The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

Publishing February 2023

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 most importantly, embrace the full spectrum of human emotion. I give it my highest recommendation!”

– Angela Duckworth, author of Grit and Co-Founder of Character Lab

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The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

Lisa's latest book is an urgently needed guide to help parents understand their teenagers’ intense and often fraught emotional lives—and how to support them through this critical developmental stage.

Under Pressure

Under Pressure

Lisa’s second New York Times best seller is a celebrated, urgently needed guide to addressing the alarming increase in anxiety and stress in girls from elementary school through college.

Untangled

Untangled

Lisa’s award-winning New York Times best seller–now available in nineteen languages–is a sane, informed, and engaging guide for parents of teenage girls.

Episode 48

How Often Should I Be in Touch with My College Freshman?

Getting into college is hard work. So how do you raise kids who will thrive once they get there? Dr. Lisa explains how parents can prepare their kids to succeed when they become independent (hint: it's not about academics). When should a parent be concerned about a child who does not communicate with them? Is there such a thing as providing too much long-distance emotional support?

September 21, 2021 | 23 min

Transcript | How Often Should I Be in Touch with My College Freshman?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 48: How Often Should I be in Touch with my College Freshman?

 

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional

mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being,

consult a physician or mental health professional.

 

REENA: I almost hate to mention it, but I was thinking the other day this time next year you would have sent off a college freshman.

 

LISA: I know, Reena, and believe me it is in front of me all of the time because we’re deep in the college process.

 

REENA: Yeah.

 

LISA: I mean it’s basically dominating life around here, and so even if I don’t want to think about it I don’t really have a choice. She’s doing a great job with it, but man oh man, I have a new level of understanding and empathy when parents talk about the intensity of the college process.

 

REENA: I bet. You know a friend was saying she now passes by her college freshman’s room and it’s like, it just hurts her heart because she realizes, oh my god. She’s not at school in town. She’s away. She’s gone. You know? It’s hard but it made me think how often should you be in touch? What should you do? Like just because they’re out doesn’t mean your parenting is over, and we got this letter. It says: ‘Dear Lisa and Reena, I’m hoping you’ll do a podcast episode on how to deal with the kid who’s away from home going to college for the first time. How often should a parent reach out to them? Is texting daily too much? I don’t want to make the transition more difficult and yet I’m missing my son and want to know how he’s managing. I don’t see much guidance on this online, and I know it’s not an easy transition, especially with the COVID pandemic still going on. What do you suggest? And how can I make the transition easier? Thank you for your help.’ What a great letter. Nobody talks about this. You send them off and you’re like, okay there’s nothing more to figure out, but there’s so much more to figure out.

 

LISA: There is so much more, and, Reena, what I have learned from years of helping parents through this, and now I’ll learn a lot in the coming year my own self, is it’s a whole new chapter in parenting. You know it’s not the end of parenting, it’s just you’re turning a page, you’re in the next chapter of parenting your college age kid.

 

REENA: Who’s still a kid by the way. I don’t care what the age says, it’s still a kid, and we’re also in the middle of this challenging pandemic. Lisa, what’s your advice to this mom?

 

LISA: I just, I’m so grateful for this letter because it’s actually an issue with or without a pandemic, and it’s always been an issue, and I’ve always thought with families as their children go off to college about, you know, how should this be arranged? You know in terms of how staying in touch is going to look and then of course the pandemic adds at least one more layer, and I would even say probably many more layers, because part of what is happening is our kis have actually been home a lot more than they were pre-pandemic and so I think about the families who are sending kids off to college. They actually had a very unusual senior year to say the least and in many ways it kind of threw things in reverse, that, you know, the typical process we see is kids become increasingly independent over the course of high school, you sort of hear from them less and less, you see them less and less, and that helps to smooth the transition to college, and for a lot of families, and I’ll count myself among them, you know, we spend more time with our teenagers than we had in previous years, and so I feel really fortunate in my own way that I have a senior year for my daughter, which I hope will be pretty normal and she’ll start to do that distancing just because she can, but families who just sent their kids off miss that and actually have been more intensely interacting than they definitely would have been otherwise.

 

REENA: So, I almost feel like what I would need, you know our episode last week was about drinking and for me, as a part of a 9- and 10-year-old, all I could think about was, oh my god are they going to make the right choices? They’re going to be around these parties. But is what I need as a parent and what the kid might need as a college freshman different? I mean might not line up?

