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The Seven Uneven Transitions of Teens

Lisa Damour, psychologist, teacher, New York Times columnist and author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood,” was the featured speaker at the last “Heard in Rye” workshop of the year, which was held at School of the Holy Child last month.

By Annette McLoughlin

 

Lisa Damour, psychologist, teacher, New York Times columnist and author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood,” was the featured speaker at the last “Heard in Rye” workshop of the year, which was held at School of the Holy Child last month. She offered a host of suggestions for parents of teenagers on how to best navigate their children’s erratic and often dramatic behavior.

 

Dr. Damour opened her presentation with a quote from Anna Freud, which summarizes her philosophy. “While an adolescent remains inconsistent and unpredictable in her behavior, she may suffer, but she does not seem to me to be in need of treatment. I think that she should be given time and scope to work out her own solution. Rather, it may be her parents who need help and guidance so as to be able to bear with her. There are few situations in life which are more difficult to cope with than an adolescent son or daughter during the attempt to liberate themselves.”

 

Her overriding theme is that the conflicts throughout adolescent development are not about you; they’re about them, parting with you and parting with childhood.

 

Damour tailored her presentation to cover boys as well as girls, stating that the developmental landscapes apply to both genders. To help bring order into the chaos of raising a teen, Damour lays out The Seven Transitions.

 

Starting in fifth grade, children begin “Parting With Childhood.” They start to test the waters of independence, in ways that can sting an unsuspecting parent. Damour uses a swimming metaphor whereby the child is the swimmer and parents are the wall of the pool. When the swimmer gets tired, he goes back to the edge for support and rest. Kids at this age will emotionally pivot in an instant: needing us one minute and strong-arming us the next. She recommends parents try not to take the “emotional whiplash” personally but to remain a strong and supportive wall when needed.

 

In seventh grade, socialization is characterized by “Joining a New Tribe.” Unlike adults, who form friendships one-on-one, kids this age coalesce in groups and form friendships based on what is often a random collection brought together by a sport or other commonality. Conflicts arise because invariably, there are kids in the group that don’t get along. Regardless of friction, they bind themselves to this group. Damour recommends parents help them through these conflicts by simply affirming negative feelings. They need to know it’s okay not to always like someone but that they shouldn’t necessarily act on those feelings.

 

In eighth grade, they begin “Harnessing Emotions” and they embark on a campaign of complaining. Damour asked the audience to imagine the day-to-day reality of middle school — long lectures in subjects in which they likely have little interest. She suggested parents do more listening than talking when their child complains because, often, they only want you to hear them, not offer up opinions, or advise, or worse, take action.

 

By about ninth grade they are “Contending with Adult Authority” and beginning to recognize that adults don’t have all the answers. They may complain about their teachers and Damour recommends that we help them to understand the inevitability of discord with authority and the importance of being able to handle it appropriately.

 

By tenth grade, teens are “Planning for the Future” and most are starting to take their academics more seriously. But this is a gradual process andDamour suggests parents refrain from fighting the “writing a paper versus watching Netflix” battle. Instead, she says, set up a “teen versus teen fight.” In other words, let them battle their own conscience. If they turn off Netflix and write the paper, they win. If they give in to Netflix and get a bad grade, it is still a win because they have learned the lesson of consequences.

 

In eleventh grade they are “Entering the Romantic World” and Damour offers some compelling guidance for advising teens as they explore their sexuality. She suggests parents refrain from the current popular strategy of emphasizing risk and ask our children to ask themselves these questions in this order: What do I want? What does my partner want? What do we both want? If what we want involves risk, how do we deal with it?

 

By the end of high school, teens are in the stage of “Caring for Themselves” and they should be encouraged to make independent decisions about their own health and safety. Rather than denying that they’ll encounter risky behavior, Damour recommends we acknowledge the inevitable, “I know there will be drinking. I need to know you’ll take good care of yourself.” The idea, of course is to put the responsibility in their hands and get them to understand that the real consequence of dangerous behavior is not the “getting caught by parents” part. 


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