How to Talk to Your Teens About Sex, Climate Change, and Existential Angst

We live in complicated times. Lisa Damour is here to help.

A teenaged boy with a coat and knit hat facing away from the camera.
Andrew Neel/Unsplash

Lisa Damour worries about anxiety professionally. She writes the monthly Adolescence column for the New York Times, maintains a private psychotherapy practice, and is a senior adviser to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University. Her first book, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood, has a cult following. Her second, Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, hit the bookstands last week. Reading the book—regardless of your children’s ages or genders—proves to be something of a salve, not just because it’s full of tips and tricks to help manage your child’s anxiety, but also because it helps you understand that as a parent, your own anxieties fuel and inflame their own. This is as much a book about how to manage ourselves as our children, and it lands at precisely the right moment.

I reached out to Damour, not just because the book is fantastic, but because I’ve started to notice that my own kids’ anxiety levels are vastly higher than what I remember experiencing as a young teen. I have boys, Damour has girls, but in addition to the pressures she describes in her book—about friendships and appearances and school and sexuality—my kids seem to be growing up in a world of near-paralyzing cultural dread. They’re trying to understand movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo while being flattened and numbed by school shootings, lockdowns, and protests. They can’t seem to wriggle out from under the specter of authoritarianism and threat that characterizes this presidency. Or, as my 15-year-old put it a few weeks ago, after yet another depressing dinner conversation: “Living with you guys has been very taxing on me. Your pessimism has been very crushing. Really, I’m just trying to bring back the love.”

So I emailed Damour to ask her about some things beyond the scope of her marvelous book, including boys and consent, existential dread, and callout culture. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Dahlia Lithwick: Hey there, congratulations on the book. I love it. Now help! So much of your advice is that we need to teach ourselves how to stand back and allow our kids to handle their anxiety, rather than rush in and fix everything, but I often feel as though what they are dealing with—school, the world, climate change (my kids get positively existential about climate change), a whole imaginative world based in celebrity culture—gah, I’m sweating just writing it. I did not have to cope with all this. Am I wrong? Was our teenagehood just as scary as theirs?

Lisa Damour: Thank you for the kind words about the book—I hope that adults find it useful and kids get the benefit. And no, you’re not wrong—today’s teenagers do worry more than we did. In fact, a recent report from the American Psychological Association shows that the issues that now dominate the national news are stressing out the majority of today’s young people. Teenagers, even more than adults, are worrying over mass shootings, climate change, the treatment of immigrants, and sexual harassment.

As parents, it can be hard to know how to dial down our teens’ concerns, especially when, thanks to digital technology, they have constant access to so much bad news. That said, it can be helpful to invoke a broad perspective, reminding our teenagers (and ourselves!) that the world is now generally a safer and more inclusive place than it has been in decades past. Beyond that, we can point our kids toward ways to feel less helpless about current, painful realities—perhaps by becoming active on behalf of political candidates who share their priorities, or volunteering for charities they care about.

Can we talk about sex now?

Let’s do it! (Talk about sex, that is.)

Some of the most gripping material in your book is about teaching boys and girls about sex and relationships. By that metric, pretty much everything I’ve taught my boys about sex and consent is wrong. Can you reflect on your own findings?

I’ve found that it’s not at all unusual for well-meaning adults to make serious missteps in talking with young people about the physical side of their romantic lives. Here’s how: We unwittingly perpetuate a harmful boys-on-offense-girls-on-defense framework that is so atmospheric—so deeply ingrained in our culture—as to be invisible.

For example, we have two different versions of “the talk.” To boys we say something along the lines of “When you have sex, be sure to get consent and wear a condom.” To girls we say, “Don’t get pregnant, don’t get an STI, don’t put yourself in a bad situation.” We also make rules against sending sexts, but not rules against requesting them, even though girls often send sexts only because they are pressured—if not badgered, harassed, or threatened—to do so. In other words, we all but say, “Girls, we’re going to ask you to regulate adolescent sexuality, because we’re not going to ask the boys.”

