Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles talks with Lisa Damour, Ph.D., author of “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through The Seven Transitions Into Adulthood”
PI: … body image and this business about girls needing to be attractive. How do you help parents wrestle with that?
LD: It’s such a big, complex issue. I think the simple, few word answer is that we need to constantly be helping girls reflect on how crafted the images they see really are. Everything that is published has been modified to be made to look more perfect.
Even the images the girls put up of themselves these days, the selfies online, those are often very carefully curated and selected images. They may look like spontaneous snaps, but they’re often not. I think that’s one check we can have against this.
There is some very lovely work by a psychologist named Jill Walsh who talks about this. We need to say to teenagers, “Do you know how that magazine image has been crafted? You know your friend took 50 pictures before she posted that one.” This is to get teenagers questioning because that helps put some distance between them and the image.
I think the other thing is that, and I tell this story in my book, one time when I was a teenager I was looking at a magazine and a family friend pointed at a model and said, “That’s her job.” That was a really helpful moment for me that has obviously stayed with me for 30 years. In the image, she’s doing some other job; feeding children and walking a dog, etc., but in real life, to look the way she looks is a fulltime professional effort.
PI: It’s a job for her to create a fantasy that the rest of us can dive into one way or another.
PI: Would you put it that bluntly to a 13-year-old?
LD: Yes, I would. The other thing I’m thinking about more and more is that when you say, “I think you’re beautiful, all sorts of bodies are perfect, everybody is wonderful,” those things are all true, but we’re still talking about appearance. I think sometimes the way you get a break from the whole appearance pressure for girls is you talk about all of the other things girls are. They are smart, they are funny, they are interesting, they’re inventive, they’ve got a lot of really cool stuff going on. Sometimes you can change the conversation by actually just changing the conversation.
PI: It strikes me that it’s how you are, it’s not how you look. They are two different things.
It seems like it’s important to spend some time on this. You say that it’s important for parents to wade into commenting on sexualized media. Do you want to say a little bit about that? Obviously, that’s a big distraction and a curiosity at that age.
LD: The media is highly sexualized and the landscape of what kids can access is really different than it has ever been. This is a conversation that no adults want to have, but yet, it’s a critical conversation which is that a lot of how teenagers are coming to understand what adult sexuality is is shaped by pornography because they have absolutely massive access to it.
One of the things that I recommend in my book, which is a very weird recommendation for me to get to, is that parents should, if they can, familiarize themselves a little bit with what teenagers are looking at.
I tell a story of a parent doing this for me. I was getting ready to give a talk at a boy’s school in my community and she said, “I think you should take a look at what the ninth-grade boys are looking at.” This was a lovely mother in our community who is a very upright human being.
She sent me to a pornography website and I thought okay, I’m a grownup, I can take a look at this. I was really blown away by what was there. It really has shifted how I talk with teenagers about adult sexuality and the representation of sexuality because what they’re seeing goes far, far beyond what we imagine they’re seeing.
It’s not working for us to be having one conversation where we’re saying, “Don’t forget, ask somebody for consent.” I think those are important conversations, but I think we’re often having them with the assumption that we’re working with relatively blank slates where we’re talking to teenagers who are carrying around a sexual knowledge that is really, really warped by what they’re seeing and they don’t know that it’s warped. They don’t have access to a wider range of what adult sexuality can be or might be.
PI: I’m accepting that it would awkward and uncomfortable, but if you caught your daughter looking at that, and this can go for boys too, or they were allowing you to know, it seems like there are ways to look at it together and deconstruct it.
LD: Yes, I think that’s right.
PI: I haven’t had this experience myself, but as awkward as that seems, it just seems like it might open so many possibilities to do more good than skirting around it or being nervous about it.
LD: I think those are hugely important conversations.
I wrote a column for the New York Times a while back called “How to Talk with Teenagers About Pornography” and it’s available online. What I say is maybe have this conversation in the car where nobody has to look at anybody and it’s going to be a time-limited conversation, but I do encourage parents to say, “I don’t know if you’re looking at what’s out there, but I want to weigh in about it.”
