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 71

My Kid Was Dumped by Her Friends. How Can I Help?

Why do kids suddenly turn on their friends and ice them out of a group? It’s something Dr. Lisa says she’s been hearing about more often. Kids need shared interests to hold their groups together and that “social glue” has been depleted by the pandemic. We take a look at how negative behavior can emerge among friends and become destructive. Reena asks if adults should call out mean girl behavior or reach out to other parents when social groups turn sour. Dr. Lisa covers what kids should do when classmates are nice to them one-on-one but won’t include them in groups at school.

March 8, 2022 | 28 min

Transcript | My Kid Was Dumped by Her Friends. How Can I Help?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 71: My Kid Was Dumped By Her Friends. How Can I Help?

 

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: Are we done yet with this pandemic?

 

LISA: I know, Reena. Everybody is so over it.

 

REENA: What are you hearing?

 

LISA: What I’m hearing is almost impossible to distinguish from clinical depression.

 

REENA: Wow.

 

LISA: You know when I’m talking with people, adults and kids and teenagers, the mood they’re describing, the low feelings they have, as I sit there listening as a clinician I’m like, okay is this two plus years in a pandemic plus the long dark winter? Or is this clinical depression? I mean they really sound similar right now.

 

REENA: Why do you think so many people feel like they’re at a low point and are desperate for help?

 

LISA: I think winter plus the seeming endlessness of this is just the people are just worn down and then everyone around them is worn down so nobody is in a good mood. Like you’re just going from grumpy person to grumpy person, which makes it hard to feel good and upbeat.

 

REENA: You know I had to go in, pre pandemic I would go into New York, take the train five times a week for work, and I haven’t done that in two years and I went in and I found myself exhausted in these meetings of meeting people. Like understanding sort of how to reconnect with people is a new thing and we got this letter. I know a lot of people are struggling with their kids and friends and re-establishing a friendship, and it says: ‘Hi, Dr. Lisa, I’m hoping you can help me with my 15-year-old daughter. She’s been dumped by her friend group and needs to start over socially. She reached out to the girls in the group to ask what she’d done wrong and no one would reply. Needless to say, my daughter was devastated. We talked about reaching out to other friends, which she has done. They’re nicer to her online but don’t include her in their plans. She’s now talking to a therapist but it’s only helping so much. Sundays are the worst. She dreads going back to school and having to be around former friends who pretend like she doesn’t exist. It’s heartbreaking to watch, and I have no idea how to help navigate the reset. Also, what and how do I say something to the moms of the former girls? I want to call out their mean girl behavior, even though I know nothing will change. Thanks so much. I love your podcast. Friends and I listen and discuss it every week.’ Where do you even begin with this?

LISA: Well let me tell you, Reena, this I am hearing a lot. A lot of this, of kids sort of suddenly being iced out of groups that they’ve been part of or, you know, kind of friction that would normally be manageable, kids just dropping other kids, kids, you know, kind of coming into coalitions against individual kids. This is something that has, I was hearing more of early in the pandemic than usual, and then it’s just gone up from there. So it’s horrible, horrible, and not that rare right now.

 

REENA: Wow. Why do you think it’s happening? I mean you’re kind of explaining to me some of this is sort of natural before but like this is so nasty.

 

LISA: It’s really nasty and, you know, we can’t really know group to group dynamic to dynamic what’s going on, but here is something that always pops up in my mind when I hear stories like this, which is that sometimes when kids are struggling to find what I would call like social glue, you know, ways to feel connected to their peers, one of the ways they do it is to gang up on someone.

 

REENA: Wait, so you’re saying they don’t find their social footing so the default is to just bully people and be mean?

 

LISA: Well it may be more like there’s a group of kids, you know, boys or girls, who are kind of loosely connected and want to have more to connect around, want to be more tight knit with one another, and in the pandemic it’s really hard for kids to have happy things to connect around, you know, so much of like good social stuff is like, and then we went to this like funny movie together and then we had this like, you know, goofy sleepover together, and so, you know, kids need ways to have social glue and what we want is good social glue when they’re connecting around shared interests and enjoying one another’s company. That has been, you know, seriously depleted by the nature of the pandemic and so I think some of what we’re seeing is kids connecting around unhealthy social glue, which is, well we don’t have that much in common, we don’t have that much we can do together, but we can mutually gang up on this one person who we all have decided, you know, true or not, like is somehow annoying to us and so our tight knit strength, our sense of being a group together, is going to be drawn from us mutually disliking the same person.

