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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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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.

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October 24, 2023

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 141

How Do Stop Riding My Kid’s Emotional Roller Coaster?

Episode 141

A parent writes in about a middle schooler’s intense emotional swings which leave the parent feeling uncertain about how to respond. Dr. Lisa and Reena dive into the psychology of these rollercoaster emotions, discuss whether this behavior is typical at this age, and address how parents can strike the delicate balance of offering support without amplifying the mood swings. Dr. Lisa also explains how parents and caregivers can know when they are looking at typical emotional growing pains and when it’s time to be concerned.

October 24, 2023 | 31 min

Transcript | How Do Stop Riding My Kid’s Emotional Roller Coaster?

TRANSCRIPT | HOW DO STOP RIDING MY KID’S EMOTIONAL ROLLER COASTER?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 141: How Do Stop Riding My Kid’s Emotional Roller Coaster?

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.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

——

Reena Ninan
So how’s the school you’re treating you?

Lisa Damour
You know, Reena… Here’s the thing. I spent all like early fall thinking like, oh my gosh, I can’t wait for the routines to kick in the routines are going to be the thing that holds me together. And then I soon start to feel trapped by the routines. I find them tedious. So I’m like on the brink of tedium. How about you?

Reena Ninan
Yeah, no, I totally feel you on that. But what do you what do you recommend for parents at this point of the school year? I know it’s still early, but I’m always like, what wonder Lisa’s doing right now.

Lisa Damour
I think really trying to take a broad perspective on this. I mean, I’ve got a kid who’s now a sophomore in college, you know, and I think it’s such a gift as a parent when you have seen the full trajectory of kids leaving home so I am trying to save her the oppressive routine of having school.

Reena Ninan
Well, I’ve got two middle schoolers so there is a lot of energy around my house right now. And I thought this laterally so that we got about writing your kids emotional roller coaster i that isn’t it. Perfect timing right now to be doing this. I’m gonna read to you it says, Dear Dr. Lisa and Reena, my middle schooler has emotional swings that I would say are extreme. I often find myself being taken for a ride, only to realize later that what might have been at the root of that swing was either not grounded in reality or not as bad as I was led to believe. For example, last year, there were many days I would pick her up from school. And she would cry and tearfully say how much she hated school and wanted to change schools, only to be followed the next week very calmly to me, quote, why would I move? I’m staying here where I am. She took us on a similar roller coaster ride around to a camp, where in the end, she had a great time. I can’t figure out how seriously I should take her when she’s very emotionally telling me about something. And I do not want to dismiss her moodiness either. What should I do? moodiness that you know what I loved about this? Like, when should we react? And when should we let it play out and not freak out? Because everything feels so urgent to me.

Lisa Damour
So big, so big. And I so feel for this kid and I so feel for this parent, because you know, we’re talking about seventh grade, right? She’s saying like, last year in seventh grade, the kid would get in the car and be like, I can’t attend this school another next week that kids like, No, it’s great. Fine. What are you even talking about? Like what? Why are you worried? Right? First thing I–

Reena Ninan
Don’t you remember stuff? Like I just I don’t know what it is? Maybe it’s the emotions. I so remember, sixth, seventh, eighth grade so vividly. So I feel for all of these middle schoolers. But what do you think a parent should do here?

Lisa Damour
Well, it is rich. And actually, I think about seventh grade. And oh my gosh, how loaded it was. And I am convinced right now I learned one thing in the seventh grade. And it was how to french braid. That’s pretty much the only…

Reena Ninan
That’s a great skill set to have. I wish I knew that at 43.

