The moment when parents get this right is when they are raising a toddler and the toddler scrapes her knee. First, [toddlers] look at their knee, and then they look at the parent’s face. If the parent is panicking, the child will fall apart. And even if the parent on the inside is panicking, they say, “you’re OK. We’ll get you cleaned up. You’re all right,” the child’s like, “OK.”
So what we can do to help keep these fires contained is that when one of them starts — she’s panicked about a fight with a friend or about a test that’s coming up — if we say “you know, I think you’ve got this” or “I can see it’s very uncomfortable, but I think you can handle this” or we ride out her having a big emotional upset and be patient, knowing it will resolve itself if we stay calm — those are supportive responses that won’t make it worse. Sometimes in our own anxiety we say, “I’m going to call the other kid’s mom” or “I’m going to get you a tutor.” We jump in fast, which is the equivalent of the panicked face with the scraped knee.
CNN: It’s so counterintuitive, because you want to reach in and save your child.
Damour: If the parent did nothing, that wound would heal. Emotions are more like waves in the ocean. They rise, they crest, and then they ebb. You get upset, you have a really good cry, and then there is a relief that comes, and it’s so important for our kids to understand that they actually contain automatic self-regulating systems, and they don’t have to be scared of becoming very upset.
The rescuing interrupts that lesson to the child, that “oh, I see you’re very upset, and if we just wait this out, you’ll feel much better” — which is such a powerful thing for a child to learn about how they operate.
CNN: Can you give some examples of things that girls struggle with but can handle?
Damour: Being in a group project with a kid they can’t stand. No one would sign up for that; it’s absolutely in the category of what kids can reasonably be expected to handle. Having teachers they find quite annoying. I hope it happens to every kid in the course of school! No, they do not enjoy it, [but] it’s completely in the realm.
CNN: You say that the happiest girls are those with one or two solid friendships. I thought it’s better to have lots of friends. Can you explain?
Damour: The research tells us that when we look at friendship groups, small comes with much less stress. It’s stressful for parents because they’re worried if their daughter hits a rough patch with that one friend, she’s going to be out in the cold.
But once you get to four, five kids in a group, numbers bring drama. Often within that group, there are a couple of girls who are like oil and water with each other, and the remaining group members are left to mediate things or get stuck picking sides, which is a terrible way to be in a friendship group.
Another thing is that often within the group of five, there’s maybe two or three girls who are closer and want to get together and not invite everybody else, and then of course they still can’t help themselves and put up on Instagram a photo of what they all did. Then drama ensues.
And you get this misperception that “oh, it’s good to have lots of friends,” — and I’m not saying don’t do that, I’m just saying plan on drama. It’s not that these are mean girls. It’s that no adults could have a group of five where they like one another equally.
CNN: On the flipside, what’s the advantage of having one or two close friends?
Damour: Having one or two friends actually contributes to a sustainable, predictable routine. You know who you are hanging out with on the weekend. If you are upset, you know who you’d call.
When girls are in groups that are larger, that destabilizes it a bit, like, “I want to hang out with Jenny, but I hung out with her last weekend, and if I don’t call Molly, she’s going to be upset because she’s going to say I always hang out with Jenny.” It interferes with the sustainable routine of just falling into a friendship that’s predictable, and it’s predictable because it’s your only option, but there’s a lot to be said for having fewer options sometimes.
CNN: If you could be an adolescent girl again, what is the one thing you would tell your younger self?
Damour: I wish I had known how much time I had to develop skills and to figure out the kind of person I wanted to be.
When I graduated high school, I was a very poor writer. I arrived at college to discover that I didn’t know anything about writing. I became a psychologist, and it was through opportunities to do co-authorships with very good writers that I started to develop my writing skills. But I didn’t start writing in any way that a broad public would have access to until I was in my late 30s, and if you told me at 17 that I would be someone who people would recognize as a writer, I would have thought that was a totally ridiculous thing to say.
I tell that story every time I can because right now, with the amped-up college process, we are saying to 17- and 18-year-olds, “tell us what you’re good at; tells us what you’re all about,” and they don’t have the perspective to know that this is a silly request — they may know what they want to be or who they are — but I sort of hope they don’t.
I hope that they still see themselves as very much in process, because they are. And so I say, “look, to get good at something takes a really, really long time; you have a long time.” That’s the perspective I’m always trying to share with young people.