Expert on Girls, Dr. Lisa Damour Addresses Parents at GPS

Evening talk draws more than 300 to Frierson Theatre
On her return visit to GPS, Lisa Damour, Ph.D., The New York Times bestselling author of Untangled and Under Pressure, planned to speak with parents on Thursday evening, September 12, and then with teachers, parents again, and then students on Friday. Unfortunately Chattanooga experienced a water main break which caused the cancellation of all Friday presentations. 

Thankfully, the girls heard Damour interviewed by Jadyn Matthews ’20, Student Council President, during Chapel on Thursday and more than 300 adults attended Damour’s evening presentation in Frierson Theatre. 

We were also grateful that Alison Lebovitz interviewed Damour on campus on Thursday afternoon for an upcoming episode of The A List. The show featuring Damour with Lebovitz is scheduled to air Thursday, November 7, at 8:30 p.m., on WTCI. (The show also airs in repeat on the following Sunday at 10 a.m.) 

During her evening presentation to parents, Damour offered some encouraging and relatable advice about raising girls and helping them navigate challenges with a healthy approach to stress and anxiety, hitting on topics covered in her latest book.

Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls is a book she was compelled to write because, in the last five to 10 years of her career, she has felt as though stress and anxiety were at the center of every conversation in a way that they weren’t present in her early career as a psychologist. Were we experiencing more pressure in life or talking about it more freely? Or perhaps both?

She described the “Grand Canyon” between how psychologists understand stress and how our culture understands stress. Stress is present anytime you have to adapt to new conditions and it comes with an inoculating function. “At middle age, we’re tougher for having weathered difficulty,” she said. “Stress makes you more durable.”

But she cautioned the hazard of chronic stress. To illustrate, Damour compared dealing with stress to lifting weights. “You cannot progress without stress, but you are not in the gym all the time because then you would get injured.” You need downtime to recover and allow those muscles to rebuild.

At school, we give students work that is challenging. They “work out” on those problems, start to feel good about obtaining some mastery, and then we give them another set of work that also feels hard. But if all schoolwork was easy, friends were always kind and supportive, and teachers never demanding, then your girl would be ill-prepared for her world beyond high school. 

“You’re not supposed to feel that great that often,” Damour said, in response to today’s marketing of anti-anxiety potions and products constantly pushed upon us. “What generation before us bought into that?”

She also noted that we, as parents, make some well-meaning errors in how we respond to stress and anxiety in our girls. “We sometimes let our daughters avoid certain things they can be expected to do,” Damour said, “(such as) tests, recitals, and other stressful things that are in the lane of growing up. Don’t allow her to skip things. Avoidance feeds anxiety.”

So how do we fix our well-meaning responses to girls who are stressed? The first mistake we make is seeming surprised that they experience stress at all. We seldom acknowledge that our girls spend hour after hour, day after day, surrounded by people they do not choose to be around, doing work they did not choose to participate in. Such is the life of every teenager! 

Is it any wonder she unloads on you the minute she gets in the car or arrives at home? Here are some steps for handling a melting-down teen or tween:
  1. Listen without interrupting.
  2. Did that work? If yes, you’re done. Sometimes she just needs to unload.
  3. Offer sincere empathy. (I’m so sorry. That’s the worse.)
  4. Did that work? Yes? You’re done.
  5. Validate her distress. (I can see why you’re mad/upset.)
  6. Support coping. (Is there anything I can do that won’t make this worse?)
  7. Express non-dismissive confidence. (I, too, think this is hard, but I think you’ll get through it.) Think of “stress” as growing pains.
  8. Offer help. (Do you want my help to solve this?) 
  9. Help her divide this into two categories. What she can do something about and what she cannot do something about. What can you change for her? (I can make cupcakes, so you can study. The girl you don’t like is a done deal. Fighting it is not a good use of your energy.)

Damour said that most kids will come home stressed most days. “They experience a lot of growth in a very short period of time,” she said.

She suggested we teach girls to learn why they are stressed. If we think about stress as an alarm that alerts us, then we see the value in it. If your daughter is at a party and things get out of hand, she should feel stressed. That’s her sign to leave. 

“The only time psychologists get concerned is when you have stress or anxiety and there’s no reason for it or it’s disproportionate for the scenario,” she said.

Often in the name of empowerment, “we urge girls into conflict that they don’t need to have,” Damour said. “Functioning adults rarely engage annoyances. There are a whole lot of people you find annoying that you say nothing to. No functioning adult takes on every annoyance. Yet we are encouraging girls to take this on and they don’t need to.”

So when girls complain about social slights, instead say: “Is this something you want to take on?” Often they just want to be heard. 

Damour went on to describe the differences in how boys and girls approach school. From the nodding of heads in the audience, it was clear that parents of both sexes had already experienced the differences firsthand. 

“Girls tend to be great students and want to do the work,” she said. “If you ask them to make 20 flashcards, they’ll make 40. You might even see them rewriting their notes in color-coded pencils.”

Damour cautions parents to not praise this behavior in our girls. Grownups love it. Teachers love it. And yet boys will typically do the absolute minimum to keep adults off their backs. She called it The Art of the 89.5%. “That the lowest grade that can be rounded up to an A.”

Girls who become addicted to this overworked style become anxious. “They may be able to sustain this as a middle-schooler, but they will be crushed by the weight of their inefficiency when they take their first AP class,” Damour cautioned.

Your daughter needs to establish a work ethic, try hard, and complete her homework. “Once that is in place, she needs to become tactical about school,” she said. 

Encourage her to take sample tests on the internet. And then tell her: Whatever you don’t know, study that. Girls spend so much time going over what they already have mastery in.
“The difference between a 92 and a 98 is a life,” Damour said. “Girls will do what adults praise. Watch what you praise; you have a lot of power here.”

While technology and cell phone use continue to be concerns for parents of girls and boys, she said the data is not yet available to support the claim that the internet is destroying a generation. Until we know more, she said we can be smart about how we help our kids. 

Some tips:
  • No technology in a kid’s room ever. Ever. Ever. 
  • If they insist on music or an alarm, go old-school and get them a clock radio. 
  • Phones stay out of their bedrooms.
  • Sleep is the glue that holds it all together; teens need about nine hours each night.
  • If they can and want to sleep in on the weekend, let them.
  • No technology at the dinner table or in the car; it’s socially rude to ignore those around you.
  • Protect their capacity to focus on something at length. 
  • Don’t position yourself as against technology; rather you are FOR sleep and exercise and socializing.

To read more about Dr. Lisa Damour and her work, follow her on social media, where she regularly posts links to articles she’s written or those by trusted resources. Her latest book, Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, is available online and at national book retailers.

Be sure to watch or record her interview with Alison Lebovitz on The A List on November 7, at 8:30 p.m., on WTCI.

And also know that there is an entire community of people—teachers, advisors, deans, counselors, and coaches—at GPS who love and support you and your daughter through her journey to life beyond high school. If you need or want help with any issue she or your family might be experiencing, please reach out to a trusted teacher or the head of her division.

We are here for you.