Lisa Damour
It has come in handy as the parent of two daughters who, um, who have sometimes like their hair braided but so I’m like, Okay, actually, if I’m gonna learn one thing in seventh grade, maybe this is the thing but it’s super rich and it’s super raw. And also what you said about a lot of us have very vivid and sometimes quite uncomfortable memories of our own seventh and eighth grade or middle school years. When your kid starts talking about being upset about what’s happening, I think for a lot of parents it feels like a pokes at an old bruise. Right so you’ve got your kids distress And then you also have your own memories coming to the fore of like, like I remember all Reena, if I’m honest, I still feel embarrassed. When I think about this. There was this really cool girl in my seventh grade group, or seventh grade class, she was not in my group. And she and I called her one night, and we talked on the phone. And I came to school the next day and kind of intimated that maybe she had called me that we had talked to maybe she had called me and then somehow I was found out that like, Linda didn’t call you, you called Lynn right. And I was like, mortified, you know, that I had like, tried to like, push up my social status by not being altogether honest about who had called to to chat the night before. I still feel I am Reena, nearly 53 years old. So a shame, my desperate attempts to boost my social status in seventh grade. So I can see like, this hasn’t happened yet. It could yet happen. If my own kid got in the car and was like, I feel mortified about this, that or the other, not only would I be worried for my own kid, if it overlapped with something I had experienced, it would be that much harder to have any sense of perspective. And the magic that we’re talking about here that needs to happen is sense of perspective, right? This kid has not.

Reena Ninan
And that’s what I picked up on what you said was sense of perspective. Because what’s typical at this age, can you walk us through what’s going on, and is this normal?

Lisa Damour
This is what’s typical with this letter describes where an adolescent has an upsetting day, or is upset about something maybe they actually had a perfectly interesting day with ups and downs, but they get in the car, and they’re upset about something where the way they describe it, it is huge, it is all consuming, it lasts forever, it goes 100 directions in all miles. They cannot take any good comfort, they cannot take any good advice, they are sure that it is every bit as horrendous as they imagined it to be. And it always will be. That is typical, and incredibly hard on kids and families. But it is actually garden variety, seventh, sixth, seventh, eighth grade, depending on the kid depending on where they are in puberty. This is standard.

Reena Ninan
Do you have any tips? Like you talked about that moment? From the seventh grade? Is there anything we can do as parents to make them more resilient? So they’re more even keeled? Or are you just saying no, this is how it’s gonna be like, how do we keep them more even keeled?

Lisa Damour
I love that question. There’s two ways to walk up to it. One is that the parent tries to help and I am sure this parent is trying to help. I think that that’s actually the part that so hard is it’s it’s one thing for your kid to get in the car and be all upset or to come home and be all upset or get off the bus. It’s another thing when you’re like, oh my gosh, well, what about this? Or maybe school is not so bad. Or maybe we could do this. And usually what ensues? Is a kid like, No, you don’t get it. It’s horrendous. It’s irreversibly bad. So one thing we can do is when the teenager eventually or the tween eventually finds their feet again. One thing that a parent can say is, when you are upset like that, what can I do that will help? Right? Because what I was trying was not working. I’ve also found in those moments, I use this a lot in my own home, when a kid is very upset. I will say is there anything I can do that won’t make this worse? You say that? I do say that? And I would never think to say that. Why do you say that? Let me unpack the beauty of this expression, would you actually learn from another clinical colleague like Is there anything I can do that will make this worse? So the first thing is you are being very humble, like there may be nothing I can do. And I am acknowledging that out of the gate. The second thing you are doing is you’re actually saying I can take this, I am not trying to fix this. Too hard. I don’t need this to stop. I see that it is bad. And I am here as a study presents, right? That’s my favorite phrase in the whole world offering just to say, is there anything I could offer that won’t actually exacerbate the situation? So it’s a little bit sweet. It’s got a little almost a little lightheartedness in it. But it also gets at one of the concerns that this parent brings across which is not wanting to see hidden, dismissive, right? So if you say like, is there anything I can do that won’t make this worse? You’re not dismissing it early. You’re like this sucks. I see it like and I’m here for it.

Reena Ninan
Ooh, that’s good. Is there anything I can do that won’t make this worse? I’m going to borrow that. That’s very good.

Lisa Damour
I highly recommend especially as you know how to middle schoolers. You add this to your standard phrases, you’re gonna need it a whole lot.