I walked through the points of what we might say. The kinds of things we might say is, “That is on corner of adult sexuality. It’s not the corner that we feel good about.” There are various things that can be said, but I will take any opportunity when I’m with teenagers and I have the time.
Often, I’m meeting with teenagers in groups to weigh in as a grownup and say, “Look, I don’t know if you guys have seen this or if the people you’re dating have seen this, but I just want you to know people who are agreeing to have sex on camera, you’re already looking at a subset there and you need to keep that in mind.” I say more than that, but it’s a conversation that we need to have with teenagers.
PI: Let me ask about the conversation. What is the best way for parents to have and keep having the sex education with daughters nowadays? It pretty much has to start pre-teens anymore doesn’t it?
LD: I think it does, but I think it can start really small. What I recommend in my book and when we look at the data about what’s effective is that the girls with the best adolescent sexual health are ones who feel they can advocate for themselves.
The way we start young is maybe when we’re watching a high school musical or movie and the boy is being very clear about his wishes for his goofy crush, I think that we should say to our daughters, though they may roll their eyes, is “What does she want? What does she want to have happen here?”
To take that message of what anyone in a sexual interaction deserves is to first think what do I want. The next questions are “What do we both want?” “What are the risks involved?” “What do we do to manage that?” I think what we know is that when we talk with girls about sex, we tend to talk about risk and we do need to get to that conversation, but it turns out the risks go down if we start the conversation with talking about what girls want and what they have a right to advocate for and how they articulate what they don’t want.
When we talk about girls being on defense all the time and we frame female sexuality in those terms, we actually see that girls don’t take such good care of the themselves after all.
PI: Well, it certainly has to be more than one talk which is the way classically it’s been portrayed; you have the birds and the bees talk and then you’re done. That’s how it was for my parents and it didn’t suit me very well. Let’s agree that it should be an ongoing dialogue. I’m curious about it being a mother and father conversation with a daughter. What are the pros and cons to that?
LD: I think everybody should weigh in in their own time. It’s very hard for me to picture any teenager who would be really, really excited to sit down with both her mom and dad and have a long sex talk.
I do think, like you say, these are ongoing conversations. They come up in context and often the context in which they come up are “Did you hear about so and so? She did this.” Parents can take those moments to say, “What do you think about that? Is she keeping herself safe? Is that what she wanted?” I think whoever happens to be standing there in the moment when the topic comes up, if they can take a deep breath and talk about what girls want and risk, they can use that situation as another opportunity to talk about my daughter’s right to put her wishes at the center of her sexual life and do things that she would enjoy while also making sure that she’s taking good care of herself.
PI: Let’s talk about social media. You write; “I’m blown away by the power of technology to stunt girls’ ability to recognize and manage their own feelings.” How does it do that?
LD: The way we should think about social media is that it gives teenagers and adults constant access to one another and it’s a fabulous distraction. I can say from my own life that when I’m sitting at my computer working on a writing project and I get bored, it’s so easy just to click over to another tab and see what’s happening on Twitter or Facebook just because I don’t want to deal with my boredom or I don’t want to deal with where I got stuck in my writing. This is a very human impulse that I think most adults can connect with.
The teenage version of it is “I’ve had a fight with my friend and rather than sitting at home reflecting on the fight with my friend, I’m going to hop online and see what else is going on. If I think about that, I don’t have to think about this.” That’s how it operates.
What we had the benefit of as adolescents was that if something went wrong, eventually we went home and we just had to let things drop or we just had to sit with the discomfort and eat dinner with our family and find a way to feel better, try to get a decent night’s sleep and the next day try to figure out where things stand or things quieted down overnight and went away.
Now, we’ve created a condition where teenagers don’t have to sit alone with anything. Who wants to sit alone with an uncomfortable feeling? When I worry about, when I think about how technology is shaping how humans deal with feelings is that it makes it all too easy to reach out when sometimes we should be looking in.
