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The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

The Emotional Lives of Teenagers

Lisa's latest New York Times best seller 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.

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Under Pressure

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



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October 11, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 89

How Do I Get My Teen To Take Charge of Her Life?

Episode 89

How do we help teens take ownership of their lives, especially if they are feeling overwhelmed by all that adults are asking of them? Dr. Lisa explains how parents can move from nagging teens to seeing themselves as teachers who help teens become increasingly independent. The conversation also details the important role of adults outside the home, and the one thing Dr. Lisa has seen transform even the most reluctant teens into young people who can advocate for themselves.

October 11, 2022 | 31 min

Transcript | How Do I Get My Teen To Take Charge of Her Life?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 89: How Do I Get My Teen To Take Charge of Her Life?


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: Well we’ve got some breaking news that is absolutely incredible. Drumroll please. Tell us Lisa.


LISA: I am thrilled to share that I will be publishing a new book in February 2023. It’s available for preorder now but it won’t come until February 2023, called “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers.”


REENA: Exactly what parents need today. 


LISA: I hope it’s helpful Reena.


REENA: Oh I know it will be helpful


LISA: Oh man, it’s heartbreaking what teenagers have been through in the pandemic and in its wake, and of course, it’s not like it was easy to be a teenager before the pandemic. So there’s a lot to talk about. 


REENA: So what do you get into in this book?


LISA: The way I approached the book was to really try to unpack some of the myths that we have about how teenage emotions work. It’s my first all-genders book, so I have an entire chapter on gender and helping people understand how we see gender and its role in the emotional lives of young people. And then it gets extremely practical in terms of what to expect when you’re expecting teenage emotionality and then how to handle it so the teenagers become, and here’s the subtitle of the book, connected, capable, and compassionate adolescents.


REENA: That’s really good. So this will be a kind of decoding of the teenage years and how you can deal with it, and what to do. 


LISA: Yeah. And how we help kids handle the intense emotions that come with being a teenager and especially a teenager now. 


REENA: So tell us the name of the book and how we can get it. 


LISA: So it’s “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers” and it’s available anywhere books are sold. People can check in with their local booksellers, they can go online, and if they do reserve copy or they order a copy early there’s some preorder gifts that we’ll talk about soon that will be available, but more than anything, I just people to know it’s on its way and that we’ll touch base about it in the months ahead.


REENA: Brilliant. So local bookstore, Amazon, you can preorder and get it just as soon as it drops. I love it, congratulations Lisa, I know how hard you have been working and researching this book. It is amazing. 


LISA: Thank you. Well and you were so supportive, you know that I was sort of chained to my desk on this one, and I can’t thank you enough for how generous and supportive you were through the process, because writing a book is much more fun to have done than to be doing. 


REENA: And boy did you do, you really did a lot of intense researching in putting it together, so I think people, especially our audience, will absolutely love reading this. Speaking of teenagers, so parents are always struggling to get their teens to take initiative and that’s partially why this letter stood out to us. ‘Dear Dr. Lisa, I have a fantastic teenager in her junior year, she’s amazing, and handles her academic work and varsity sports requirements completely independently, and is quite personable throughout, grateful everyday. My question is about the next level of independence. She’s at the age where she needs to take on the challenges of getting a summer job, studying for the ACT, contacting college coaches, and researching colleges to learn more about them than quote ‘it has a good vibe.’ She’s reluctant to do the uncomfortable stuff like writing introductory emails, making or receiving phone calls, or organizing a plan for tracking all the information that will come at her in the next year or two. I should mention she’s also an introvert, even when she does reach out, she’s too nervous to let her wonderful, capable, charming self shine. How do I help her understand that these are crucial life skills, and that the timeline is real, and that to get what she wants, a great summer job, recruiting by coaches, a good range of college options, a driver’s license, she needs to pick up the reins and lead the charge? Many thanks.’ Okay so, what’s happening here?