Reena Ninan
I call it Dr. Lis-ology, or phrases that you say that really are are really help in the moment. So they’re high and low, high and low. But you know, in this letter where she’s talking about how much she hates school and wants to change, I felt that in my heart because you know what it’s like when you dread going to school and I start to think as a parent, oh my gosh, what like, are they really down? Like what, of course will change schools? If this isn’t what? How do we not feed into this?

Lisa Damour
So you’re right. I mean, like, this is about not like overreacting. But it’s also about not under reacting, right? Like, you’re also saying, like, you’re worried about this kid, like, what if there’s something really going on? So what I would say to a parent, if this is happening many days in a row, one day is a Wednesday’s, I would say, like, you know, when a kid having a very hard day like that is just to be expected, especially in middle school. But you know, this letter also says there was a period of day after day after day where the kids getting in the car and you know, feels that she can’t return another minute to this building. What I would encourage if the family has feels they can do so in a trustworthy way, is reaching out to somebody at the school, and just saying, Can I just get a reality check? Because that’s the other thing that this letter says is like, it turns out, sometimes it’s not always grounded in reality, which is like, that’s kids sometimes. So it can be really helpful to say, like, can I just get a reality check? Like she’s coming home saying the whole day stinks. What are you guys seeing at school?

Reena Ninan
You mean talk to teachers?

Lisa Damour
Talk to a teacher or like a grade level, like, advisor or a counselor, and just say, could you just like, give me a little like, eyes on you know, a little like, I wouldn’t so much just call it spying, but essentially spying like. And I can promise you Rena, as someone who spent a lot of time working with and consulting to schools, it’s not unusual for the person on the school side to say, I have really good news. I’m actually watching your kids skip down the hall right now. Or I was just in the lunchroom, and she was having a blast. Or they say, Oh, thank you for flagging this. She is seeming low, or she is seeming isolated, right? Like, but get more data because you don’t really know what’s going on.

Reena Ninan
Lisa do you remember? I’m sure you remember this in your book “Under Pressure.” One of my favorite moments was you talk about this glitter jar. You got to sort of can you reshare that moment.

Lisa Damour
This is a highly glitter-jar-relevant letter. Absolutely. Okay, so here’s the deal on the glitter jar, Reena. I was visiting a phenomenal girl school in Dallas. It’s actually Ursuline Dallas. It’s this wonderful girl school. And I was sitting around with the counselors. Maybe we were eating lunch together. And we got talking about kids having meltdowns like basically what this letter describes, like kids just absolutely falling apart over something. And one of the counselors says to me, she says, Well, that’s when I get out my glitter jar. And I was like, what? And she goes, Oh, I’ll go get you one. Okay, but picture all of this in a Dallas accent. It was absolutely fabulous. So she leaves to get the glitter jar. And I’m sitting there and I’m thinking, what is this woman bringing back and I was also I’m not proud of myself. I was also like, I’m sure it’s like pop psychology. And the other thing is I hate glitter. Like I just hate it. I don’t know how if you have glitter opinions as a mother.

Reena Ninan
Yeah, well, when you have girls, especially a lot of them are very into glitter, right?