 

LISA: Yeah. I think that that’s actually, so when we walk up to this question, I think the first thing we want to say is like, well whose needs are being met and whose needs, you know, should sit at the center? And you know we’re parents, so the bottom line is our kids needs should sit at the center, which isn’t to say that we don’t get to have our needs and we love them like crazy,  they’re leaving us to go to college, you know, in this letter we do get to stay in touch, but I do wonder if one were to walk up to this is for there to be a conversation, and it can happen after the kids already gone, about how much do you want to be in touch? You know what do you think is going to work for you? And asking that of the college student as an opening pass on this question of how often are we going to really be texting or talking or doing all of these things?

 

REENA: Now what do you do if you’re texting and then all the sudden you’re met with silence? Tt might not be nefarious. It’s just, you know, they’re a kid, they’re doing other things, they forget to text mom. How do you deal with the heartache of you want to hear more but your kid isn’t necessarily giving you as much interaction as you’d like?

 

LISA: Absolutely . I mean so let’s imagine this scenario where the kid’s like, I’ll write when I get work, you know, you don’t really need to be in touch, I’ll call you, you know. And then they don’t call it that often. I think it is totally okay if that is where this goes for the family to say, kiddo we need to be in touch at least, you know, every few days. We just want to hear from you, know that you’re alive. We miss you. We love you. You know we don’t need a long response, you could give me a thumbs up in response to my text, but I want to hear from you, and that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do, and especially, like you said, Reena, you know it’s not because you’re worried that they’re, you know, up to no good, that there’s something really wrong. I think it’s totally fine to request some ongoing interaction from a kid who doesn’t seem to need it, and I think what’s so beautiful in this it it’s kind of great if the kids like, nope. I’m here. I’m good, I’m living my new life. I’m finding my people. I don’t need to be in touch all the time. At some level, that’s an outcome that we should really be pleased with, and then we can just make our request for some check in sometime.

 

REENA: So what do you do as a parent? Because this is your kid, especially if it’s your first child off to college, what are the boundaries? Should you have these conversations before you go or even at this point some parents have already sent their children off. Is there a conversation that needs to be had or do you think it just happens organically and you take it from there and decide what to say?

 

LISA: I think it can go either way, right? You might say like, what’s your plan? How do you want to do this? You know, especially if you know your kid isn’t a great communicator, that might be a good thing to do, and it can happen before or after you go, you know, you take them off to college. That said, I think it’s perfectly okay to say nothing and see what happens because it could go a lot of ways and, you know, what we want to watch out for, and this is almost always true in everything, is we just want to watch for the extremes. So, we don’t want the kid who never communicates because that doesn’t feel good and I think it does create a lot of anxiety in parents and it is reasonable to ask for some check in, but we also want to be wary of the kid who seems to be in constant touch and reaching out a lot and especially doing so around struggling or running into, you know, emotional upsets. It’s a really tough moment for parents because on the one hand, you know, we miss them already and we want nothing more than to be, you know, right there with them and support them as they do this big thing of going off to college. On the other hand, it can hamstring a young person’s ability to make use of the resources around them or start to lean on their roommate or new friends for emotional support. So, there’s a balance that we have to watch for. So, what I would say to parents is, you know, have a conversation as if you’re worried that your kid will never be in touch, you know, but short of that, if you feel ready to send your kid to college, you’re sort of, you know, implicitly saying to your child and yourself, we think you’re ready to go. We think you’re ready to manage independently, and then if you’re getting information that makes you question that, your kid is in touch all the time. You are hearing from them at all hours. That, then, I think warrants a conversation.

 

REENA: You did say we are in this unusual situation, this pandemic, of where we’re together all the time, we’re talking all the time, we’re around each other all the time. Could it possibly be normal? Like how do you tell when your kid is communicating too much and it’s sort of a warning sign something’s wrong?

 

LISA: That’s a tough one, Reena. It’s one of those things where if it’s way too much, you’ll know. If it’s way too little, you’ll know, but, you know, what’s the what’s the line? And so let’s think through, like what’s the line where you start to say, hey, kiddo, I’m worried about you. I’m worried that you’re not making good use of the resources you’ve got, or I want to know what gets in the way of using the resources around you? I mean that that would be the conversation. So, I can tell you what’s not online. Let’s start there. Okay, so one thing that has forever been true of teenagers is that sometimes when they’re really upset, the way they manage the upset feeling is they dump it on their parent, and they get their parent to be really upset instead.

 

REENA: How?

 

LISA: I’ll tell you exactly how because I totally did this to my mother when I was in college, and I remember it, and this still goes on. You know, even though the technology’s much better, the maneuver has not changed at all. So, here’s a completely standard, though miserable, interaction with your college-aged kid. So, I remember I was a freshman. I was all the way in Connecticut. My family was in Colorado, and I don’t know I was upset about something, so I called my mom, and of course this was from the shared phone in the common room. Prehistoric 1988, and I’m like, I hate it. I’m not going to make it here. I can’t stand it. Everybody, you know, that’ll get along, blah, blah, blah, you know whatever. I was in a really grumpy mood and I said all these things to my mom, and then I hung up and then I felt much better. Like it was like I just taken a huge load off.