LISA: Normal development. That’s what’s happening here. I just, so what I want to say is, Reena, what is being described in this letter is both beautiful and entirely common. Like I just want parents to know, if this is their kid, or this sounds anything like their kid, it’s not like there are other teenagers out there who have all of this nailed down. Like definitely, definitely not. Like this sounds to me, so typical, so expectable, and really, actually quite amazing, developmentally. I mean this is a great kid, she’s on it, she’s doing all of this good stuff, she’s a super good kid, but she does as told. And she’s not chomping at the bit to do these things, and the letter writer is right. Like this kid does need to take more ownership and she does need to develop these skills, but the first thing we have to say is, holy moly, this is so standard it’s incredible, and I just want parents to know that. I think there’s so much a sense of somehow in other homes it’s going differently. It’s not, it’s definitely not. 


REENA: You know, my kids sometimes accuse me of asking them to do more than in the moment they can kind of take on, they kind of feel a little bit overwhelmed. So this is a moment where she maybe should be taking on more, but how do you get kids to understand that and get them to move down that road without being totally annoying?


LISA: Right, well okay, we’re going to be annoying. I’ve completely accepted that I’m the most annoying person in my home and I’m just going with it. So one way to think about this is to realize that kids don’t take this stuff over in one clean sweep. And there’s sort of a stage process by which kids take on these various tasks, and you’ll hear different models. There’s one I was taught by this wonderful old psychoanalyst Erna Furman who trained me, who used to work toddlers. But you hear others around, Julie Lythcott-Haims has another example of this. But the model I was taught, in terms of how stuff gets handed over to kids, is first we do it for them, then we do it with them, then we stand by to watch them do it, and then we step out of the picture altogether. It’s no accident that this was taught to me by someone who centers their clinical work on toddlers, because if you think about tying a kid’s shoes, right, first you just do it, because you have to get out of the house. 


REENA: True.


LISA: And then you find time, and that’s the challenge, to sit there and teach them how. You’re with them as they do it. And then, while they do it alone, you stand there and watch and you’re like, yay, fantastic, you’re getting it. And then you know, you get to the point where your kid just ties their shoes and it’s not an event. If we use that kind of step-wise model, it’s really helpful. So, some of what can happen, like I think about this idea of sending introductory emails, there’s no reason a high schooler would know how to send a kind of business-y email to an adult, maybe looking for a job or anything like that. So I have zero problem, in fact I think it’s really important, if the parent stands there and actually dictates. Says, okay, I’m going to dictate to you what I think this email should sound like. And just stands over the kid’s shoulder while the kid does it. Why would a kid know this? And that’s a good first step. 


REENA: So I’m a little overwhelmed just hearing, you know, there’s the recruiting because this kid is a really good athlete, there’s the college applications, there’s the job. I’m hearing so many things in this letter, should you walk this piece by piece and create a plan for each of them? I mean I feel overwhelmed just reading this. 


LISA: It’s a lot. And I will tell you Reena, this is what junior year looks like for kids who are ambitious and have a lot going on. 


REENA: This is too much.


LISA: It is. It is really, you know I just came through this, I have a kid who is a freshman in college, like it’s a lot that goes on in the home. And what I will tell you is, if the family can scaffold it, if the family can use this as an incredibly teaching time, they should. And I don’t think it’s a problem at all for parents to really roll up their sleeves and be like, let me show you how to do this. Let me show you how I write emails like this. I’ve had families where the kid needs to make a haircut appointment or a doctor’s appointment, and where the parent will say, you’re going to have to stand next to me while I call the office and you’re going to hear how I do this. Because here’s something really interesting to me, you know how when we were growing up, we used to hear our parents on the phone all the time. Like phone calls were something that happened in the public spaces of the home constantly. And so you learn how to talk to people on the phone by listening to your parents talk to people on the phone. 


REENA: That’s right. 


LISA: Our kids don’t see that in the same way. And so then we’re like, you need to call that office. I mean I hear all the time that kids are like, I would sooner pluck out my own eyelashes than pick up the phone and call an adult. They’re like, where on a website can I get this information? So it’s okay if you’re like, look, I’m going to call, listen to how I do it, they will roll their eyes the whole time, that is totally fine, and then you say, okay, now you call and you make the next appointment, and you stand right there. There’s no shame in that, that is absolutely appropriate. 