Lisa Damour
It gets everywhere, right? Like I hate it. So I’m already like sitting there like cynical and, you know, kind of hostile to the idea of whatever she’s bringing back. So she comes back in and she has a jar that has the lid glued on. It’s full of water. And it’s got about two tablespoons of sparkly purple glitter in the bottom. And I’m like still looking at this thing. Like, I hate it. I hate it. And then she’s like, okay, so when a girl comes in my office like that, and she’s a mess, I do this and she shakes the glitter jar like really like a snow globe. And then all of a sudden the glitter is everywhere. You can hardly even see through. You can’t see through it. Like it’s opaque now. And she puts it down on the desk between us and she says to me, so then I say to the girl, honey, this is your brain right now. So the first thing we have to do is Settle Your Glitter. And I’m like, Oh, this is brilliant genius genius and also Reena I have to tell you a perfect model of the neurology of the adolescent brain, like this dopey little glitter jar. Okay, so here’s why it is like the brain perfectly captured. So in this juncture, middle school, sixth, seventh and eighth grade and we’ve talked about this but you can’t talk about this enough. As the brain is remodeling, and it’s becoming faster and more powerful, and it’s Remodeling in the order in which it developed, which is from the lower regions, back above our neck, to the higher regions behind our forehead, the emotions are in the lower region, the ability to maintain perspective about anything is in the higher region. So there is a juncture and this kid in this letter is like smack dab in the middle of it, when their emotion centers are upgraded, and fast and powerful. And their perspective maintaining systems are not yet upgraded. And so they are comparatively weak. And so if something goes wrong, and they have a glitter storm in their brain, we’re all of those glittery emotions take over the whole system, blot out any ability to see any perspective and loss. And they are a mess like that. I mean, there’s no other way to describe it. And so the genius genius genius of this counselor, is that you don’t engage you don’t try to fix it with a kid who’s in a full glitter storm. And instead, you say like, let’s watch your glitter settle, and you can make a glitter jar at home. Or I’ve never been able to bring myself to make a glitter jar Rena like, I’m still too much of a glitter. But I as a parent, as a clinician, I will say, Oh, do you want some water? Do you want me to stay with you while you’re upset? Or do you want some time alone? Do you want to take a walk? Like, I am just thinking like, how do we settle the glitter? Before I engage this at all? So the answer to the question of how do I not get on my kids emotional roller coaster, is you switch to another metaphor, which is you picture a glitter jar and you let the glitter settle.

Reena Ninan
Mmm, that is so good. And remind me what age is it when the full brain is fully developed? And we don’t have to worry about the glitter jar anymore? Is it like 53?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, you don’t want the answer to this question. So it’s somewhere around 24 is when the they’re equally matched. But this is a key point. Because it’s not that the brain doesn’t work beautifully before 24, like it does, is just until 24, that relative imbalance is still in place. And of course, this depends on the person and their development. And until 24, it’s easier under highly emotional conditions for the prospective maintaining systems to be knocked offline.

Reena Ninan
But as I’m trying to juggle work, and dinner, and drop offs, and pickups, and I’m just like, oh my god, really, you’re worried about that. And I’m, in my mind, I’m being dismissive and like, we’ve got bigger problems in the world to worry about. How do I, as a parent not be dismissive as they’re on this crazy rollercoaster and everything is so intense and so real. And the world is going to end by the end of the hour.

Lisa Damour
I know, it is so hard. And also you just totally summed it up. It’s like, Are you kidding me? I mean, I remember thinking is apparent, like, you would not believe what I dealt with at work today. And you are losing your mind over x rayed. I mean, it’s like, it’s hard to be empathic. It’s hard to be kind. Okay, so what we want to remember is, even if it’s, oh, here’s a great phrase, I learned this from a middle school director in New York. It’s not true, but it’s real. For your kid, it’s not true. But it’s real.

Reena Ninan
Wow, it’s not true. But it’s real. Because then you know, it’s real in their head. And it might not be true to you. But it may not even be true, right?

Lisa Damour
I mean, that’s the other thing this person saying is like, then you realize it’s not even always grounded in reality, or the kid says later, school is fine. It’s not true, but it’s real. So that’s part of how we don’t be dismissive is we say that phrase to ourself. Also, it’s not true, but it’s real. And then we say, is there anything I can do that will make this worse? Or do you want to take a walk? Or do you want some time to yourself? Or do you want, you know me to make your macaroni and cheese right? You know, those kinds of things. You let the glitter settle, you see where you’re at. But do not engage in earnest. When a kid is in a full lather, it will get you nowhere.

Reena Ninan
What do you find in that moment that kids need and want the most?

Lisa Damour
They need a sandbag. And what I mean yeah, like they are flooded by emotion. I’m just like, skipping from one metaphor to another.

Reena Ninan
I love these metaphors. It resonates with me, it sinks in this is great.