PI: In terms of practical responses for parents, first of all, you say in your book that “As soon as a parent gives their daughter access to a phone, start on the strict side of usage rules, particularly at first and then maybe ease up.” Can you talk more about that as a practical suggestion?
LD: What we want is for teenagers to develop the capacity to manage discomfort and that’s a capacity that’s growing all the time. The longer they go without access to a phone, (which is just nothing but a fabulous distraction, well, it’s a lot of other things, but it also happens to be a fabulous distraction) the more skills they will develop to regulate hard feelings or managing hard feelings. When they do get access to technology, make sure there’s lots of time when they don’t have access to technology whether that be overnight and dinner and while they’re at school or while they’re at practice or any variety of things. We want them in the real world managing real difficulties using resources that do not involve electricity. That’s an important part of development.
In terms of broader ways of thinking about social media, the place I am getting to increasingly is that a lot of what we don’t like about how teenagers use social media is them doing exactly what we did without social media. Teenagers spend a lot of times looking at phots, commenting on photos, crafting photos. They’re really obsessed with how things look and presenting themselves in ways that they feel good about.
I can speak for myself as a teenager; I was also obsessed with how I looked and presented myself and comparing myself to others and all of those things. This is not a new adolescent behavior. It is just on steroids because they have constant access to one another and a visual medium to share.
Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles talks with Dr. Michele Coleman, Ph.D.,
founder, Attachment Healing Center, Albuquerque, New Mexico .
MC: There are some conditions (for changing a teenager’s brain to help them develop good behaviors and trust). Let me just say those conditions first.
In the 1970s, we discovered that the brain has what’s called neuroplasticity, it can change. But there are some conditions for neuroplasticity; you have to be in a relationship with a positive caring other. That’s two things. Both sides have to be motivated to change. In a relationship with a positive caring other where both sides are motivated to change, then, in naturally occurring situations, we need to have a corrective experience. Those are the conditions that need to be present to change the brain. When you change the brain, the behavior naturally would change.
I was in Santa Fe with a teenager and I asked her; “What is it you need? Are you willing to work with us to figure out what’s going on?” She looked and me and said, “First of all, I’m going to be willing to work with you all if you’re not going to do what the other therapists have done.” I said, “What did they do?” “Well, every week they come in and ask me about all the things I did wrong and then when I leave, I feel so bad about all the things I did wrong, I have to go and do some more wrong things just to feel better.” “Okay, no, we won’t be doing that.”
“We don’t focus on the behavior. We work really hard to figure out if you’re lying, if you’re stealing, if you’re smoking, if you’re drinking, it you’re having sex. What is the underlying need? “What is it you need? Let us work on meeting that need.” Can you ask your parents for what you need and want? Can you allow them to serve you? Can you trust that they are not going to hurt you? Can you let them in?
That particular child had had 25 placements in the first two years of their life. To trust an adult was the scariest thing in the world for them to do. They had already done that and they had been hurt. That’s a big deal. I realize and my clinicians realize that what we’re asking a child to do when we ask them to work with us is to trust that an adult can meet their needs.
PI: You really have to have adults involved that are ready to step up and play that role. You’re working with family units in almost every case.
PI: So, everyone is on the same page.
MC: That’s exactly right.
PI: It seems like it would be personal observation now for me 60 years of life to watch friends and family (I never had children. I’ve helped mentor kids and I’ve co-parented in certain situations,) not know what they’re in for and don’t think about it too much when they start having kids.
MC: That’s very true.
PI: You could take on a case obviously with parents, either biological or caregivers who need as much or more work than the youngsters do, right?
MC: Oh, absolutely and we give them the service that they need as well. Our informed consent first paragraph says that the parent is going to be willing to be the agent of change. We are not the agent of change. It’s the parent who has to do their personal work because they’re with it day in and day out. They are there in the middle of the crises, they’re there in the morning, they’re there at night, they are the ones who have to provide the corrective experience, but their wounding is going to get triggered. They have to be willing to put their wounding aside, attend to the child and then the parent comes back to pick up the wound and get healing. We provide individual counseling to them as well.
In coming through my research, the biggest thing that happened in the focus group after we had gathered data on individual families and parents and children was that one of the parents looked at another and said, “If you are focusing on the child’s behavior, you will stay stuck. You must take the focus off the child and put it on yourself. No matter how your child shows up, you must meet them with love.”
PI: I’m guess that if you’re working with parents in their 30s, their brains are harder to correct. If they haven’t had a story of therapy or someone challenging them to look at their own needs and where their own behaviors and issues come from, obviously inserting themselves into raising a child is a super big challenge.
MC: It can be. It depends on how motivated the parent is. In that situation, that was the mom of a teenager, a 16-year-old girl, and this was her second marriage. She took a look at all of the things that she had done wrong in the first marriage and how she was not showing up for her daughter now. She was recreating how she grew up. She was motivated. She was a customer.
Right now Paul, we’re only working with customers. Yes, if we get the parent who says, “It’s all about my kid,” the first paragraph of the informed consent says this is going to be about you doing your personal work.
PI: I’m not sure what you mean when you say, “We’re only working with customers.”
MC: Those who are willing, parents who are willing to look at their issues. If you want us to totally focus on the kid or you say the kid is bad, “fix the kid,” we’re not the agency for you. That doesn’t change their brain. We need the parent to be able to not get triggered when that kid curses them out, not throw a fit and punish the child when they come in and see feces smeared all over the wall, the kid has lied to them, they’ve stolen from a teacher. We need the parents who are willing to say, “This is hard for me. This is so hard. You’ve got to help me get grounded.” We listen to them. We let them get it all out. Then, “How are you going to show up with the kid? How are you going to handle this?”
PI: Right. What are some ideas that you are passing along to the parents? What practical tools [do you pass along]? Is it to count to ten?
MC: What I told a parent just last week (and it was my insight around my son) of a boy who grew up in his birth home but had no focus on schooling – he was 11 and couldn’t read. He was in the fifth grade and he couldn’t read. He tells himself he’s stupid because he can’t read. I had a personal experience where I realized that sometimes when I ask him to sit down and do his schoolwork (he can read now. After six months, he learned to read with us) he would get aggressive with me. I used to think that was about me, but it wasn’t. Just last week I told a parent, “When you’re redirecting your child and he attacks either verbally or physically, dodge it. That’s not about you. He’s gone to a shameful place in himself. Get curious about what he’s telling himself. “Is that the truth? I see who you are. You’re really good. You make good choices. You’re helpful. You help me with the younger kids. Is this really how you want to show up?” That’s one thing that we do.
That’s what I do with my kid and it shifts him in the moment. He used to have a meltdown, throw a temper tantrum, throw things, curse us out, storm out of the room. That would last for hours! Now, in the moment, he’s like “Yeah, I was telling myself I was stupid.” That’s huge because what happens is that he sees that I see him.
PI: This sounds like radical empathy and curiosity.
MC: Nice, I like it. I’d go with that.
Another tool that helps with that is that the parent has to not be reactive. They have to be emotionally regulated. The parent has to stay calm no matter the situation. You can get triggered. You can feel stuff coming up. Put that aside. In that moment with your child, just like you said, “Help me understand what’s going on. Is that really how you want to show up?” You respond, not react.
Go all the way back to the beginning when I said, “When that baby cries, the very first thing we do is respond to that baby’s emotional distress.” I don’t care if they’re seventeen, seven, or three, it’s the same.
PI: We’ve studied non-violent communication, Marshall Rosenberg’s work and that sort of thing here too. He would say that there is a step, particularly when you’re dealing with older children where you would identify your own feeling that’s coming up; “When I see this, I feel this,” and then you turn into the empathetic step and make requests.
MC: Those are the steps.
PI: Are you saying to skip the step where a parent would acknowledge and try to put words on their feelings?
MC: No, we don’t have the parent stop and attend to themselves in that moment when the child is distressed. You notice it, but you put it aside and you get to the kid and you just reflect back the emotion that you see coming; “Wow, you’re really angry! Something has come up with you. I can’t really tell what it is, but that’s okay, I’m here.” Totally empathetic, as you would say, what we would call co-regulation; totally staying calm and being that calming force, answering the baby’s cry. The baby is in the crib crying, what are you going to do? You going to go in and [say], “Mommy is here,” or “Daddy is here. It’s okay, I got you.” That’s what we do, even for a teenager. It just sounds differently than it does when they’re a baby, but it’s the very same and the brain feels it the same.
PI: There is some important value in not beginning that conversation with something that sounds like it’s about the parent, is that what you’re saying?
MC: The parent has to acknowledge. If they don’t acknowledge, they will get triggered.
PI: But they acknowledge it quietly.
MC: Yes, to themselves, right.
PI: That’s the difference you were saying that in certain situations, dealing with children, it’s best to not put that on the table because it redirects. That’s interesting.
MC: The focus is on the parent as opposed to the kid. For me, I have to use humor when I get triggered, when I go to my survival place. “You can’t talk to me like that, that’s not how I was raised.” I’ll use humor; “Oh really? Is that how you’re going to come at me now?” Then I’ll shift back to my heart or to that place where I can then be empathic or empathetic with my kid.
PI: That’s interesting. If he were still living, Marshall Rosenberg might take you to task on that.
MC: Oh, I love his work.
PI: He would say, “You need to tell that kid why it’s important to pick up his socks because of how it made you feel.”
Describe what an attuned parent would bring to their job of parenting from the start to establish good connection skills between a daughter and her parents.
This goes back to my, perhaps prejudice about parents who don’t anticipate what the struggles and the issues are. They’re just like, “Let’s have a child.”
How many parents, and I know you don’t have a figure on this, just anecdotal statistics, but how many parents, before they start thinking about becoming pregnant or when they’re pregnant, sit down with a therapist and say, “How can I do this? This is going to be really rough.”
When you described that last story, I was thinking that woman couldn’t possibly have guessed what was going to come up. Most women, parents, fathers can’t guess what stuff about themselves is going to come up when they have that first challenging encounter with maybe just the baby crying in the middle of the night.
PI: It seems like there is enough history of humans bearing children where this would be more a part of the acceptable path to start working on that stuff early.
MC: I haven’t seen it. I’ve been a therapist for 20 years Paul and I have yet to have a client come in and say, “I want to heal my stuff before I adopt or before I give birth.” I would love that. I didn’t even do that. I was scared to have children because I knew I had a troubled past and I was afraid of passing it onto my kid, but even I didn’t do it. I don’t think it’s in our culture.
We don’t think of that. That would be good.
PI: It could be good.
Peace Talks Radio host Paul Ingles talks with Lara Dotson-Renta, writer and scholar, Brown University
LDR: Actually, I would like to note that it is distinctive raising girls. There are a lot of conflicting messages that they get and a lot of complexity that goes into really trying to understand the emotional life of a girl. What I’ve noticed in this process as well is that we’re not doing that well by boys either. They are very limited in how they are able to imagine themselves emotionally especially. I think progress will come when we’re able to give children, boys and girls, the space and latitude necessary to imagine themselves differently than we’re doing right now. I think things will become better for girls once they are also better emotionally for boys. One will build on the other. I hope that we can all be more cognizant of the vast emotional lives of our children and how we can best support them.
PI: How are you handling the exposure to the mediated world with your youngsters?
LDR: Well, I think that it’s pretty difficult to keep kids away from all forms of media and so far, we have been pretty fortunate and cautious in having the kids have access mostly to things that are oriented at younger children that you know will have some kind of a buffer.