 

REENA: That’s so messed up.

 

LISA: It’s so messed up. It is so messed up, and it’s one of those things where, you know, obviously for the kid who is getting iced out, it is awful. It is awful. I mean it really, I very rarely use the term, but it definitely can move towards feeling traumatizing, like just completely overwhelming to deal with, and I hate that kids are doing this. Of course as a clinician, I’m like, I see why. Like I don’t approve of it but I get it. Like when you don’t have much to come together around, it can end up being pretty negative. And it’s funny, I was just talking with a colleague at a school the other day and she gave me a different version of this story of the kids like just totally coalescing around how stressed they are, which, you know, also happened before the pandemic, but again, you get the sense of, they don’t have much to come together around and so these negative things can become handy and really destructive but also serve a purpose of giving kids a sense of, we’re in this together.

 

REENA: So, what can this mom do to help?

 

LISA: It’s so heartbreaking. So, she’s gotten her kid therapist, which we know is a triumph and the right thing and not easy to do. So, okay, you know, how, Reena, sometimes I can get into really long and tedious metaphors?

 

REENA: Yeah, okay. I think your metaphors are great. It makes things click for me but okay.

 

LISA: This one’s a B+ at best, but it’s still useful and it’s really, really useful in these situations. So, one way I have helped kids out of situations like this is to help them take it less personally, help it feel less personal, right? Because of course it feels intensely personal. So, the first thing a parent can do is to give the explanation I just gave. You know what? Honey, maybe they are really struggling to find ways to feel connected to each other and you have become the victim of their attempt to feel tight, is to, you know, box you out. Okay, so in terms of this metaphor, the  way I think it through, and the way I think a parent could explain this to, you know, a kid who’s 15 so she’s probably taking chemistry is that I think of friendship groups, certainly middle school early high school, but honestly, Reena, right now early high school looks like middle school socially. I mean it is really not good.

 

REENA: You’re saying they’re delayed because of not being in class and masks and all that.

 

LISA: Totally. Totally. I mean we are seeing the kind of base bullying nastiness that we usually can check at the door by seventh or eighth grade is creeping well into ninth or tenth, which is its own misery, and this child would be in the tenth grade probably. So, what you can say is, you know, think about social groups as almost like chemical compounds, and every kid in the social group is an atom and they have their, you know, chemical compound. They come together, some compounds are more stable than others. So, you know, that there are those friendship groups were like everyone gets along and it’s kind of happy and they sort of click along, and then there are friendship groups, and I think this is what, you know, we can talk about with this child, where the friendship group wasn’t all that stable, and let’s say there were four other atoms in this group, right? Besides this child, and they decided, oh, I know how to stabilize. Let’s kick out that atom and that will strengthen our bonds. We’ll be this group of, you know, kids who come together around this strengthening bond of having kicked that atom out. So, it can start to help us if we think about this girl who’s been iced out as like she’s now a free floating atom, and it’s in the name of that former friendship group trying to strengthen their bonds, and she did the right thing. She reached out to say, did I do something? What’s wrong? And the fact that she got no response does make me think even more that they’re like, nope, nope, nope, the whole goal is to strengthen our bonds and keep that atom out as a way of having, you know, an attempt at stabilizing our chemical compound with stronger bonds. So, that’s a start on how to think about it.

 

REENA: You know I dropped out of chemistry and physics in college because I thought journalists don’t need it. I was wrong.

 

LISA: You really don’t. Well, I don’t even know how right I’m getting this, but it works well enough for tenth graders.

 

REENA: But I see what you’re saying is that there are just some chemicals that, when combined, can be absolutely combustible, but as parents, they don’t have it written on their forehead, like, this chemical is going to combust. Step away. Protect your child, right? Or the chemical you have today, in two and a half years you need to chuck it because it is going to absolutely be volatile.

 

LISA: You really don’t know, and then in the pandemic you have no data to work with, right? We just have no idea what’s going on with kids and what their moods are, and so it’s a very tricky time. But then, okay once we have this metaphor that I’m now going to beat to death, are you ready for this, Reena? I’m going to beat it to death.