REENA: So you’ve got to give them an example, because they don’t know, they’ve never seen it in action. You’ve got to show them how to do it, and then they can take the ball. 


LISA: Absolutely. And then if we frame it in teaching, if you frame it in the idea that there’s a whole bunch of skills that our kids do need, they’re life skills, as this letter writer calls them. And interestingly, and I found this in our own home, the college process, things like that, really do put a whole bunch more of those in front of your kid, it’s when we got really serious about thank you notes that my daughter, you know when she was younger she would do thank you notes for birthday presents and Christmas presents, and I didn’t really give much thought to them because they were basically going to people who knew us well and were relatives, but then when it was time for my daughter to write thank you notes to people who were adults, who maybe were strangers to her or had interviewed her or something like that, I actually coached her very, I don’t want to use the word aggressively, but I think that’s the right word, coached her very closely on what a really good thank you note looks like to an adult you don’t know. And it was one, tedious, two, time consuming, three, annoying to her, and four, one of those things that I’m like, why would she know this? And as much as this is sort of a pain for both of us, this is an incredible opportunity to teach her something that she’s going to need to know. 


REENA: Oh that is good. But you’re right, it takes a lot of time and effort, and I’ve never thought about making sure that you know how to write a good thank you note.


LISA: Yeah, and you know, there’s thank you notes and thank you notes. But the day comes when your kid really needs to know how to do it. Okay so you talk about how overwhelming all the different aspects of this are, you know the ACT stuff, the college recruiting stuff. Okay the other thing that we want to remember in this, because you raised the question of how do we get kids to do stuff without just annoying them to the heights of things.


REENA: Yeah. 


LISA: One of the beautiful things about having a high school junior is there’s a lot of other adults in that kid’s life, right? There’s a coach, there’s a college counselor at school, there might be an advisor at school. So the other strategy that parents have at their disposal is to call those people and be like, can you lean on her, or where are things between you and my daughter in terms of the recruiting process? And what do we need to do, you need to do, and she do? If you get other grownups to nag your kid, it goes way better. 


REENA: Oh, interesting. So get them on board to help you once you’ve had that conversation with what they need to do. 


LISA: Before you launch in on your kid, call the coach and say, okay, where is this, who’s responsible for what, what does she need to be doing, what do we need to be doing, what do you need to be doing? And if the coach says, oh here are all the things your daughter needs to do or your son needs to do as part of the recurring process, your next question should be, who tells my kid that? Do you tell my kid or do I tell my kid? Or do you send us an email together? But kids are often more at ease, especially as teenagers, with being told what to do by adults that are not their parents. And so if you’ve got those resources available, call those people and say could you tell her that? 


REENA: That’s great. Lisa in this letter the mom talks about how her daughter is nervous when she reaches out to adults and doesn’t feel comfortable doing that. What do you do? I think that’s very common for many teens. 


LISA: I think it’s really common. Maybe much more so in the wake of the pandemic, where they just spent a lot of time really close to home and a very narrow circle. So the magic words in this letter are summer job. And this is a parent who wants this kid to get a summer job, it sounds like it’s in the cards. And what I will tell you, is I am so sold on the power of jobs for development in teenagers. There is something that a job can do for your kid that school cannot do, that you cannot do. And what I would say is, if this is a kid that’s not that comfortable talking to adults, I would actually require her to get a retail job or a restaurant job where she has to be in communication with adults all the time. It will get better with practice, but it will only get better with practice. 


REENA: So you think having that outside experience with other adults will make them see things differently and motivate them?


LISA: Yeah, I really do and I’ve seen this over and over again where kids are nervous when they first start waiting on people, or they are nervous when they first start taking care of customers, and then for worse often in eyes of the kid, but I actually think better in terms of development, the customer’s not always nice. People they’re dealing with in a retail setting are not always nice. And people can be pretty rude to teenagers, because they see them as young and they see them as having less power. And so, getting kids in situations where they just have to manage, right, like that’s one of the challenges, when it’s all going on in your house, you can step in and rescue your kid.


