The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents

About the Book

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • An urgently needed guide to help parents understand their teenagers’ intense and often fraught emotional lives—and how to support teens through this critical developmental stage—from the author of Untangled and Under Pressure

Dr. Lisa Damour worked as an expert collaborator on Pixar’s Inside Out 2!

“How are we supposed to get our kids through these daunting years? There are countless books on the subject, but The Emotional Lives of Teenagers is the nuanced, empathetic one I wish I’d had when I was in the trenches.”—Judith Newman, The New York Times Book Review


In teenagers, powerful emotions come with the territory. And as teens contend with with academic pressure, social media stress, worries about the future, and concerns about their own mental health, it’s easy for them—and their parents—to feel anxious and overwhelmed. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Parents who read this book will learn:

what to expect in the normal course of adolescent emotional development and when it’s time to worry
why teens (and adults) need to understand that mental health isn’t about “feeling good” but about having feelings that fit the moment, even if those feelings are unwanted or painful
strategies for supporting teens who feel at the mercy of their emotions, so they can become psychologically aware and skilled at managing their feelings
how to approach common challenges that come with adolescence, such as friction at home, spiking anxiety, risky behavior, navigating friendships and romances, the pull of social media, and many more
the best ways to stay connected to their teens and how to provide the kind of relationship that adolescents need and want

With clear, research-informed explanations alongside illuminating, real-life examples, The Emotional Lives of Teenagers gives parents the concrete, practical information they need to steady their teens through the bumpy yet transformational journey into adulthood.
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Praise for The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers does a very simple and very difficult thing. It helps me feel ready for the joy, and the storm, to come.”Slate

“Filled with relatable situations, examples, and suggestions for constructive conversations, this book will be welcomed by parents and anyone who works with adolescents. Parents looking for timely advice and reassurance will find it here in clear layman’s language.”Booklist

“A calm, wise, and empathetic guide to a difficult period for both adolescents and parents.”Kirkus Reviews

“Damour’s down-to-earth tone gives this the feel of a conversation with a friend, while the psychology offers valuable perspective into the scientific underpinnings of adolescence. Parents of teens will want to check this out.”—Publishers Weekly

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers is written as clearly, usefully, and warmly as anything I’ve read about the psychology of adolescence. Lisa Damour explains why intense feelings—including negative ones—are a key part of teenage development, and how we can help young people understand and embrace the full spectrum of human emotion. I give it my highest recommendation!”—Angela Duckworth, author of Grit and co-founder of Character Lab

“Lisa Damour applies her decades of clinical experience to one of the most essential questions of our time: How can adults best support adolescent mental health? She hands parents, teachers, coaches, and mentors the playbook they need to help teenagers feel heard, healthy, and whole.”—Jewel, singer-songwriter and mental health advocate

“This book offers a crucial reframing that helps parents understand teens, their emotions, and their behavior. I couldn’t love it more. Damour gifts us with knowledge, words, and practical advice to reach our teenagers so that we can be the parents they need us to be as they become fully themselves.”—Tina Payne Bryson, co-author of The Whole-Brain Child

“In her latest book, Dr. Damour dispels harmful but pervasive myths about teen mental health. If, like most parents, you find yourself alienated or confused by your teen’s unpredictable feelings, add this book to the top of your reading pile immediately.”—Michelle Icard, author of Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen

“I can’t recommend this book enough. Damour gives parents practical and actionable research-backed advice to ensure their children develop the emotional skills they need to thrive.”—Marc Brackett, director, Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and author of Permission to Feel
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Excerpt

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

Chapter One

Adolescent Emotion 101: Getting Past Three Big Myths

“Dr. D,” the text read, “can I come c you sometime this week? Tom.” I didn’t recognize the phone number it was coming from and had no one named Tom on my weekly practice schedule. As I stared curiously at my phone, three dots materialized, followed by a message that seemed to come from a mind reader: “It’s me Tommy—I got your number from my mom.”

Tommy! Of course. I immediately remembered a sweet nine-year-old I’d first laid eyes on in my waiting room years earlier. When we met, he was standing anxiously next to his mother as she sat with one hand resting calmly in her lap and the other gently stroking her son’s back. Any progress she’d made in trying to ease his nerves evaporated when I opened the waiting room door. Tommy took me in with wide-eyed dread. His dark hair stood up on one side—bedhead that had impressively survived an entire school day—seeming to underscore his overall sense of alarm. On the phone, Tommy’s mother had explained that he was having nighttime fears that were keeping him and the rest of the family up late. At my office, Tommy and his mom followed me to my consulting room, and there we slowly began what would grow into a long and fruitful working relationship.

Tommy was born tense. As a baby he startled easily and went on to have enormous difficulty separating from his parents when it was time to go to preschool. His worries morphed over the years into nighttime fears, which thankfully yielded to my efforts to be helpful and his parents’ steady support. After those fears were resolved, nearly two years passed before I heard from his folks again. In the summer after seventh grade, Tommy bravely tried going to sleepaway camp but within two days was begging to come home. I had a few calls with Tommy at camp and several with his parents, and I also consulted by phone with the camp director. Together, we decided to pull the plug, with the hope of trying camp again the next year. Tommy met with me throughout that summer, both to address the anxiety that brought him home and to process his feelings of frustration and humiliation around being unable to stay.