 

REENA: This is the most chemistry and physics I’ve ever done in my life.

 

LISA: Okay, me too. Me too. And I’m kind of making up chemistry, like let’s just go with it. So, we’re back to this idea that this friendship group may have kicked her out to strengthen their bonds to stabilize their chemical compound by kicking this poor atom out. So, now we have a free floating atom. Now, with this metaphor, we can also explain something else that the parent observed in this letter, which is this girl is reaching out to other kids who are nice to her online but don’t include her at school.

 

REENA: What’s that about?

 

LISA: That is about them having stable compounds they don’t want to compromise, and so if you think about it, Reena, like let’s say you had three or four girlfriends that you just love from college and you went on a girlfriends getaway once a year and that’s your thing and you love each other and you’ve got the stable chemical compound of the four of you do great together. There might be someone you all know from college and like from college who you would never invite on your girlfriends weekend because it would mess up the working chemistry that the four of you have been able to establish.

 

REENA: I can understand that. I can understand that.

 

LISA: It totally makes sense, and that explanation, I will tell you for me, has helped a lot of kids when they’re like, I don’t get it. This person’s nice to me individually. That person’s nice to me individually. This kid will even do stuff with me on the weekends, but when we get to school, I’m not invited into their friendship group and having my belabored, overelaborate metaphor that they actually don’t like that kid, it’s that they have a stable compound and adding an atom to it could destabilize, and so they’re not going to do it. They’ll be nice to that atom individually, but they won’t bring that person in.

 

REENA: So, where does this leave the girl? Like what should she do? I mean I get it these atoms don’t want to mix together, but, you know, she just wants what her life was like before with her friends and she can’t seem to find any friends. This is so wrong.

 

LISA: It’s so bad. Okay, so here’s the non-pandemic advice and then we have to think about how to make this work in a pandemic because it’s hard in no pandemic, this is even harder in an actual pandemic. So, one piece of advice is look for compounds that are looking to add an atom. You know, not all compounds have sort of consolidated and become very stable, right? So, if you think about, you know, the college friends or maybe some nice girls who are great to her on the weekends but don’t let her in at school, they’re not looking for a new member of their chemical compound. So, it is often the case in schools or in communities that there are, you know, groups of kids who are not so stabilized in that compound and they’re open to adding kids, you know, that they’re flexible or there easygoing about it or they’re not worried that adding a kid will destabilize their relationships, and one of the ways you see this play out under normal conditions is that sometimes, and this is typically, again been in seventh, eighth grade but we can now do the pandemic multiplier and push this deeper into development, you’ll see a seventh grader who notices that there’s this pack of probably popular kids that they want to be part of, and let’s often assume this is a sort of stable compound of popular kids who are not necessarily looking to add atoms, and they will set their sights on joining that compound and keep running into resistance and they’ll have all these other nice kids in the class who are like, you can sit with us, come hang out with us, like be part of us, and they’re rebuffing it rebuffing it, missing it, missing it, and so for them, it’s also helpful to say, kid, look at this. You’re trying to join a compound that’s not looking at atoms. There’s this really nice compound that is inviting atoms, like, give it up about the popular kids.

 

REENA: But how can you tell? You know, the mom said she’s going to other friends and tried but how does a teen figure out who’s looking to add atoms, right?

 

LISA: Okay, so it’s a little easier under non-pandemic conditions because, you know, you can tell that there’s a spot at their table, they, you know, it won’t disrupt what they’ve got going for you to slide in and join, right? Like kids can sense that. So, then the question is how do you sense that in a pandemic? And, you know, it’s tricky. Lunch is super weird now for kids, and then the masks make it very hard to read queues. So, I think we want to throw that idea on the table to say look, there are probably compounds that are atom friendly right now, looking to add people. Your job is to look for them, and sometimes, Reena, I will tell you, once you get this elaborate metaphor going with the kid, it helps them move their energies in a better direction because often they’re like, why did that compound drop me? I want to try to get back with that compound. So they’re thinking about the compound that dropped them, and then they’re thinking, why won’t these kids who are nice to me on the weekends let me in at school? And so then they’re thinking about that, and so one of the things that can help is to say, you know, let those go. Like that is beyond your power or those kids have their own dynamics going on that are going to continue to make this challenging for you. Turn your energies to who’s out there who would welcome you? And so that can help.

