walk parents through the critical stages every teenager must pass through on their way to adulthood.
She reassured the audience that normal development occurs anywhere in a broad range, and what matters is that parents acknowledge everything adolescents have to accomplish to become adults. It’s stressful, and it all happens in a condensed period of time: between 5th and 12th grade. Change equals stress for all of us, she said, and as parents, we should honor that this process of growing toward independence is going to be stressful. “We have to remember that adolescence isn’t something they’re doing to us,” she said, “It’s something they’re going through.” It’s not a personal rejection, but a parting with childhood.
Dr. Damour calls it The Impossible Project in her own home, where she and her husband are raising two girls. “We expect them to become fully-formed independent humans…while still living with us and being dependent on us,” she said.
One of the first major points she touched on is about conflict among classmates. She admitted that often grown-ups are terrible about conflict, so it’s hard for them to be instructors. She notes three kinds of unhealthy conflict: bulldozer (where you run everything over), doormat (where you take it and feel sorry for yourself) and doormat with spikes (take it, but then engage in passive-aggressive behavior). She encourages the students she counsels to be none of those. Instead, they should be a pillar. “Stand up for yourself while being respectful of the other person or people,” she said. When helping students work through an issue, she guides them through each of the ways to handle conflict. They discuss how a bulldozer would respond, how a doormat would respond, etc. “They can pillar,” she reassured the crowd. “They know how to do it.”
At the same time, she also acknowledged that sometimes it’s okay to let the drama pass. Adults make many decisions every day about what to confront and what to let go. Teens need to know that it’s fine to make a strategic decision in evaluating whether a specific conflict is worthwhile and to let something go if necessary.
Dr. Damour then moved on to stress, and how it gets a bad rap in today’s society. Stress is good, she argued, because it has an inoculating function. Durability comes with stress, and the stress for kids is school. Dr. Damour likens school to a weightlifting program for the mind. Instead of focusing on stress, parents should be talking about recovery. Teenagers should learn to not stress about being stressed. Stress, when it’s not chronic or traumatic, is actually healthy. She continued by pointing out that for students of color, there’s an additional layer of stress that comes with adolescence, in the form of prejudice and racism. She encouraged the audience to read two books, Waking Up White by Debby Irving and White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo, to get a better sense of what students of color experience.
The audience responded with nervous laughter when Dr. Damour announced that teenagers see right through grown-ups. She compared the experience to Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz seeing that the Wizard was just a person after Toto pulled back the curtain. Her survival tips: parents need to develop a sense of humor about themselves, and should “get a life” outside of their children. When teens gripe about teachers or other adults in their lives, she recommends acknowledging their perception and that while they might be right in their assessment, they have your vote of confidence in handling the situation. Her go-to response is “Man, that stinks. How are you going to handle it?”
When it comes to schoolwork and preparing for the future, Dr. Damour spoke about the keen differences between boys and girls. Studies show that by the end of high school, girls generally have well-developed work ethics, while boys have finely tuned tactical skills. It’s important for both groups to develop both skills, so parents of girls should encourage their daughters to stop doing extra work if they already have the “A” and learn to recognize the power of their brains. She recommends having students take a sample test (there are many available for free online) before starting to study for an exam, so that the student can learn what she already knows and study only what she doesn’t know instead of reviewing everything.
When it comes to romance, Dr. Damour claims parents aren’t doing well in talking to their children. In the United States, society tends to frame romance in terms of offense for boys and defense for girls. One example she shared involves sexting, or the sending of nudes via text or apps. Many schools have codified rules about sending and receiving nude photos. We tell girls not to send nudes, she said, but we don’t tell boys not to ask. By making both the request and the response punishable, girls may be encouraged to show these types of requests to trusted adults. This removes the expectation of having girls regulate adolescent sexuality on their own. She also spoke about consent, a popular conversation today. She offers that safe, healthy relationships go far beyond simple consent (now considered a base legal term), and stresses that girls should arrive at romantic crossroads with their own agendas in mind. By giving thought to what they want in advance, they are better equipped to make good, healthy decisions instead of strictly being on the defensive.
Finally, she talked about the importance of getting teens to care for themselves. Parents can’t be linebackers, she said, standing between children and danger. While rules are important, what parents should really be discussing is safety. If a teen asks what’s wrong with marijuana, the answer is to talk about how it’s not good neurologically for developing brains. The position of a parent in these situations should be, “You care about your body. I’m here to help you do that.” Unfortunately, parents cannot actually keep their adolescent children safe. “Teenagers have all the power,” she said. In telling them that, they become uncomfortable. Dr. Damour calls it the discomfort of responsibility.
She left a few moments for questions from parents, who asked her about dealing with warring siblings, sleep and the importance of family dinners. Parents gave her a rousing round of applause for her energetic, funny and heartwarming talk, and then formed a long line to have their books signed. Thank you to Dr. Lisa Damour for spending an entire day with our three communities!