If you teach middle or high school—or if you parent teens—you have no doubt wondered at the chaotic muddle of teenage lives. How can adolescents possibly be so…adolescent?
As you stare in bafflement and awe, dread and bemusement, you may occasionally wish for a wise, insightful, humorous guide: a Virgil who can talk your Dante through the wild experience around you.
Well, let me introduce you to your Virgil: her name is Lisa Damour.
Dr. Lisa Damour directs Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls. (If you don’t subscribe to their newsletter, you should: https://www.laurelschool.org/page.cfm?p=625&LockSSL=true.)
With this experience—combined with her private psychotherapy practice, and her work at Case Western Reserve University—she knows not only the research on adolescence and adolescents, but also their daily school reality.
She understands teens, she understands teachers, and she understands schools—and, she knows from the research. How’s that for a guide?
To help make sense of adolescent muddle, Dr. Damour describes seven predictable and healthy transitions that teens must undertake to arrive at successful adulthood. In her view, many of the puzzles of adolescent behavior—and many of the questions on how to help teens effectively—become manageable and even plausible when understood within this transition framework.
No More Peter Pan
In Damour’s transitional framework, adolescents must first “Part with Childhood” to arrive at adult maturity. As teachers, we don’t always know our students before they come to our classrooms, and so it can be difficult to know their younger selves—and how hard they must work to shuck those selves.
Many of the surprising behaviors of adolescence aren’t so surprising when understood as our students’ fierce attempts—either knowing or unknowing—to put aside childish parts of their past. Feisty rejection of adult authority, indifference to helpful guidance, abrupt swerves between competence and incompetence: all of these dramatic, teenly behaviors make sense when seen as their awkward attempts to negotiate this treacherous first transition.
One of Damour’s strengths as a writer is her ability to conjure vivid analogies—analogies that both clarify a situation and suggest how to manage it well.
For example: when thinking of your role in a teen’s attempt to part with childhood, consider a swimming pool. (Yes, a swimming pool.)
The water represents the mature, grown up experience in which teens want to swim. And you—the teacher, the parent—are the edge of the pool. You establish the boundaries within which the teens take on their mature experiences. And, crucially, you provide a reliable handhold when they need to hang on to something solid.
In this way, Damour explains one of the most puzzling and painful parts of working with adolescents: “the push off.” After exhausting themselves trying out mature experiences, teens may need to swim back over and hang on to the pool’s edge for a while. That is, they stay close to us, relying on our strength and support. And then, the need to part with childhood strongly reasserts itself, and the teen pushes off. Hard. Suddenly, adult support and experience are as foolish and useless as they were dependable and necessary just a moment ago.
Although Damour does not say so, I think this “pool” analogy helps explain some difficult teacher/parent dynamics as well. Sometimes, teens can hang on to “edge-of-the-pool” teachers in place of “edge-of-the-pool” parents: a hurtful vision for any parent already missing the close connection of years past.
Behind the Lines
Many years ago, I relied on a wonderful school counselor for guidance and advice. During one of our conversations, she said: “I’m not trying to give you a script here…”
I interrupted her: “Why not? I really like your scripts!”
It turns out, her husband hated it when she scripted conversations for him, so she was avoiding providing me with lines.
This counselor’s husband would like Untangled as much as I do, because Damour provides both sample scripts to follow and the logic behind them.
Here’s an example (lightly edited with ellipses) on the topic of sexting:
Find an opportunity to say something such as, “I’ve heard that some boys think it’s okay to text a girl…to ask her to send nude photos or do sexual things. This goes without saying, but just to say it, that’s totally inappropriate behavior on the guy’s part…” Your daughter might brush you off with, “Geez, of course I know that it’s wrong!” but your breath wasn’t wasted…Your daughter will be glad to hear that she’s not the one acting crazy.
For me, knowing both the lines and the reasons behind them makes her suggested words especially helpful.
“More Alike Than Different”
If you didn’t look closely at the subtitle to Untangled, then I may have succeeded in keeping a small secret up to now: Damour centers her book on the experience of adolescent girls. (Perhaps Damour’s next book will focus on boys. Potential title: emBATtled MAN)
I’ve postponed mentioning this focus for a simple reason: much of Damour’s analysis and guidance applies equally well to girls and boys. And—although she pauses every now and then to note gendered differences in adolescent experience—Damour is refreshingly non-doctrinaire about those differences. As she writes in her introduction, “Fundamentally, girls and boys are more alike than they are different, so don’t be surprised to discover that some of the stories and advice that follow speak to your experience of knowing or raising [or, I would add, teaching] a teenage boy.”
In short, while Untangled is informed by the experience of an all-girls school, it will benefit teachers of boys as well. (In fact, in her section on LGBTQ identity, Damour talks briefly about students who identify as transgender. In other words: gender is important in her analysis, but not absolute.)
Given my enthusiasm for Untangled, you may wonder if Damour is a relative, or a creditor. (For the record, she is neither. My niece did attend Laurel School, but they never met.) Although this is one of the most helpful books about adolescents I’ve read in a while, I do think that teachers should approach it ready to make two kinds of translations.
First, Damour focuses on families: adolescent girls and their parents (and, to a lesser degree, siblings). Little of her advice is framed specifically for teachers. As a high school teacher, I do think that the “Seven Transitions” framework is greatly helpful in understanding our students’ behavior. Translating this framework to a teacher’s perspective, in other words, should be easy to do.
Second, teachers will necessarily balance Damour’s experience with their own; in some cases, we may simply disagree. I myself was surprised to read that—in extreme circumstances—she believes that paying students for grades is a least-bad option. For me, the other options would need to be dire indeed to resort to such a strategy.
Damour writes not only about a teen’s need to part with childhood, but also about several other key transitions: joining a “new tribe,” managing emotions, sexual discovery, and so forth. In each of these chapters, her insight, knowledge of research, humor, and empathy all make this tumultuous time seem familiar and manageable to the adults who teach and parent them.
Untangled was released February 2, 2016 and is available here.