 

REENA: Okay. Now, I want to go back for one second, quickly, to the friends who are nice online but not in person. That really bothers me because I feel like is that not a red flag and could this be a teachable moment for, you know, adulthood down the road if people who are kind of nice but then in larger groups maybe not. How would you approach that and deal with that piece?

 

LISA: It’s funny you mention that because do you feel like that has happened to you?

 

REENA: Yeah.

 

LISA: I remember remember times in my training where there were people who if it’s one on one are pleasant to you, but then in a group they’re not, and I’ll tell you what I remember most distinctly, Reena, it was when I was really early in my training, actually I was I wasn’t even in training yet. I was just out of college and I was working actually at the Yale Child Study Center and I was a full on research grant, I mean I was as like low on the totem pole as you could possibly be, and there was a very esteemed psychologist who I happened to know through a connection who had met with me and had lunch with me and was nice to me when it was just the two of us, and I remember I was walking down the hall one day and I happened to be with somebody who even ranked above him, and we ran into him and he pretended not to know me.

 

REENA: Oh my gosh.

 

LISA: And I think it was that he felt like it would not look good if he knew who our research grant was.

 

REENA: Oh my gosh. Hierarchies.

 

LISA: Yeah, and it was really funny because the person I was with, who was a total class act, she said, hey do you Lisa? And then he’s like, oh yeah. And I was like, oh my lord, I just lost all respect for this person.

 

REENA: Right.

 

LISA: It totally happens. So, I do think, Reena, you are on to something, where at home between the letter writer and this child, you could say, you know, you learn things about people, watching how they treat you in private and how they treat you in public. Or, you know, Reena, it’s like going on a date with somebody who mistreats a waiter, you’re like, okay this is over.

 

REENA: Yeah. Rule number one. If I see that, I’m out.

 

LISA: You’re done, right? So, I think there’s something there. Okay, I have one other way this child could try to go at this or this parent could try to support her, and again back to this now absolutely beaten to death metaphor. The other thing is to look for other free floating atoms. You know, it sometimes happens that there are other kids who have had a hard time finding their group are not latched in, and often, if you say to a tenth grader or even a seventh grader, well who else isn’t really, you know, plugged in right now? Or who else seems to be kind of alone at lunch? They’ll be like, ugh, I don’t want to hang out with that kid, you know, or that kid’s not my first choice, and I think this is a good moment to say, you know, you might want to be a little bit more flexible about that. You might want to be open to the idea that you have more that you could enjoy with that child than you thought, you know, or just just keep an open mind. Like, you’re a free floating atom, they’re a free floating atom. Being alone is really awful. I wouldn’t rule out making some bonds with some other free floating atoms, at least for now.

 

REENA: Yeah, I want to ask you also about that the piece of this letter about whether she should go to the other moms. I know you’re a big advocate of trying to help kids work it out, but is this a case where she should approach the other moms and talk about this?

 

LISA: This is such a tough one, Reena. So, I think I would say, it depends, and I think a lot of what it depends on is the kind of relationship the mother has with the other moms.

 

REENA: What if it’s just, you know, in this pandemic we’re so isolated. What if it’s like tangential, they’re not super close to begin with.

 

LISA: I’d probably leave it.

 

REENA: Really? Is it worth them maybe having a teachable moment?

 

LISA: Well, it’s hard because here’s the thing, if somebody called you and said your kid’s mistreating my kid. You know most parents’ instinct is to stick up for their own kid, their own kid.

 

REENA: Yes.

 

LISA: And it’s pretty rare for a parent to say, I’ve been wondering if my child was mistreating you child, and then, you know, so I think it’s in some ways, it’s not likely to go well. It’s likely to make things worse. I will also tell you very few tenth graders whatever want you to make that phone call and I think, you know, that’s another thing you know that even though there is this maturational delay, they’re still 15-year-olds, they’re still sophomores in high school probably. I mean can you imagine when you were a sophomore in high school if your mom picked up the phone and called another sophomore’s mom

 

REENA: No. No. Cringe. No.

