Wellington School parents and others from central Ohio last week heard about how to confront and manage stress and anxiety among young people from Dr. Lisa Damour.
Damour, a psychotherapist who writes a monthly adolescence column for the New York Times and serves as executive director of Laurel’s School Center for Research on Girls in Shaker Heights, spoke Nov. 20 at Wellington as part of the school’s ongoing Well Life Series.
Throughout her 75-minute presentation, Damour spoke about the stress and anxiety young people face and provided tips for parents for recognizing, managing and addressing those conditions.
The appearance was an opportunity for Damour to promote her latest book, “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Young People,” released last February.
It also, according to Wellington Head of School Jeff Terwin, was a chance for parents to hear how they can help manage their children’s emotions when faced with the rigors of school and physical growth.
“It’s important to engage experts about working with students because we have a model that is designed to challenge students,” Terwin said. “We want students in the ‘engaged’ quadrant, where we say there are challenged and loving it.
“We put students at the center of that learning. We give them ownership and autonomy. So with that comes additional challenge. Making sure they’ve got the ability to navigate that is critical.”
During her ranging talk, Damour first told parents that stress and anxiety are normal in everyone’s lives, but there are things they can do to make it more manageable.
When managed, she said, stress and anxiety are growth-giving and help people become more durable.
“We don’t like chronic stress. We don’t like stress when there’s no chance to recover.
“There are very hard-driving, hard-working high schoolers who are under what I believe to be chronic stress conditions. Their schedules are so big; their demands are so heavy they actually are not able to rest. And we don’t like trauma. We don’t like overwhelmingly blow-your-coping-out-of-the-water stress.”
One of the keys to managing stress, Damour said, is recovery.
She said young people should have systems in place that enable them to recover from stress and anxiety, and they can include zoning out into television, movies or music for short periods, or exercise.
“You work very hard, and then you work on recovery,” Damour said. “Expect school to be stressful.
“Reassure your kids that that’s the plan and make sure they have time to recover and they have their systems to recover.”
Damour said parents should be mindful of their children’s anxiousness and to normalize it “as largely informative and largely useful and protective.”
“You’re not supposed to feel that good that often,” she said. “You’re actually not.”
Other tips Damour provided were how to counter “meltdowns” children and teens might have.
She borrowed an analogy from a colleague, who said young people’s brains during meltdowns are like a bottle containing water and glitter that’s shaken.
She said the swirling glitter is like the child’s brain, and it needs to be given time to settle.
“There is a juncture where young people’s brains are gawky, where their emotion centers are upgraded and comparatively powerful and their perspective-maintaining systems are still waiting for an upgrade,” Damour said. “When our kids scrape their psychological knees, which they will do constantly, our job is to go like, ‘You’re fine. You’re fine. I got you.’ ”
Damour added she’s developed nine steps for managing a meltdown, which include listening to the issue without interrupting, offering empathy, validating distress, support coping and expressing “non-dismissive confidence.”
Once parents have taken those steps, she said, they can offer to help problem solve or take additional recommended steps, if needed.
“You may get to solutions,” Damour said. “You will have no traction there if you have not already gone through steps one through five.”
Damour warned parents not to allow children to avoid things, like tests, that they fear.
“Avoidance actually feeds anxiety,” she said. “The next time that thing comes around, they’re going to be more frightened of it the next time it comes around.”
She said taking a child to school and having them sit in a room while a test is being given to others or allowing them to doodle on the test represent “baby steps” that prevent them from running from their fears.
Damour also addressed technology’s role in stress and anxiety and said psychologists still are working through data to determine how it affects young people.
In the meantime, she said the most important thing parents can do is to ensure their children are getting adequate sleep, or as close to adequate sleep as possible.
For an elementary student, she said, that’s 11 hours. It’s 10 hours for middle school students, and nine hours for high school students.
“Sleep is the glue that holds human beings together. Anyone getting less sleep than they need will be fragile and stressed.”
Damour urged parents to keep technology out of bedrooms, because the body should associate bedrooms with sleep.
“There are 14 different ways that technology in bedroom overnight makes sleep hard for kids,” she said. “Get it out at least a half hour before they should be falling asleep. The earlier the better.
“It’s easier to be ‘for’ things than ‘against’ them. Don’t be ‘against’ technology. You’re not going to win that. Be ‘for’ sleep and social skills and exercise. Make your kid so busy with those, that you actually crowd out the time for technology.”
Following the presentation, Kelly Monahan, a Worthington parent with three children 14 and younger, said she found the Damour’s discussion informative, particularly with respect to her advice on managing meltdowns.
“These were very practical steps that I can apply to everyday life,” Monahan said.
Likewise, Laura Cooke of Upper Arlington took several pages of notes she plans to review in addressing stress and anxiety among her four daughters.
“She was excellent,” Cooke said. “I think my biggest takeaway is this idea about ‘settling your glitter.’
“When they get really stressed out and overanxious, a lot of times what we just need to do is bring them into this moment and recognize that that’s where they are.”
Cooke also said she would be more mindful of recognizing all their kids handle their recovery from stress differently ways.
“We have to have these periods of recovery from stress,” she said.
Danielle Turkovich, director of marketing and communications for Wellington, said she hoped the program and the four-part Well-Life Series, which is now halfway complete, will help the school, students and parents discover and cultivate the unique potential that’s within every student.
“Wellington strives to bring speakers to campus to generate discussion and stimulate ideas to further the mission of our school,” Turkovich said. “The Well Life speaker series features top-level academic, well-being, and child development leaders to Wellington to educate, enlighten and inspire.”