As you start to delve into media access from peers or friends or movies, [you discover] that you’re not getting by anymore with the movies aimed at preschoolers and kindergartners. As my daughter gets older, she is no longer interested, so when she wants to see new things, that brings up entirely different conversations. It’s an opportunity. Even if it’s not something I’m excited to talk about right now, it’s an opening.
One of the things that I’ve begun to notice in the age of media and social media and communications is that all of these different virtual ways are constant. My eldest in particular is looking at representation in a way that’s pretty intuitive and in a way that in which it’s more obvious that she’s noticing. She’ll ask questions like, “Why isn’t there a girl there?” or “What’s the girls’ job in this movie?” or “I really want the girl to win.” She is seeking out role models. She is really noticing what the girls are and aren’t doing in the media that she’s engaging with in a way that she wasn’t before.
For me, it becomes more important to notice what kinds of representations I’m having her see and what the female personalities that she’s noticing and engaging with are. I’m more conscious of that in everything from books to the kinds of movies that we’re watching and the way that we talk about who are role models and who is really interesting.
Sometimes the kids have your number. My eldest asked me – she really wants to be an inventory. She loves STEM. A lot of these comments are about my eldest because my youngest is just four and she hasn’t even started school yet, so she’s really not quite where her sister is in terms of these things.
My oldest daughter asked me about women inventors because that’s her dream. It occurred to me that off the top of my head, I could name very few. I know that they exist and I know that there are brilliant women out there like Marie Curie and Hedy Lamarr, but I couldn’t give her a quick list the way that I could male inventors. Her question was, “Why can’t you?” I couldn’t give her a whole social history of what opportunities women have and haven’t had and why they are less represented in a number of ways, but what I could do was take her to go get a book on female representation in STEM. I could take her to participate in these activities. I could take her to meet a friend and colleague who is a woman of science. I could do these things for her so that she could have this visibility and see that what she is interested in and what she wants to be is possible for a girl going forward.
You really begin to see the ways in which representation and media is important and so you try to give you children the best tools that you can so that when it’s time for them to try to build the contours of what they think they will be and how they imagine themselves so that they are best equipped to do that in a way that’s positive for them.
PI: The New York Times article of yours that’s entitled “Family Travel in a Time of Fear,” you write about a trip to France last year. Your friends were asking, “Aren’t you afraid of what might happen over there?” As we’ve already established, your daughters are pretty aware little beings, so what are your ideas about helping to prep young minds to handle this notion of fear of the other or, as media studies suggest, the “scary world syndrome,” where did that article go and what are you finding might be helpful?
LDR: I think that “fear of the other” is essentially fear of the unknown. It’s fear of mostly what we have yet to encounter personally. It’s so much easier to have a monolithic idea of a kind of person or group or nationality or religion or anything else when you have never encountered that person individually, when you have no other concept upon which to build that idea or that opinion of a type or a group of people other than what you are getting through media sources or third party sources.
With our kids and because we are very fortunate to be able to do that, we like to go as many places as often as we can. We take our kids on weekend drives to different cities just so that they can experience different ways of living, go into China Town for the day, go to a cultural activity, things like that so that people of different places and from different cultures are not odd to them so that they can say, “I don’t know much about that, but I’m willing to learn. I’m willing to ask.” I think that fostering a curiosity in kids early on is really key to them being open to different experiences and different kinds of people as they get older.
In our case, I really try as much as I can to introduce in ways big and small elements from my own childhood that were culturally different, different traditions. We celebrate Three Kings Day for example (Dia de lostres Reyes) which is not widely celebrated in the United States. We go out of our way every year to make sure that we honor it in some way in our family so that they have an idea of a lineage from which they come, a tradition that exists on my side of the family that they don’t see as readily.
If you are able to give kids experiences that are just a little bit out of the realm of the day to day or out of the realm of comfort or familiarity, it does pave the way for them to be more open to that going forward and to experience less fear when something is different or new. Maybe they come across a new friend at school who might come from a different country or have a different set of beliefs, hopefully that will allow them to approach that child from a place of wanting to know them rather than a place of being worried about that difference being a barrier.