 

LISA: Where it gets hard, Reena, and this is something I don’t remember growing up with, is when the parents are friends, and when I was growing up, like my folks had no contact with my friends parents, like I mean I kinda knew who they were and they would, like, recognize them in the grocery store, but they did not socialize with them. They did not look to socialize with them, and interestingly in my own daughters’ lives, there are parents of their friends who I really like and I have made a point of waiting until my girls are out of the house to become friends with them.

 

REENA: Wow. Really?

 

LISA: Yeah.

 

REENA: You mean like off to college?

 

LISA: Yeah, like with my older daughter I mean there’s a couple of her friends whose parents I think are absolutely terrific and I can imagine reaching out to socialize with them, but I’ve been very deliberate in my mind about waiting.

 

REENA: Really?

 

LISA: Yeah because I see this drama stuff go down, and I often see it feeling that much worse when there’s the layer of the parents’ friendships over the layer, and, you know, like my community is big enough and we have enough degrees of freedom that I can easily do this. This isn’t so easy in communities where kids stay in the school for a very long time, and so people who are your playgroup when your kids were 5 are still the friends, you know, so I’m not saying every family can or should do what I did, but I think this gets a lot harder when there’s friendship drama among a friendship group and the parents, like go on vacations together or they time together. So, for me I think a lot of it would depend. If there’s not that layer of being connected socially, I would probably just leave it alone.

 

REENA: Have you witnessed during your time practicing like, you know, two sets of parents who are super close, their kids are super close, and when there’s an issue how have they dealt with it that’s been successful?

 

LISA: I think it’s really hard I think it’s really hard, and I think it does take incredible grace on both sides because sometimes, I mean, it can be really ugly between the kids and the parents are like, so what are we going to do about the fact that we’re all going to go vacationing together, and so I think the parents have to be able to call and say, look this is awkward and I don’t know who’s to blame and I’m actually not even interested in pointing fingers, but how are we going to do this in a dignified way that honors the fact that our kids are getting along right now? I mean I think that that’s got to be happening.

 

REENA: That is so good. Just confront it, say it for what it is, and don’t judge, just say, I’m not interested in pointing fingers or judging. I love that. That’s great.

 

LISA: Yeah, but this letter broke my heart and also I’m so glad that we had a chance to think it through because I think it really gets at a huge number of dynamics that a lot of people are struggling with.

 

REENA: Wow, you broke my heart twice. First, this letter was just so painful when we got this in our inbox, but also to hear you say that you are hearing this. Like this has exploded everywhere. So, I just hope maybe today in this podcast, parents who are struggling with it know they’re not alone because so often the issues we tackle are issues I had no idea so many people are struggling with.

 

LISA: Yeah, and I think, especially with teenagers, when your kid is struggling, you can’t call everybody about it. You know, if your 4-year-old is, you know, having terrible sleep you can like put up on Facebook, my 4-year-old isn’t sleeping, help! But once it’s an adolescent, it becomes very private, and so this is why I’m so grateful for our community and our podcast is that we can talk about these things and hopefully people don’t have to feel so alone.

 

REENA: This is great. So, what do you have for us, Lisa, for parenting to go?

 

LISA: For parenting to go on this one, I think the gift the parents can give adolescents is the gift of perspective. So, when you are 15-year-old and you’ve been dumped by your friends, it really feels like the end of the world. Like it really feels like there’s no point to anything anymore and and that is a very powerful sense of just this is awful, how do I move forward? As a middle aged parent, you know this stinks. It’s awful, but it will be a really yucky chapter in a very long book, and so I think that the parenting to go on this is that we want to walk a very delicate line as adults in both validating how deeply upsetting this is for our kids, or anything like this, and then saying, I want you to know I am 100 percent confident that you will look back on this and it will be something that happened, it will not be the story that defines your life.

 

REENA: The gift of perspective. I love that. That is so great. And we are so excited for our episode next week. We’ve got a special guest, a dad of three, former Attorney General for the New York Southern District, Preet Bharara. He’s got a new children’s book out called, “Justice Is: A Guide for Young Truth Seekers.” We’re going to talk about justice, democracy and how do you teach your kids about fairness? We hope you join us. I’ll see you next week, Lisa.

 

LISA: I’ll see you next week.

 

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