 

REENA: Just saying it.

 

LISA: Yep. And then my roommate showed up. We went out. We had a great time. Okay, my mom calls the next day and she’s like, how are you? And I’m like, I’m fine, like what’s up with you. And she had been up all night, Reena, and I think my dad basically had to keep her from packing a canteen in the car and coming to get me. Okay, so that, weirdly, is when not to worry, which is basically when the kid dumps their emotional trash on you, you feel like garbage and they feel better, and the challenge of course is, your kid does this when they live with you, but you can see that they feel better. When they’re at college all you know is you’ve got this really sad phone call and now they’re not responding to your text, and now they’re not replying because they’re like, no, no, you keep that trash. I’ve done that. I don’t want to talk about the trash. So, what I would say to parents is don’t worry overnight. I know that’s impossible, and I’m sure it, but if you have a rough phone call and you’re like, oh my gosh, my kid’s really struggling. Give it 24 hours, at least, before you get in the car or start to really panic because it is a typical interaction that they dump it on you, feel way way better, and go on and have a good time.

 

REENA: So give it 24 hours might be a good thing?

 

LISA: That’s a good rule. So, in terms of like when not to freak out, like if, you know, if you get them on the phone the next day they’re like, yeah no, no I’m great. What are you talking about? Well that’s just what happened and it worked and they feel better. You feel like junk, but thus is parenting.

 

REENA: Yeah.

 

LISA: I would worry, though, if 24 hours later, they’re still feeling crummy, and 24 hours after that, they’re still feeling crummy. So, what we want to see is not the upsetting phone call. You’re going to get this as a college parent. We want to see if we’re going to worry is upsetting phone calls that keep coming and there’s no relief found for the young person in dumping the uncomfortable feelings on their parent.

 

REENA: So if I, the mother of a 10- and 9-year-old, eight years before I hit this point, and I’m worried about drinking, okay. This is the way that I am right now. When I get to that point, and obviously parents of that age group might have different worries, but what do you think really matters in development in that freshman year that you need to watch out for?

 

LISA: What we want to know is that they take responsibility for caring for themselves. You know that’s really the bottom line, and this to me, Reena, is something that we don’t have as a measure of readiness for college, and this has always really stayed with me and struck me as I think about the transition from high school to college. So, what it means to be able to graduate from high school and get into college is really, really different than what it means to be able to succeed once you get to college, and this is something that’s always really struck me. You know I watch kids all the time who, you know, they do fine in high school. They apply, you know, to college. They get in. They can write essays. They can write scores. And by do fine in high school I mean they get good enough grades, but that doesn’t mean they’re college ready, and we don’t really have a systematic way of talking and thinking about college readiness separate from college admissions. So, what I want parents to be thinking about all the time is, okay my kids into college, or my kid can get into college. You know they’re going to get in somewhere. Are they ready to go to college? And that question pivots on whether or not a kid sees their self care as their job. So for you, Reena, right now, that’s the groundwork laying. You’ve got a lot of runway, but you’re going to really start talking about them bundling up, them eating vegetables, them, you know, doing all of these things, not because you’re telling them, but because that’s part of how they care for themselves, and then that builds.

 

REENA: So this morning I was yelling at the kids because clothes were on the floor. They weren’t put back in the hamper, and they were like, mom you’re nagging me all the time, which by the way you’ve promised me we’re going to do an episode of how to get kids to do what you want without nagging. That’s coming, I promise.

 

LISA: Okay, we’ll do it.

 

REENA: But, you know, one of my things, I guess, I don’t frame it to them like I’m training and helping you so you’re able to do this on your own, and your mom isn’t with you, or else I’m going to be moving into college with you to be there, make sure you’re picking up if you don’t pick up these things. I’m going to be your roommate in college. That didn’t go down well with the 10-year-old boy.

 

LISA: But no I think it’s a beautiful threat though. Like do you really want me to come to college with you and pick up after you, right? That will definitely get them in gear. Sometimes I have said, oh man, your roommate’s going to hate this, you know, like making that joke with a really young kid, like your roommate is not going to be cool with you, you know, doing what you’re doing, and that can be a funny way to just remind them that they won’t always live in a room on their own if they happen to be so lucky right now. So, I think that’s how we want to frame it is not, I’m going to make you do this because I can make you do this. It’s that I’m going to make you do this to prepare you for the world and remind you that you’re in charge of yourself and your stuff, and that’s one thing we can do, even with young kids, even around things that have nothing, you know, allegedly college tied up with them. Like their willingness to eat green vegetables. Things like that.