Quite to my own surprise, I have even developed a distaste for focusing on the word consent in the guidance we offer teenagers about sex. Of course our kids should get consent, but that’s the lowest possible bar. Shouldn’t we talk with young people about the fact that sex should be oriented around mutual enjoyment and not merely gaining or granting permission?

Here’s my proposed solution: When we talk with our sons and daughters about physical sexuality, we should ask them to first reflect on what they themselves want. This is usually implicit in our conversations with boys, but absent from those with girls. From there, we can encourage our kids to find out what their partners want. We can definitely point out that understanding what one’s partner wants is a lot easier if you actually know the person. The goal is to determine what both parties want—to find areas of enthusiastic agreement. Then, they can figure out what risks—such as transmitting an STI or causing an unwanted pregnancy—might attend what they are happily agreeing to do.

I know that parents of girls, especially, worry that their daughters are more likely to get hurt if we talk about desire first and risks last. But research shows the opposite. The young women who get into bed without their own agenda are the ones most likely to make compromises.

Did you read that weird Esquire piece everyone is slagging, about being a teenage white boy? I think that what they were trying to get at, about how boys and girls are punished differently for aggression and acting out, and that can exacerbate the problem—but holy hell, that didn’t seem to offer any answers?

I did read that piece. While I wasn’t sure what the take-home was supposed to be, I will say that I’m a fan of any attempt, however lacking, to describe teens with nuance, because they are so often depicted as 2D caricatures. Still, I think that article got caught on the same snag our whole culture struggles with right now. We know that being male (or white, or born into privilege) automatically confers an extra measure of power, but we don’t quite know what to do with that information. Adults can’t seem to figure out who or what needs to change—so it’s hardly a surprise that our kids are struggling with the exact same questions.

Can you talk a bit more about boy culture, and especially middle school boy culture, and how adolescent boys can be rewarded for being brutal?

It seems to me that the shortest route to social power for a seventh-grade boy is to act in sexist and homophobic ways. Needless to say, not all guys make this choice, but power is alluring at any age. For some boys, the possibility of acquiring status through chauvinism is simply too tempting to pass up.

I worry about this for both our daughters and our sons. Sexual harassment and casual homophobia are, alarmingly, just part of the school day for many middle and high school students. This is harmful, obviously, for the kids on the receiving end of such mistreatment. It also speaks to how the adults must be coming up short if we are raising kids who feel comfortable with the idea of gaining power at someone else’s expense.

Here’s a hopeful view, though. All guys could chase social power this way, but most don’t. That there are so many good guys tells us there must be factors for us to study, perhaps in parenting or education, that point young men in the right direction. It’s easy to identify negative forces—such as terrible public role models, widespread access to misogynistic porn—but I think there’s a lot we need to learn from looking closely at what’s going right for the boys who could be swayed by the same pernicious influences, but aren’t.

I have two trillion other questions but maybe let’s close with this. I used to tell my kids that their generation—the Parkland generation—is going to fix everything. That they are bighearted, global citizens who can undo the worst impulses of our current time. They HATE that. They keep telling me they are not our Zambonis; it’s not their responsibility to clean up the messes that greed and grifting and rampant plutocracy created. I read somewhere that Greta Thunberg, the 16-year-old global environmentalist, just said the same thing: Stop thanking us for taking the initiative, and help! First off, I hate that they even know about greed and grifting and rampant plutocracy. But how do I help them feel powerful in a very scary world, without making them feel burdened?

Let’s start by moderating expectations a bit. Rather than setting the bar that they (or we) should aim to fix everything, we need to accept that there will always be darkness in the world. Instead, we should simply ask our children to do their part to lift us up from where we are. Our kids can’t fix everything, but we can ask them to focus on some aspect of the world and use their talents and energy to make it better.