Despite being a rule-follower with a pathological need to turn my homework in on time, I still excelled at teen angst. There were nights when all I wanted to do was shut myself in my bedroom, crank up Sarah McLachlan’s Fumbling Towards Ecstasy (if you know, you know), and surrender to the mood swings of adolescence.
In her new book The Emotional Lives of Teenagers, Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist, author, and host of the Ask Lisa podcast, makes a profound observation about how our view of adolescent distress has changed over the past 20 years. Despite being more in tune with the language of therapy and mental health, we have, as a culture, become more uncomfortable with the painful feelings that inevitably go along with being a teenager. And that is having a negative impact on teens and parents.
As Damour writes, “Twenty years ago, I still felt myself to be part of a broader society that accepted, albeit begrudgingly, that painful feelings are a natural part of life. Today, I am trying to figure out how uncomfortable feelings came to be seen as psychological states that ought to be prevented or, failing that, banished as quickly as possible. What changed? How did essential aspects of the human condition become unacceptable?”
One of the most wrenching reasons, Damour explained in an interview, is that we are in the midst of a very real and very frightening mental health crisis for teens, exacerbated by a global pandemic. Parents are scared, and understandably so, making it harder to parse what emotions are normal and what are cause for concern. On the other side, a supercharged wellness industry seems to have convinced a large number of us that distress can be avoided, conflating the idea of mental health with being happy all the time.
Damour’s aim in writing the book was to pivot the focus away from whether teens experience intense distress—“the answer will always be yes”—to how we can tease apart normal adolescent distress from genuine mental health concerns. “Those are often talked about as though they are the same,” she says. “They’re not.” The book also dismantles the gauzy self-care notion that happiness is our permanent resting state, an idea that doesn’t reflect any human experience since the dawn of time, especially for teenagers.
When I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, classics like Francis Ford Coppola’s The Outsiders and the entire filmography of John Hughes were devoted to the idea that being a teenager was, at times, utter misery. And while many aspects of Hughes’ films have not aged well (rewatch Sixteen Candles before you show your kids), the reason these movies endure is because they understand a core truth of adolescence: Angst is the price of admission. There are times you are going to hate your parents, and there are times you will feel as if no one understands you. Sometimes, most mysteriously of all, there are times you need to feel terrible to eventually feel good.
“It can be very unsettling at times to parent teenagers because their emotions are so powerful,” says Damour. “As the mother of two teenagers myself, there have been times where if I weren’t a psychologist who knew this [behavior] was in the normal range, it would be terrifying. And that’s without headlines talking about adolescent suicide on a regular basis.”
Damour’s main reason for writing The Emotional Lives of Teenagers was that she became concerned about a popular definition of mental health that doesn’t match what psychologists know on the clinical or research side. Culturally, she says, “we started equating mental health with feeling good—calm, relaxed, happy”—rather than simply having feelings that make sense in a given context, and learning how to manage those feelings and cope with distress. “Of course I want people to feel good. But that is a very harrowing definition of mental health.”
As parents, we’ve changed too. When I was growing up, depictions of tuned-out, latchkey parenting—whether it was Kelly Taylor’s mom on 90210 or basically every parent from The Breakfast Club—were the norm. Now as thoroughly therapized, or at least therapy-adjacent, parents, we have an acute understanding of the way childhood pain can still shape us into adulthood, and we want to spare our children—and, frankly, ourselves—that youthful anguish.
Part of what makes it so hard to let kids go through these crucibles is that, for all that’s changed socially and technologically, the rites of passage remain largely the same from the childhoods we remember. “Part of what makes it such a piercing experience to raise a teenager is there’s a lot of apples-to-apples comparisons—learning to drive, leaving for college, that first heartbreak—that may be very similar to your teenage experience,” Damour says. “The Stations of the Cross are the same Stations of the Cross.”
For parents, Damour says, being reminded of their own teenage experience “is like a psychological hall of mirrors.” We may try to brush that pain away or pretend it doesn’t affect us at all as adults, but I can think of at least three or four searing experiences from my youth that still carry a charge. When I look at my own children, I do want to protect them from that. I can’t help it. But I also don’t want to become like the android caregiver in M3gan, so intent on protecting her young charge from so much as a single bad feeling that she becomes hostile to anyone she sees causing the young girl distress, including the therapist trying to help her process the loss of her parents.
The goal when helping teens cope with distress, Damour explains, is not to prevent negative emotions. Rather, it’s for the adults around them to serve as a containing function—maintaining a steady presence but not leaping into action or reacting from a place of fear. “Teens can struggle to maintain perspective,” she says. “They’re reading their parents for how concerned they should be.” If a sophomore in high school comes home and is devastated that she did poorly on a test, and her father becomes devastated as well, what she thought was a 16-year-old-sized problem suddenly becomes, alarmingly, a 50-year-old-sized problem.
“There are emotional states that we do need to worry about in teens, and I try to be very clear on that,” Damour says. “We don’t want to see a teenager’s emotions calling all the shots, or a teen who is so anxious that anxiety is dictating their days.” If a child is so consistently sad or numb that it’s getting in the way of their daily life, or managing emotions in harmful ways, like substance abuse, that’s also a sign to seek professional help. “When it comes time for professional support, we have to broach that carefully so as not to confirm a teen’s worst fears,” she says. One way to frame it is to say, “Given what you are going through, you deserve more support than we are able to provide at home,” and then explain that you are going to bring in someone who really knows what they’re doing, to ensure they get the help they need.
One of the most important takeaways for parents is that the presence of distress alone is not an indicator of a mental health concern. In fact, Damour says, “feeling distress is often evidence of mental health. If your kid gets his heart broken, you expect to see distress, and it would be strange if you didn’t.” Helping kids develop skill sets for tolerating painful emotions is a huge part of preparing them to become autonomous, independent people, ready to go out into the world.
As I was reading the book, I kept returning to the idea that while on-screen depictions of adolescence today don’t make it look any easier, the tone has shifted. On one end are harrowing portrayals like Euphoria, where Zendaya plays a teenage drug addict, and Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, which revolves around a teen girl’s suicide. On the other, there’s an army of chirpy “That Girl” memes showing young women leaping out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to work out, drink virtuous smoothies, and get a jump on their day. It’s like a flight to extremes—drug-fueled nihilism on one side and Stepfordy, self-help vibes on the other. Interestingly, across the pond, shows like Sex Education and Derry Girls (one of Damour’s favorites) feel as if they actually honor the experience of being a teenager, treating their characters as whole and complex.
Damour’s picks for movies that best capture the teenage experience are the coming-of-age classic Breaking Away and Ordinary People, which portrays a family going through crisis.
Both films, made in 1979 and 1980, respectively, take a clear-eyed look at the anguish of growing up, one through the lens of normal distress, and the other through the wreckage of family loss and genuine trauma. We’ve always had these stories and always will. But what none of us could have anticipated, in terms of scope and scale, is the distress caused by the pandemic. “The pandemic rocked us all,” says Damour. “As we find our way out of it, an important thing to remember is that being a teen and raising a teen has always been challenging. Teenagers feel emotions more intensely than children and adults do, and the presence of distress should not, on its own, be taken as evidence of a mental health concern.”
My favorite show about adolescence still remains Buffy the Vampire Slayer, because the story of a teenage girl with superpowers serves as an extended metaphor about the struggle to feel normal in high school. What Buffy captured was how teens can be capable and vulnerable at the same time, showing both the intense emotions that frighten parents and the resilience and competence that, in a cynical way, the “That Girl” memes are trying to capture.
Every child can contain both of these things. I see it in my own children. And while they are not yet teenagers, I found that the experience of reading Damour’s book was at times deeply emotional, even painful, because I felt both compassion for my teenage self, and a sharp desire not to fail my own kids when they enter adolescence. But The Emotional Lives of Teenagers does a very simple and very difficult thing. It helps me feel ready for the joy, and the storm, to come.