REENA: Right.


LISA: But if they have to manage, they will. And ideally they would have a great boss or great coworkers that can help them. They can also have a lousy boss and you learn a lot from having a lousy boss, it’s not nearly as fun. But what I would say in this letter, in the way we’re thinking through this letter, is don’t wait until she’s comfortable reaching out to adults for her to apply for a job. Because it’s kind of putting things backwards. She may only get comfortable dealing with adults six months into a job where she’s required to do that. So instead, I would actually put a lot of emphasis on coaching her, and helping her reach out, apply for a job, the parent may be doing a huge amount of scaffolding to even get the kid over the hump to make it happen. The magic will happen when she’s in the job. And so it’s important to help her get there. 


REENA: You know it’s interesting, because for getting into colleges you need sports, you need to be honors, you need to be in this club and that club, I mean just the academic part of it is so much, I mean having a kid get a summer job or a job period would be so low priority for me, but you’re actually saying no, this is important for development. 


LISA: It’s important for development, and it’s also important for getting into college.


REENA: A job?


LISA: Yeah, a job. Like I’m thinking back on our podcast with Jeff Selingo from Season One I think, where he was talking about who gets in and why, for colleges.


REENA: Yes, yes. 


LISA: Colleges love it when kids have had jobs. And I don’t mean internships where they’re just doing pretty comfortable work with an adult who may know them, but job jobs. Jobs where it’s hard or maybe unpleasant or they’re dealing with people who are really challenging. And I think that, I don’t know why colleges love this, I’m not a college. But I will tell you, my inference on this is that part of why colleges love this is they know it means you’re likely to thrive in college because college is a whole bunch of curveballs.


REENA: I see. 


LISA: And kids who have had job jobs are better at managing curveballs. 


REENA: Makes sense. 


LISA: So I would just, for me in this letter, I think the words that just came ringing across were summer job. Summer job! And I will tell you, it’s only because of my clinical experience that I have seen jobs utterly transform the most reserved and introverted teenagers into kids who can advocate for themselves, talk to adults, stand up for themselves as needed. It’s really cool. 


REENA: So you mentioned at the top of the podcast that what this mom is writing about, about having a teen that just doesn’t want to take charge of her life, it’s very common and you see it often. But based on your clinical practice, what do you notice, in addition to getting jobs, the teens that are really able to maneuver this and take initiative and take charge and kind of think ahead, what do they have, what have they done that makes them able to get to that level?


LISA: I think they want something. You know, they’ve got some desire that is their own. So Reena, I’ll give you a really good example, and it’s one of those things, like the beauty of being a clinician is you just learn from the people you care for. You just watch their lives unfold. So here’s a story, and I’m going to change some of the details just to totally protect the confidentiality of this young woman who was in my care, but years ago I cared for this girl, she was actually, I think a high school sophomore, tons of fun, really fun kid, but low initiative, cutting class, didn’t care that much about stuff, wasn’t really doing anything extracurricularly, and then she actually became totally obsessed with the city of Chicago. Like she just fell in love with Chicago, I think they like took a family visit there or something. And it had that quality that teenagers can have, where they just get really hardcore about something, kind of like devoted in a whole powerful way. And she decided that she really wanted to go to college in Chicago, and so that put some colleges on her radar that were, you know, above what she was doing academically at the time. And I watched that kid turn everything around in four months. 


REENA: What?


LISA: She was suddenly going to class, she was getting good grades, she signed up for a bunch of stuff that she hadn’t been doing before, because she had this ambition and had finally connected the dots between what she wanted to do and what she needed to do in the moment to make it happen. So that’s when I see kids really taking initiative, is when they’re like, I want that and if I backward engineer from the thing I want to the moment I’m in, these are things I have to do. So, if we think about this girl and in this letter, I would say on the moments where the parent is feeling like the kid is not really moving on stuff, maybe like the ACTs, like signing up for the ACT, which, like who wants to do that? 


REENA: Absolutely right. 


LISA: Like it’s not like these are fun things. I wonder if there’s a really kind way that a parent in this situation could say to the kid, look, who wants to deal with ACT testing or tutoring or any of it, but let’s look at the colleges you’re talking about, let’s look at the kind of scores they are taking, let’s see where you are on your sample tests or let’s see what we know about your sample scores, if you want to go to X college, this has got to happen. And just, being matter of fact, like you say you want this, this is part of the deal, how can we support you in getting what you want?


REENA: So I love how you pointed out that this teen is actually doing a lot of things right, but might just need a little bit of help and coaching in some areas she might not know how to do. What else do you see in teens like this that you might want to help flag to parents?


LISA: I think that what we want to remember in these moments is that a lot of this is about the college process, a lot of what this letter is about is about the college process, what this kid needs to do, all the information coming her way, how challenging it is, and I will tell you, a metaphor about the college process that I found helpful personally, and may be useful to some people, is that the college process, it’s almost like this kind of annoying roommate who moves in with the whole family. It just makes the whole family kind of miserable when it moves in. And you know, this family, it’s moved in junior year, it was probably already making its presence known sophomore year. And its asking a lot of the kid and its asking a lot of the parents and its sometimes bothering the sibling who wants no part in any of it, and I think that the more adults who are seeing all this college process demand come the family’s way, the more they can see it as like, it’s us as a family versus this challenging college process which asks a lot of everybody, the better. Because where it can get unhappy is where the parent’s like, oh my gosh, this college process is so demanding, why isn’t the kid taking care of it? Like why is it on our plate? And that’s not exactly what’s being said here but it’s easy enough to picture that. Or, oh my gosh, the college process is so demanding, where’s the school, where’s the college counselor, where’s the coach, why is this coming at us? I think the more you’re like, okay, here comes this roommate, it’s going to ask a lot, it’s going to be loud and annoying and demanding, and actually increasingly demanding, through the process by which the applications get turned in, and then eventually, it just moves out. But the more that, around these things that have to do with the future and have to do with the very heavy demands of applying to college and being ambitious in that process, if you are, the more the parent can be like, alright kid, this is all coming at us, how do we want to divide it? What is yours? What is ours? Do we want to make a plan together so that we all know who’s doing what as opposed to me just nagging you? I think the more that that can be the framing the better.


REENA: That’s really good. I just, I think over and over again, one way I’ve walked away with in these podcasts is just how many conversations need to happen in advance. I mean there’s so much talking and helping and preparing, and you just can’t wait until they get to that point, that you’ve got to have these talks early and often


LISA: You really do. And you know, I think the more you can act like a team, treat that kid like a teammate, you know she wants what she wants, you want to help her get it, I think that approach is going to set the family up for success. 


REENA: That’s really helpful Lisa. So what do you have for us for parenting to go?


LISA: Well it has to do with what you just said about conversations. And one of the things that parents have at their disposal, especially with an older teenager like this, is to say out loud what they’re struggling with, and just lay it in front of the child. So I could also imagine this parent saying something to her daughter like, look, you are incredible, you’re getting all of this stuff done, and yet you and I both know that there’s more that you need to do, yet I don’t want to lean on you. What should I do? I’m not quite sure how to handle this. And again, invite that kid in as a teammate. 


REENA: So not coming to this with I’ve got to have all the answers, asking them what they need, and then taking it from there. 


LISA: Yeah, how do you want me to handle this moment, where you don’t want to be nagged, and I don’t want to nag you, and yet we both know this needs to get done. 


REENA: What a great strategy, I love that. I love that. And that can help in so many ways. Well thank you Lisa, a lot to digest here, but it’s just a problem so many of us have with our teens. That we really want them to self-motivate and sometimes they really do struggle. 


LISA They do. They do.


REENA: And Lisa next week we’re going to talk about whether or not your kid should play violent video games. I’ll see you next week. 


LISA: See you next week. 


The advice provided here by Dr. Damour and the resources shared by her AI-powered librarian, Rosalie, will not and do not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.