A parent's primary role: Protecting our kids against hopelessness

A parent's primary role: Protecting our kids against hopelessness

Posted: Aug 31, 2021 7:31 AM
Updated: Aug 31, 2021 7:31 AM

Given the pandemic's extra stressors, it can be hard for parents to know what's weighing on our kids or how to help.

Whether adolescents are struggling with the impact of Covid-19 on their lives or more ordinary issues around friends, grades, extracurriculars or graduation and what comes after, psychologist Lisa Damour offers clear prescriptions for parents.

Parents' primary job, she said, is to help "guard our kids against an overall sense of hopelessness." Easier said than done — these days, especially — but the stakes are too high not to try.

Just as she does on her podcast, Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting, with her Adolescence column for "The New York Times" and in her books, "Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood " and "Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls," Damour offers sane, science-backed perspectives on how parents can best help their teens and tweens through these tough times.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

CNN: Protecting kids against hopelessness is no easy feat when we adults are struggling. What insights into the brains of teens and tweens can help parents in these moments?

Lisa Damour: Teenagers' brains are neurologically gawky as they undergo an extraordinary remodeling process that makes the brain faster, more efficient and more powerful. This proceeds back-to-front, from the more primitive regions of the brain to the more sophisticated.

Because the emotions are housed in the more primitive regions, the capacity to feel things intensely gets upgraded before the ability to maintain perspective. By around age 13, if a teenager becomes upset, the activated emotion centers of the brain are sufficiently powerful that they can outmatch the reasoning frontal lobes and cause a real crashing emotional meltdown.

It's important for parents to remember that — given a little time, space and loving support — teens will usually reregulate on their own. When their frontal lobes come back online, their reasoning is excellent. Everybody's exhausted, everybody's tired. That hamstrings everybody's patience and perspective. Adults are neurologically advantaged here, so our job is to take very good care of ourselves so that we can provide the auxiliary support.

CNN: Youth depression and anxiety doubled during the pandemic. What do teens and tweens need right now to help them put into context the intensity of their emotions?

Damour: First, anxiety is only pathological when a person overestimates the danger they are in or underestimates their ability to manage it. If kids are feeling anxious about returning to school during a peak in Covid infections, rather than minimize their fears, we want to explore with them the actual level of danger and what control they have to mitigate it.

My older daughter is vaccinated, will be expected to wear a mask at school, and has a decent amount of control over regulating the physical distance she keeps from others.

Talking through those precautions helps clarify her own ability to minimize risk. Identifying what we can control helps. Hopefully you can control enough variables to get the danger to a level that feels tolerable. But feeling anxious right now is not at all out of line or irrational.

CNN: You write that anxiety and stress offer gifts as well as discomfort, even in theset extraordinary times. What benefits do these emotions bring?

Damour: Anxiety is an alarm system that alerts us to possible threats. That makes it an extraordinarily beneficial emotion. It's a gift handed down to us by evolution. Adults might experience it when somebody swerves in front of us while we're driving. A middle schooler might experience it if they haven't started studying for a big test. That is good, healthy feedback on what's going on around us and where or how we want to better position ourselves.

Stress is an absolute given in life. It occurs anytime we are adapting to new conditions, stretching beyond our established capacities. There's no growth in the absence of stress.

In fact, school is supposed to be stressful. We want kids to be doing work they find challenging. We only worry about stress if it overwhelms someone's coping capacity or if it is chronic and unrelenting, and there's no opportunity to recover and take a break and consolidate those gains. Weightlifters work out hard and then deliberately create time for muscle rest and repair. That recovery process is as essential to growth as any challenges we deliberately seek out or inevitably encounter.

CNN: How can parents know if their child has reached a point of problematic stress?

Damour: The weightlifting recovery metaphor helps us here again. If a young person has a chance to rest but things don't get better, there are probably grounds for concern. The analogy here is injury. If you have a tough workout at the gym then rest, you should feel good a couple of days later. But if you injure yourself, just resting for a couple of days won't fix the problem. Constructive stress comes from challenges that help us grow, not those that leave us incapacitated after the fact.

CNN: How can a parent gauge the difference between an adolescent who's in recovery mode and one who's withdrawing out of unhealthy avoidance?

Damour: Avoidance is something that people of all ages instinctively want to do when they feel anxious or overwhelmed. Problematic avoidance will offer short-term relief but create long-term difficulty. We want to be on high alert for avoidance as the go-to strategy for managing distress, because it doesn't work, over time.

The beautiful thing about teenagers is, we can ask them to reflect with us on how they're doing. A terrific first step for a worried parent is to say, "I noticed you've been sleeping a lot lately. Part of me is so glad to see you resting and recovering. Part of me is wondering if everything's okay. Is there anything that you are worried about or that I need to be thinking about?"

With that approach you're likely to recruit their mature side into the conversation. Our teenagers have two sides: their immature, impulsive, sometimes regressive side and their thoughtful, broad-minded, ambitious, self-protective side. The side that you speak to will be the side that shows up for the conversation.

CNN: You say parents need to worry about kids feeling alone with psychological pain — that, like all of us, kids need to feel seen. How can we do that?

Damour: Parents underestimate how powerful empathy is in terms of helping kids feel better. Too often we jump straight into problem-solving mode when they just want us to listen and say, "Oh, that really stinks. I'm so sorry." Either that's as much of a solution as they need, or they'll go figure out their own solution. The two most useful lines in all of parenting teenagers are:

  • Do you want my help, or do you just need to vent? And...
  • Is there anything I can do that won't make this worse?

Those will usually cover your bases.

The-CNN-Wire
™ & © 2021 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.

Indiana Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 996341

Reported Deaths: 16245
CountyCasesDeaths
Marion1343262101
Lake658231151
Allen57160791
Hamilton45963460
St. Joseph43954607
Elkhart35546503
Vanderburgh31975473
Tippecanoe27694256
Johnson24821440
Hendricks23647353
Porter22735362
Madison18538404
Clark18383248
Vigo17274300
Monroe15117197
LaPorte14987249
Delaware14931256
Howard14574286
Kosciusko12166147
Hancock11597175
Bartholomew11447179
Warrick11225188
Floyd10983214
Wayne10840248
Grant9898217
Morgan9361176
Boone8819115
Dubois8210129
Dearborn815492
Henry8107150
Noble7944106
Marshall7786134
Cass7462119
Lawrence7379168
Shelby7115114
Jackson691788
Gibson6480113
Harrison641591
Huntington630299
Knox6269105
DeKalb623796
Montgomery6184109
Miami586595
Putnam573477
Clinton567171
Whitley558055
Steuben550473
Wabash5250101
Jasper520475
Jefferson504695
Ripley492485
Adams472773
Daviess4596112
Scott433968
Greene421196
Wells419787
Clay418460
White414261
Decatur4118101
Fayette402186
Jennings383260
Posey374243
LaGrange352078
Washington352049
Randolph339999
Spencer336442
Fountain331858
Sullivan326652
Starke310868
Owen310169
Fulton304566
Orange290562
Jay278445
Perry264452
Franklin262742
Carroll258232
Rush257232
Vermillion254254
Parke229726
Pike227343
Tipton225659
Blackford187840
Pulaski181155
Crawford158122
Newton155648
Benton150117
Brown144047
Martin137319
Switzerland133911
Warren120116
Union106615
Ohio84012
Unassigned0532

Ohio Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 1490451

Reported Deaths: 23327
CountyCasesDeaths
Franklin1620041662
Cuyahoga1439412412
Hamilton1040301409
Montgomery727961240
Summit606541094
Lucas55296904
Butler50803707
Stark456401053
Lorain34875568
Warren32293369
Mahoning30057672
Clermont27811321
Lake26457434
Delaware23872162
Licking23361283
Trumbull22357552
Fairfield22081241
Greene21967311
Medina21624305
Clark19513349
Richland18225280
Portage17579247
Wood17122220
Allen15627269
Miami15259296
Muskingum14417174
Columbiana13587263
Wayne13494263
Tuscarawas12372298
Marion11742175
Scioto11313154
Pickaway11246141
Erie10586180
Ross10397196
Lawrence9630137
Hancock9476149
Ashtabula9370197
Belmont9059197
Geauga8766157
Jefferson8439191
Huron8172139
Union806256
Washington7995137
Sandusky7654145
Athens765372
Knox7539138
Darke7525151
Seneca7166144
Ashland6761125
Auglaize663396
Shelby6374111
Brown626282
Crawford6147130
Mercer605793
Defiance6043102
Fulton588596
Highland585899
Madison584976
Clinton573890
Logan566292
Guernsey564867
Preble5623121
Putnam5227108
Williams515384
Perry510661
Champaign500871
Jackson493470
Ottawa476686
Coshocton466382
Morrow448256
Pike428462
Fayette419960
Adams409287
Gallia408165
Hardin407176
Van Wert361578
Henry356671
Holmes3539122
Hocking349078
Wyandot315761
Carroll294559
Paulding274345
Meigs256849
Monroe210553
Noble195146
Morgan188132
Harrison177042
Vinton161124
Unassigned05
Fort Wayne
Mostly Cloudy
55° wxIcon
Hi: 57° Lo: 49°
Feels Like: 55°
Angola
Cloudy
55° wxIcon
Hi: 54° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 55°
Huntington
Partly Cloudy
55° wxIcon
Hi: 57° Lo: 47°
Feels Like: 55°
Decatur
Partly Cloudy
55° wxIcon
Hi: 57° Lo: 50°
Feels Like: 55°
Van Wert
Partly Cloudy
56° wxIcon
Hi: 57° Lo: 51°
Feels Like: 56°
It’s a cool Saturday with drier conditions and low humidity levels.
WFFT Radar
WFFT Temperatures
WFFT National

Community Events