Lisa Damour
They’re flooded, right? They are flooded by emotion and it’s not their fault. It is a neurological vulnerability at this age. What they need is for us to sandbag it, right. Like when you think about there’s a flood you just bring the sandbags and they are inert and they are heavy and they go nowhere and they contain the flood. So that is where by sandbagging. I mean, that’s where you save. Is there anything I can do that will make it worse? You know, do you want to take a walk? What if I go get the dog right? Like I am just containing containing containing and what I’m not doing is react Hang, right, what I’m not doing is actually flooding getting flooded myself and reacting accordingly. Right? Okay. Now, sometimes you will get flooded. And that’s okay. Right. And I don’t want people to feel like you have to be like this Zen master parent to deal with your middle schooler. But I think the most, most more if we can more of the time, try to just be steady. Think glitter jar, think sandbag. Know that it’s you know, it’s real even though it’s not true. Have our empathy there. Kids will get through this.

Reena Ninan
That’s so great. When should you know when you need to worry? What are the signs? When is it like, Okay, we’re on fire?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, right. Okay. What is typical, in the kind of scenario being described here is the kid is, you know, deeply upset. You know, kids will end up in a fetal position on the kitchen floor after a long day of seventh grade. Will we also expect is that an hour later, they are gleefully doing something or they’re, you know, they are now working on their skincare routine, they’re in a super great mood, they’re listening to music, and they don’t even remember what they were so upset about. This is what we expect to see. So the roller coaster as much as it can be kind of a rough one for the parent. The roller coaster is typical expectable high highs, low lows, high highs, low lows, so that we actually expect to see well we don’t expect to see is if those rollercoaster cars go into a dark tunnel and don’t come out. So if the kid is upset after school and upset three hours later, and wakes up in the morning upset and then comes home upset and is upset a lot has very few bright spots, things do not share this kid up. If that goes on for a week, it’s time to worry. Even fewer if I mean parents if they should trust their instincts, if you’re worried about your kid ask for help. But we expect highs and lows. We don’t expect lows that are uninterrupted in kids of any age.

Reena Ninan
Really? So if something goes on whether you’re 82 or eight, you’re saying if it goes on for an extended period of days and days and days leading up to maybe a week, that’s when you should worry.

Lisa Damour
Yeah, and you know your kid. Trust your instincts. But with tweens and teenagers, even two or three days down is pretty unusual, and would start to be a real flag for me. I’ll give you another measure of when to worry. And this is really one of my favorite definitions in all of psychology. And it comes from Anna Freud, Sigmund Freud’s daughter who worked out a huge amount of the theory around child and adolescent development. And what she articulated is that it’s time to worry if there’s an interference with progressive development. And so the way we think about it is it’s the job of kids to be growing and changing, right? That’s and they’re advancing on all sorts of fronts all the time, you know, that they’re learning, they’re developing as learners. They’re developing social skills, they’re developing emotion regulation skills, they’re developing self care skills. We expect these to be marching forward, as kids grow. Now, they don’t all march together at once. Sometimes kids lose a little ground. But we worry if there’s an interference with this forward march and interference with progressive development. So the other time I want parents to worry, and this is like just a big, broad, generic about all sorts of concerns. worry if your kid is stuck, or going backwards, socially, worry if your kid is stuck, or going backwards, academically, worry if they’re stuck, or going backwards in terms of their ability to care for themselves, or their ability to manage their emotions. That’s actually when we worry about kids is that these things should all be getting better and more mature and more sophisticated with time. If you’re not seeing that it’s time to ask for help.

Reena Ninan
But I guess I’m confused. Because you know, kids can have difficulty with math or science or reading. Kids can not be able, in a moment to deal with an emotion have a total meltdown, right? highs and lows, highs and lows. When do I know? Okay, this is just a one off? And what if it happens like every six months? Or maybe there’s a consistent pattern? Should I then do something about it? Or is this just normal development?

