Years ago, when I was still coaching high school cross country, a teenage girl skipped up to me after practice with a warning: Don’t count on her to race all the time. If her nerves got too intense before races, she might have to bow out in advance. “I have anxiety!” she explained with a nervous grin.
I recalled this episode while reading psychologist and author Lisa Damour’s refreshing new book, “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents.” Damour’s voice is forceful but comforting, and she uses it here to drive home her central point: Achieving mental health does not mean a life without unhappiness, anguish, anger, worry or self-doubt. Rather, these painful emotional states are an unavoidable feature of being human, especially for young people buzzing with hormones and adjusting to operatic moods prompted by recent rewiring of their brains. To best help their developing teenagers, parents should work to build their self-esteem and then guide them in learning how to express and manage these feelings.
Damour explains how we got to the point of considering unhappiness an aberration from some imaginary blissful norm. To start, advances in antidepressant medications made them safer and more attractive to the masses; she earnestly acknowledges that psychotropic medications improve and sometimes save lives. But prescriptions for Prozac and its medicinal brethren are as ubiquitous today as those for hypertension and cholesterol, making ordinary disappointment seem like a problem in need of a chemical solution. The mental wellness industry, too, worth about $131 billion globally, sells the idea that feeling rotten is avoidable (if you purchase just the right eucalyptus oil or bath bomb). Finally, because adolescents are in fact gloomier today than they were just ten years ago, it’s harder for parents and kids to figure out what distinguishes a legitimate mental health crisis from everyday emotional discomfort.
On this last point, Damour shares the findings of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and psychology professor Jean Twenge who are sounding the alarm about youth mental health: Just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, 44 percent of teenagers reported experiencing anxiety, up from 34 percent about ten years ago; 37 percent felt “persistently sad or hopeless”; 16 percent of teenagers said that they’d developed a suicide plan. Those self-reported findings were matched by increases in hospitalizations for self-harm and a surge in the number of completed suicides, mostly since 2012. New findings released by the CDC in February revealed that girls and LGBTQ+ youth especially are floundering. Whether from what Haidt calls the rise in “phone-based childhoods,” creeping existential despair, or the effect of too little free and unstructured time — and likely some combination of all these and more — adolescents are struggling today in ways that they weren’t just a decade ago.
What’s a conscientious parent to do? “One of the most important things we can do for teenagers is help them distinguish between emotions that are uncomfortable (and) emotions that are unmanageable,” Damour told me.