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Supporting Teenage Girls

For parents and teachers of teenage girls, ‘four seasons in one day’ doesn’t only refer to our New Zealand weather, it also refers to the very changeable emotional landscape of young women. We know that a perfectly sunny mood can become stormy in a flicker of an eye. Why is this? What should we do? What happened to our easygoing tween?

Adolescent angst was traditionally put down to hormonal fluctuations but neuroscience has now revealed that it’s because of major brain renovations that happen after 12 years of age.

“Updates to the limbic system heighten the brain’s emotional reactions with research indicating that the feeling centres beneath the cortex are actually more sensitive in teens than in children or adults,” explains Dr Lisa Damour, psychotherapist and author, in her book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood.

“With the lower-to-higher remodeling of the brain, the frontal cortex – the part of the brain that exerts a calming, rational influence – doesn’t come fully online until adulthood. This means that limbic system reactions outstrip frontal cortex controls. Put simply, intense emotions burst through and introduce you, and your daughter, to a new period of emotional upheaval.”

Dr Damour tells us that the intensity of the response reflects the teenager’s experience and this is shared by her friends.

“You are living with a girl whose key support system – her tribe – consists of peers who are also as reactive and erratic as they will ever be.”

The support of adults who have negotiated the limbic upgrade is critical. Parents are needed to accommodate the ‘dumping’ and moaning and to teach the difference between complaining and venting.

Dr Damour unpacks a familiar dynamic. Once in the car, or on the evening phone call home from Boarding, you might receive a desperate wave of negativity.

Dr Damour explains that, “Complaining to you allows your daughter to bring the best of herself to school. Instead of being rude or aggressive toward peers or teachers at school, your daughter contains her irritation and waits until she is safely in your company to express it. If she can hold it together all day at school, you might wonder why your daughter can’t hold it together a little bit longer so that she can also be pleasant with you. As it turns out, will power is a limited resource. By the time they get to the end of the day, there’s just no energy left.”

Your daughter is relying on you absorbing the frustration so she can go back and do it all again tomorrow.

Dr Damour’s advice is to absorb the venting and recognise it doesn’t require anything more than a listening ear. Your enraged daughter is unlikely to accept any well-meaning solutions at this point.

“Instead, you might say, ‘Do you want my help with this, or do you just need to vent?’ If she wants your help, she’ll tell you. But usually, she just needs, and deserves, to blow off steam.”

Teaching our girls the difference between venting and complaining is vital, Dr Damour says. Venting recognises that we feel better when someone cares and listens to our woes: a problem shared is a problem halved. While complaining is a call for someone to fix the problem. Parents are hardwired to help their children deal with difficulties yet Dr Damour asserts that parents generally just need to let her let it out.

“Most of what teens complain about can’t be fixed. No magic wand can make her peers, teachers, coaches, locker location, or homework any less irritating. Better for her to do a little less complaining about such realities and a little more venting. In doing so, she moves away from the childlike idea that the world should bend to her wishes to the adult idea that life comes with many unavoidable bumps.”

Listen to what is causing misery or heartache and take the chance to help your daughter differentiate between problems that need to be solved and problems that are best addressed by talking it through.

“Given the opportunity to unload their discomfort, most teens will gather their resources and work through what went wrong, or discover, with the benefit of time, that the problem comes down to size on its own.”

Dr Damour terms the uncomfortable feelings and difficulties that girls dump on parents as ‘hot potatoes.’ She advocates talking with another adult rather than a similarly emotional teen friend when you feel pushed to action.

“By sharing the situation with someone who isn’t holding an emotional hot potato, most parents start to see things more clearly and to regain an adult perspective on the problem. Sometimes another adult isn’t available or the content of the externalisation feels too sensitive to be shared. Under these conditions – and absent pressing safety concerns – wait at least a day before taking any action. Waiting gives the hot potato time to cool and gives you and your daughter time to craft a rational plan.”

Dr Damour offers a well-researched understanding of why we see our daughters feel so much, so hard and so intensely. Her work explains why young women can present so differently at home and at school.

“Your daughter works hard every day to harness powerful and unpredictable emotions so she can get on with doing everything else she means to do. To manage all of that intensity and to keep from feeling crazy, she’ll recruit your help.”

As adults we can offer this help by listening and not reacting, and modeling how to vent, not complain.

“Though a teenager will experience her fight with a friend as a full-blown crisis, it’s our job as adults to remember that it’s not.”

Dr Damour’s book is highly recommended and her website offers excellent material and video tutorials.

Read more>> https://www.drlisadamour.com

Stephanie Russell, Deputy Principal – Student Wellbeing

Dr Lisa Damour’s book Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood can be purchased from Wardini Books or ordered through Whitcoulls.