Lisa Damour
This is why it’s so hard with kids, right? Because they actually kind of all over the map a lot of the time. I remember when I was writing untangled. I divided development into seven tasks that teenagers have to do. And I wrote a chapter about each task. And I remember my editor saying to me, now, are these happening in order? Are they happening all at once? And I said, Yes, yes, they are. Right. Like I sort of laid them out in the order in which they progress but also, you know, all through adolescence kids are working on these tasks and making you know, better and worse progress given it on any given day. What I would say actually takes us full circle you If you’re not sure that your kid is developing, as they should be asked somebody who really knows, and who can give you a good perspective, teachers know more about what is typical and expectable at any grade level than anybody else. So this may be your first seventh grader, this is their 500. And since you’re like, you know, every day, I am on his case about this, that or the other? Should I be worried? She’d be like, Oh, no, or he would be like, Oh, no, that is garden variety. Seventh grade. It’s not fun, but it’s typical. So you can actually get the perspective of somebody who knows a lot, a lot a lot about the developmental age. The other thing, and we’ll put this in the show notes, there’s a beautiful, beautiful book called yard sticks. And it really lays out the typical unexpectable development grade by grade, across a lot of the domains I mentioned. It’s by a guy named chip wood, and we’ll put it in the show notes. And it’s just a great way if you’re like, this seems like, I can’t tell if this is typical, or expectable or not. This book can help you.

Reena Ninan
That’s great. So big takeaways, Lisa, from this. There’s so much here. But when we’re on that emotional roller coaster, what do you think? If there’s one thing for parents to keep in mind, what would that be?

Lisa Damour
I would say, glitter jar or sandbag. Like I just I really like if if we have like, because in those moments, we’re panicking, it’s it’s upsetting to have a kid be that upset. So think to yourself, Okay, this is a glitter jar that is spinning, let the glitter settle. And my job is to try to be a sandbag, to mix all these metaphors together, because this kid is flooded. So how can I be present and steady but not actually add to the level of distress here?

Reena Ninan
Being present and steady without adding to distress. That’s really great. And I have to tell you, we did the glitter jar after I read about that. And the kids were like seven or eight at the time. And it was transformed. Like Like I really felt that was a moment where they understood what was happening in their brain in a way that I could never and we did it I actually gave into the glitter in that moment. My son and daughter loved it. But I’m wondering if now in middle school, we should have a Saturday morning where we create the glitter jar get and talk about it because I guess it’s never gets old.

Lisa Damour
You could you absolutely could.

Reena Ninan
I love it. I love that. Great DIY project. And I’m not very big DIY-er. So what do you have for us, Lisa, for Parenting to Go?

Lisa Damour
So for Parenting to Go: My general policy is that it’s not necessary or helpful to talk with teenagers about their own neurological development. I think it can make them feel like why are you talking about my brain, it makes me feel weird. The exception I have found is around this uneven development in terms of the emotions getting upgraded before their prospective maintaining systems have been upgraded. And I have found with middle schoolers when they are calm, that it is really helpful to explain to them why they sometimes feel so overwhelmed by their own emotions. Why this is a temporary problem, it won’t last forever. Why this wasn’t happening when they were a little kid. Why it won’t happen when they’re an adult. But why it’s happening now. And on this particular point, I have seen tremendous relief wash over the face of middle schoolers, because it feels really out of control to them too. And so helping them understand, you know, in those moments, you’re kind of at the mercy of your amygdala. your amygdala will not always exercise so much power. Let let it pass then look at the system with your perspective back in place and see how bad it looks. See what the situation looks like then.

Reena Ninan
You know what we need? We need like a Mr. Potato Head for the brain. The tween and teen years Dr. Lisa Mr. Potato Head braid.

Lisa Damour
If we do merch, Reena, that’ll be the first merch.

Reena Ninan
Love it. Oh, Lisa this is great and couldn’t have been more timely. So thank you, especially this time in the school year. And next week, we’re going to be talking about cars, kids driving teens new drivers. Boy, this is so research packed. I mean, you’re not just talking off the top of your head, you’re looking at the statistics, what makes a difference everything you need to know about when your kids get their first set of keys. I’ll see you next week.

Lisa Damour
See you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does 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.

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The Emotional Lives of Teenagers Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents