Submitted by Katherine Grant, Coordinator of the Whole Girl, Whole World speaker series.
The 2019 Whole Girl, Whole World speaker series welcomed the return of Dr. Lisa Damour to Crofton House. It was a privilege to have Lisa share her invaluable insights with the students, parents and faculty throughout the day.
Lisa has been practicing psychology for 25 years and explained she was compelled to write her latest book Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls because she had noticed a marked shift in the rising rates of stress and anxiety reported by girls and parents. We as parents are acutely aware of this shift; we know this is true, we feel it in our girls, and our daughters are telling us they are stressed and anxious.
The data proves this is happening in girls disproportionally and Lisa’s presentation allayed our fears with the idea that that we can make adjustments in parenting to alleviate the strain our daughters are under. Let's look at three recommended tasks to help keep girls thriving and growing:
1. Correcting some critical misunderstandings.
Lisa commented on the gap between how psychologists and the general public view stress and anxiety. The general public thinks that stress and anxiety is harmful and must be avoided or eliminated. On the other spectrum, psychologists believe that they are normal, expectable functions that will be part of everyday life.
Humans experience stress any time they are adapting to new conditions, positive or negative, and when we adapt we develop our capacity to grow. Over time this stress will make us more durable. With the gift of time and stress, we gain the ability to cope and grow as humans. The key point made about stress is that it is healthy if we have the opportunity to recover from it. Stress is unhealthy when it is chronic, and no opportunity exists to recover and heal.
It is important to distinguish between healthy and unhealthy stress when talking about stress with our daughters. The analogy she provided is school is a lot like weightlifting. For weightlifting to be effective you have to lift uncomfortably heavy weights in increments. It is the same strategy employed at school. For learning to occur you have to do increasingly heavier work. School is supposed to be stressful, and rather than focus on this point, turn the attention to how your daughter recovers from it. Recovery varies for each individual, as parents we need to ensure we provide adequate time and opportunity for recovery. It was notable when Lisa advised that if our daughters are waking up, working at school, working after school through to bedtime and then waking up and repeating the same routine it will become unsustainable. Recovery is necessary and must be allowed to occur.
Psychologists like anxiety too because it is viewed as a gift handed down from evolution to keep us safe. It is supposed to be uncomfortable in order to trigger a reaction in our brain and compel us to take action to external and internal threats. When anxiety becomes unhealthy is when it does not correspond to a threat, becomes persistent and disproportionate to the situation. Parents can advise girls to pay attention to their anxious feelings so they can take appropriate action.
2. Fix some well-meaning errors parents make in the home.
It can be distressing for parents to witness a 13-year-old daughter’s full-blown meltdown, and our natural inclination is to make it stop. A typical response is to ask a question such as “what happened” or the reassurance of “I’m sure it will be ok”, which will only make the situation worse.
The symbolism of the glitter jar perfectly illustrated what happens inside a girl’s brain during a meltdown. In adolescence, the brain goes through a re-modelling in the areas which houses emotions (back), and higher order of thinking and perspective (front), the latter which has not been upgraded to the same level as the emotional part at this age.
As parents, we can adjust how we respond to the meltdown which is more effective. While we witness the dysregulation of the brain (the meltdown) we can give her a chance to “settle her glitter”. Allow her time and space to just be upset, and her brain will re-regulate and her perspective on the problem will be clearer.
A common well-meaning error parents make is the instinctual desire to help our daughters avoid things that cause them stress and anxiety. We can’t let our daughters avoid the things they are expected to do for their age level and in the expectable range of what they can manage because avoidance feeds anxiety. We need to help our daughters take baby steps towards what she is avoiding.
3. Parenting to the current conditions.
Never has there been such a generational jump whereby the parent’s experience of being a child is so different from their child’s experience of being a child; we cannot fall back on what our parents did as a plan or roadmap for parenting our own children. The omnipresent role of technology in our lives has also not made it easier.
Our daughter’s experience in school is vastly different than ours. Rewriting notes, highlighting and making numerous flash cards may have been a method parents used when we were at school but it is an inefficient use of time in school today. It is imperative that a good work ethic combined with a tactical and strategic approach is developed. A successful strategy Lisa presented is to start studying by taking sample tests to determine what is known. Keep taking sample tests until the material is understood. It is pointless to rewrite notes as one is not tested on note rewriting. Work with the material in question form.
There is no doubt that technology has impacted adolescence so we need to focus on key things that we as parents can do that are proven for healthy development.
The first is sleep, and a lack of it is a powerful reason for why kids are more stressed and anxious right now, and it should be a non-negotiable.The best gift a parent can give is 18 years of knowing what a good night’s sleep is so that she can do what is necessary to get a good night’s sleep when she isn’t living at home.
Second is helping her learn how to focus so that technology doesn’t distract her. Turn off notifications and remove the phone for 25 minutes, give it back for five minutes of use, then remove it again for another 25 minutes. She will be amazed how much more she can accomplish in 25 uninterrupted minutes.
Third, protect their social skills from technology by developing face to face conversations. Get in the habit that face to face interactions are not interrupted by using and looking at the phone; step away to deal with the phone so you come back and maintain face to face interaction.
We as parents can’t be against technology, but it can’t take precedence over sleep, the ability to focus and the development of social skills.
Lisa concluded her presentation by helping us see the big picture of what we want for our daughters and what we can do to accomplish that. We want them to be happy, secure grown-ups and have made the inaccurate assumption that they need to be academically and professionally successful in order to achieve that goal.
What is proven about happy and secure grown-ups is that they have good relationships, find their work meaningful, are competent in what they do and enjoy physical health. It is not about the grades, it is about the ethics of the person, and what you have her do today and what you model yourself as a parent will lead her to good relationships, success and happiness in her job and the enjoyment of physical health. By being a kind, ethical and decent person she will be a happy and secure adult. And isn’t that what we all want in the end?
If you haven’t yet had a chance to read Lisa’s book I encourage you to do so and to visit her website for more helpful parenting articles. Under Pressure is an important and valuable follow-up to her first book, Untangled.