Tips From Dr. Lisa Damour to Keep Calm and Carry On
“Kids are stressed about being stressed. But guess what? Seventh grade is stressful!” This was just one of many nuggets of wisdom from psychologist and author Lisa Damour, Ph. D., our guest speaker for the 10th annual Robinson Health Colloquium on February 12. Generously funded by James G. Robinson, a former RPCS trustee and past parent, the Robinson Health Colloquium includes an evening presentation for parents, assemblies for students and specialized information for faculty on a health-related topic of importance to girls and their parents. This year’s focus was on how to provide the best social-emotional support possible for our children, especially with regards to stress or anxiety they may be experiencing.
As writer of the monthly Adolescence column for the New York Times and author of two best-selling books, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls, Dr. Damour draws on years of clinical experience and the latest research to provide sound, practical guidance to girls as well as to their parents, teachers, and advocates.
Advice for Students
Earlier in the day, Dr. Damour met with students in grades 4-12 and told them that although most people try to avoid stress and anxiety at all costs, psychologists believe that both emotions are an unavoidable part of being human and actually serve very positive purposes. “You will feel stress anytime you are growing,” Dr. Damour told them. “And even though it doesn’t feel good at the time, you will get through it and next time, it won’t feel so hard.” She compared school to weight lifting: both are uncomfortable, but help us build capacities and prepare us to handle more in the future. The secret to handling stress is all in the recovery; taking time each day to decompress and relax. Dr. Damour also told students how anxiety can be fundamentally protective from both inside and outside threats and encouraged the girls to pay attention to these feelings when they arise. She then explained how to help turn down our bodies’ response to anxiety through mindful breathing.
Conflict is also an inevitable part of being human, Dr. Damour told the Middle and Upper School students and there is a healthy way to deal with it. Walking through a theoretical example of being left out of a party, she demonstrated how to “be a pillar” and stand up for themselves, while also being respectful of others. Dr. Damour encouraged the students to consider letting possible conflicts go if they are not worth their mental energy.
Some of Dr. Damour’s other tips for students included:
- Take some time every day to do whatever relaxes and recharges you.
- Trick your body into believing it’s not anxious by practicing “square” breathing: inhale for three breaths, hold for three breaths, exhale for three breaths, then pause for three breaths.
- When faced with a conflict, ask yourself if it’s worth addressing. If so, be a “pillar” and practice what you want to say before you say it.
Advice for Parents and Guardians
Later that evening at the community lecture, Dr. Damour recapped some of the critical misunderstandings about anxiety, stress and conflict that she discussed with students and described the physiology of the changing adolescent brain that can make it hard for them to regulate their emotions. Her talk focused on how parents, guardians and educators can help them through difficult times. “A major factor in their stress and anxiety is how we interpret it,” Dr. Damour told the full auditorium. “If we seem calm and composed in the face of their anxiety and stress, it can make a huge difference.”
Dr. Damour explained how to fix well-meaning errors, including letting our children avoid what makes them anxious because “avoidance feeds anxiety,” and not teaching our children how to appropriately handle conflict when it inevitably occurs. She shared tips about how to parent in our current climate, with regards to gender, race and technology. From her experience, boys approach tests with more confidence and efficiency than girls and she urged parents to check in with their daughters if they seem to be spending too much studying and help them build confidence to believe they know their stuff.
Dr. Damour also encouraged the audience to not be against technology (“because you’ll lose!”), but to be for the components of child development that are personally important, like sleep, focus and one-on-one interactions and then protect them, by turning off notifications when doing homework, for example. Dr. Damour also admitted that it’s hard for kids to take social media advice from parents seriously, but that they will listen to older kids, which is something we are working on at RPCS.
Some additional tips Dr. Damour shared include:
- Do not let your child(ren) avoid situations that make them anxious because it perpetuates that fear and prevents them from learning what they are capable of handling.
- Manage meltdowns using these nine steps.
- Check in if your child is studying too much and encourage her to take sample tests online to avoid spending too much time reviewing material she already knows.
- Read Waking Up White: And Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving and White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo to better understand how well-intentioned mindsets can actually perpetuate racial tensions.
- When it comes to technology, model positive behavior for your children.
- Do not let technology into the bedroom to encourage better sleep. Easier said than done, but this is a practice that everyone in Dr. Damour’s family has adopted!