Remembering all of this as I looked at my phone, I realized that nearly four years had gone by since I’d last heard from Tommy—now Tom—or his parents, which would make him a high school senior. We set up a time to meet and I prepared myself for the likelihood that I’d hardly recognize the person in my waiting room. Sure enough, Tom was now tall and broad-shouldered. He was wearing long, loose shorts that were poorly suited to the chilly late-October temperatures in the suburbs of Greater Cleveland. At once awkward and friendly, he greeted me with a deep voice that I didn’t recognize.

After we settled into my office and caught up briefly, he turned to the reason for his text.

“I’m working on my college applications and don’t want to apply too far from home. I’m okay with this, and my parents are too, but my college counselor is kinda making a thing of it.”

Tom was at the top of his class, thanks, no doubt, to the fact that his anxious temperament also made him a highly conscientious student. He was a sought-after cross-country runner and had also developed into an accomplished oboist. Despite the many ways he had matured, Tom explained that although he had hoped to attend a five-week intensive music program in Michigan the previous summer, he could not bring himself to go. Based on that experience, he decided to apply only to colleges within a three-hour drive of home.

Northeast Ohio has no shortage of excellent colleges and universities, but the college counselor at Tom’s school still felt that Tom was limiting his opportunities. I wasn’t sure what to think. From the gray couch in my office, Tom shared his reasoning with me. If he started to feel nervous or unsure when he was away at college, Tom wanted to be able to come home for a night or two without its being a big deal. He was sending applications to seven very fine area schools—he would certainly have excellent options when the admissions decisions came in. And he wasn’t applying to any college within thirty minutes of his house, because he really did want to feel that he’d gone away to school.

“I still get super anxious,” Tom said. “It’s better than it was, for sure, but I’ve never liked being away from my family. I’m just trying to come up with a solution that doesn’t leave me feeling like my anxiety could mess up my freshman year. When I explained this to my college counselor, he said: ‘Tom, your worries are clouding your thinking.’ ”

Though I knew where the counselor was coming from, I didn’t share his perspective. To me, it seemed to be grounded in an unhelpful but well-worn myth: that our feelings undermine our judgment.

Myth #1: Emotion Is the Enemy of Reason

Emotions and reason were cast as competitors long before Mr. Spock, with his reasoning unsullied by emotion, was showcased as Star Trek’s model thinker. Indeed, the opposition between our thoughts and our feelings has seemed so apparent that philosophers have commented on it for ages. Plato imagined reason as a charioteer working to keep the horses of human emotion under control; René Descartes, a champion of rationality, idealized those who “are entirely masters of their passions,” while David Hume, flipping Descartes’s script, argued that “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.”

So how should we think about the place of emotions in decision making? Plato, Descartes, Hume—who has it right?

Probably my friend Terry does. She’s a fellow clinical psychologist who once shared a terrifically useful metaphor with me. According to Terry, when it comes to decision making, we ought to view our emotions as occupying one seat on our personal board of directors. Other spots on the board might be held by ethical considerations, our personal ambitions, our obligations to others, financial or logistical constraints, and so on. Ideally, these board members will work together to help us make careful, informed choices about how we conduct our lives. In this metaphor, emotions have a vote, though it’s rarely a deciding one. And they definitely don’t chair the board.

Terry’s take finds support in psychological research. Studies show that, under the right conditions, our feelings can in fact improve the quality of our decision making. To examine how emotions influence reasoning, the psychologist Isabelle Blanchette asked British war veterans to solve logic problems on three different topics. One subset of the topics was combat-related (e.g., “Some chemical weapons are used in wars. All things used in wars are dangerous. Therefore, some chemical weapons are dangerous”); a second was emotionally loaded but not combatrelated (e.g., “Some cancers are hereditary . . .”); and the third was emotionally neutral (e.g., “Some teas are natural substances . . .”). The fascinating result? The veterans reasoned most soundly when given logic problems related to combat. Their emotional investment in war-related topics seemed to bolster their ability to make accurate deductions.

Blanchette’s war veteran study included a further wrinkle that sheds light on the interaction between emotion and logical thinking. In her study, half of the veterans suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which is characterized by painful, disruptive thoughts and feelings related to a past traumatic event. Blanchette found that veterans who suffered from PTSD underperformed on every category of the logic problems as compared to those who did not. Having a degree of personal investment in a topic can improve reasoning, but too much emotion creates a cognitive drag that interferes with our thinking.

About the Author

Lisa Damour, Ph.D.
Recognized as a thought leader by the American Psychological Association, Lisa Damour, Ph.D., co-hosts the Ask Lisa podcast, writes about adolescents for the The New York Times, appears as a regular contributor to CBS News, works in collaboration with UNICEF, and maintains a clinical practice. She is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls. She and her husband have two daughters and live in Shaker Heights, Ohio. More by Lisa Damour, Ph.D.
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