 

REENA: So, I’m curious. What are you doing in this final senior year? You’re armed with so much psychology and research. What do you think matters, and this year it’s so high pressure is what I’m getting from so many people. The college admission process is not what it was 10 years ago, and the pressure also with the pandemic and performing, what do you find is important as you’re getting your daughter ready for college next year?

 

LISA: Oh, Reena, man. It just so hits my heart, right?

 

REENA: I know.

 

LISA: Because it’s like all I think about, you know? Okay, so here’s what I can say about my kid. She’s ready. And I’m fortunate and I know that and, you know, it won’t mean that she won’t be sad to say goodbye and I won’t be sad to say goodbye to her, but I watch her be ready. But what I have seen is questions of readiness come up for families over the course of this senior year, and there are can be fairly profound questions, you know, where a kid is, you know, maybe functioning fine academically but they’re not taking good care of themselves in a really patterned way. Like you’re just watching them, you know, do one reckless, worrisome thing after another. I think under those conditions it’s really important to say, look, you may be able to graduate from high school, but you are not making it clear you’re college ready. I’ve also seen kids who make a big mistake in their senior year, and this is something I think we should be prepared to see more of than usual just because they’ve been so close to home, and they really haven’t had a junior year to kind of, you know, stretch their wings a little bit. So, we might see some worrisome wing stretching during the senior year a little more than usual, and my experience is you can have a really sturdy, ready-for-college kid do something pretty dumb. You know maybe get drunk in a way that’s upsetting, or, you know, make a bad judgment call, and in my experience if you say the kid, you do one more thing like this and the question of whether you’re ready for college is going to be called, and the shape it right up. The idea of not going to college with a cohort is so frightening to them that they really like toe the line, and so one of my favorite lines that I picked up in my work in schools is, you know, once is a mistake. Twice is a pattern. And so I think that’s a nice way to talk with teenagers, really of all ages, when they do something, you know, kind of not such a good idea. Reena, I have one more thought about the gray area of too much or too little conversation from your kid in college, and it has to do with when your college student really of any age is reaching out about every upsetting thing that happens and looking for support and that can certainly happen and I don’t know if you remember this but like I remember a lot of moments in college, maybe where I got a grade in like or something, and I kind of had that like I want my mom feeling.

 

REENA: Yes.

 

LISA: But then you had to get all the way back to your dorm and then you had to like see if the phone is available and then you had to see if you could get some privacy, and so somewhere in there, you know, you’d run into somebody or you’d see someone cute or whatever, like you would manage that feeling independently, and today the kids don’t have to, right? If they have that I want my mom or my dad feeling they can just text the parent as they leave class, and so what I would say in that is that if parents feel like that’s happening a lot, right? Where there’s this wince or the kid is having a cringe of a feeling and then to manage at the kid is recruiting the parent wherever the parent may be, you know whatever time zone they’re in, that one I would have parents start to say, who there can you talk to? Or that sounds really rough. I hope you feel better soon, or maybe not even responding immediately. You do want to create conditions where you’re not their sole source of support. You want to be a source of support. No question. But we do want to not be so available and so ready to have a conversation about anything at any time that they don’t start to use their roommates or  they don’t start to go check in with the professor. So that’s the gray area I’d want parents to watch for so that it doesn’t start to tip too far into constant communication around whatever the most upsetting thing is that just happened.

 

REENA: Wow. That’s great. It’s so interesting for so long I thought okay, it’s academics. We focus on academics, the SAT, writing those essays, getting into college, but we never talk about the emotional and the well being and the other part that’s critically important in their development in college.

 

LISA: Absolutely. Absolutely.

 

REENA: So what do you have for us for parenting to go?

 

LISA: Well, we’re on the top of the college and we’re on the topic of kids either applying or going, and I’ll tell you a pet peeve I have. I don’t love it when we say to kids, this is going to be the best four years of your life. Either as they’re applying or as they’re heading out, and the reason for that is, well first of all that would be kind of sad. You know from 18 to 22 like that’s as good as it gets and it’s downhill from there. So I don’t like that. I also don’t like the pressure it puts on kids because they’ll have bad days. They’ll have rough times, and so then if they feel like, oh man I’m just real one one day in the best very limited period of my life, that’s unfair. So what I like to see the kids instead is, these aren’t the best four years of your life. These are the next four years of your life, and then there’s going to be four years after that so called learn and grow, be safe, but don’t feel like every day has to be a good one.

 

REENA: That’s great advice, Lisa. I just also want to plug our episode next week. We’re going to talk about teens and socializing with unvaccinated friends. What should parents do? I’ll see you next week.

 

LISA: See you next week.

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