Untangled by Dr. Lisa Damour

       20 minute read

Untangled by Dr. Lisa Damour

Dr. Lisa Damour breaks the topic of girls’ adolescence into seven stages, allowing the reader to see the progression from child to young woman during the formative teen years. She writes in a conversational tone making it easy for the reader to follow. Describing several anecdotal stories from her decades of practicing psychology, Dr. Damour gives the reader multiple ways to handle scenarios they’ll encounter in everyday life with their teenage girl.

  1. Parting with Childhood
  2. Joining a New Tribe
  3. Harnessing Emotions
  4. Contending with Adult Authority
  5. Planning for the Future
  6. Entering the Romantic World
  7. Caring for Herself

She concludes each topic with succinct examples of when to worry about your daughter. I found these particularly helpful, especially since I won’t always know what to look for in my daughter’s behavior, attitude, or actions.

Untangled should be read by every parent as their daughter enters middle school or junior high! It’s that well written, pertinent to your life, and important for your daughter’s future womanhood.

Further below you will find quotes and ideas from each area of the book that I found helpful and/or interesting. It’s a long list to go through, yet it provides a resource for later review. I’ve found that repetition is one of the best ways for me to change my behavior and this comprehensive list will allow me to revisit the topic.

Before I get into the details, here are some of the high-level golden nuggets.

  • Be compassionate. The teenage brain is going through tremendous change (scientifically proven) and it can make them highly emotional without (them or you) understanding why.
  • Listen. Truly be interested in what your teenage girl is saying. They’ll know if you’re faking it.
  • Stop talking. Don’t assume their question is an invitation for a lecture. Keep your answers short and to the point.
  • Externalization. Daughters get rid of uncomfortable feelings by trying to give them to parents (ironically, because they trust and feel comfortable with us). Avoid taking urgent action or overreacting.
  • Opinions. It’s her right to disagree with you, and it’s your right to expect that she be civil while doing so.
  • She should be polite.Put another way, I can be polite to people who don’t earn my respect.
  • Apologize. We all screw up. Admitting so, as a parent, teaches your daughter it’s going to happen and how to handle it with grace.
  • Growth mindset. Girls are prone to “explain failures in terms of internal, permanent factors.” Remind her that open-mindedness, practice, and dedication are the keys to building her skills. She can do anything she puts her mind to.
  • Care for herself. Do not dictate her behavior, rather frame it in the context of how she can best take care of and nurture herself.

And now for the comprehensive list of interesting ideas and quotes from each chapter. Particularly interesting ones are in bold.

Parting with Childhood

  • Girls don’t dump their parents just for the heck of it…. By age twelve most tweens feel a sudden, internal pressure to separate themselves from almost everything that seems childlike and…a girl’s pleasant relationship with her folks is usually one of the first casualties.
  • Begin “by allowing your daughter more privacy than she had as a child.” Let her go to her room, close the door, and be with herself doing her own thing without prying. Privacy is paramount.
  • Research continues to show that eating dinner with their family benefits teenage girls, even when they’re not getting along with their parents.
  • Use time in the car to connect. “Girls and their friends seem to forget that the chauffeur is actually someone’s mom or dad and will chatter quite openly.” I’ve found this to be very true, especially when driving the carpool with her friends. Do not try to engage in the conversation, that will only break the illusion of being just the chauffeur. Be quiet and listen!
  • If she isn’t responsive to your questions about her life, friends, school, activities, and hobbies, be sure that your questions are driven by genuine interest. They can usually tell when parents are simply keeping tabs versus sincerely interested in what they have to say.
  • Let your girls control the radio while driving. So simple, yet empowering.
  • Being polite is a more accurate goal than being respectful. “Put another way, I can be polite to people who don’t earn my respect….
  • People don’t do nice things for people who are mean to them.” Daughters often ask us to do things for them, such as run an errand on her behalf, but if she’s treated you poorly for the last few days you might not feel like it. Dr. Damour recommends honesty along with empathy: “I feel really torn. I love you and want to help you out in any way I can, but you’ve been snarky for days and I don’t want to give you the impression that you can treat people poorly and expect them to go out of their way for you.” Or if the situation warrants it, “No way, sister! Not with how you’ve been acting. Warm it up several degrees and try again later.
  • The swimming pool metaphor.Your daughter is a swimmer, you are the pool in which she swims, and the water is the broader world. Like any good swimmer, your daughter wants to be out playing, diving, or splashing around in the water. And, like any swimmer, she holds on to the edge of the pool to catch her breath after a rough lap or getting dunked too many times.
  • Having a delicate conversation with a teenager is like trying to talk with someone on the other side of a door.” When they prompt you with a question, they only give you a tiny amount of space to respond. If you try to barge in with all sorts of uninvited information they’ll close up.
  • Inappropriate clothing: “Honey, you’ve captured a look meant for adults—it’s not appropriate at thirteen.” Or, “that outfit will draw sexual attention your way that, frankly, no one in this family is ready for.
    • Don’t say she looks like a tramp. She will hear “I think you’re a tramp.” Completely different.
  • Posting online. If she’s talking big, don’t believe everything, but also don’t be naïve. Tell her what you found online and ask her to explain. Figure out what she was hoping to accomplish.

Joining a New Tribe

  • They’re looking for a new tribe to join. This is significant! “Teenagers aren’t just looking to make friends, they are replacing the family they’ve withdrawn from…with a tribe that they can feel proud to call their own.
  • Understand the difference between conflict and bullying. Conflict among humans is normal and something that all adolescents need to learn how to deal with. Bullying is serious and potentially dangerous, and it needs to be treated aggressively. “Treating conflict as bullying is the equivalent of prescribing a full-blown course of antibiotics for the common cold…. Of course, treating bullying as if it were everyday conflict is the equivalent of misdiagnosing pneumonia as a common cold—left untreated, the situation can reach critical proportions.
  • Popularity - girls begin to value this because of what it seems to promise: a place in a desirable tribe. This occurs at the same time they’re pulling away from their own family.
    • Sociometric popularity describes “well-liked teens with reputations for being kind and fun.
    • Perceived popularity describes “teens who hold a lot of social power but are disliked by many classmates.
    • The key difference seems to be that popular nice girls aren’t easy to push around.
    • The author recommends parents deconstruct the meaning of the term popular. Girls typically mean another girl is powerful, which is usually because she’s doing it to be mean and everyone knows it. Ask your daughter “is the girl popular or just powerful? Do kids like her or are they scared of her?
  • Help her learn how to assert herself, stand up for herself while respecting the rights of others. ‘Good girls’ aren’t nice all the time.
  • Bite your tongue and let her talk. Listening will give her the space to open up and share with you.
  • Frenemies - they should expect that their friends will generally be kind. If not, they aren’t really friends.
  • At the neurological level, teenagers, more than adults or children, experience social acceptance as highly rewarding.
  • Give your daughter a way out of inappropriate or awkward peer pressure situations by being their scapegoat. They can avoid risky behavior while staying in good graces with their friends by blaming their parents “crazy rules” for not giving in. “I want to smoke with you, but my mom has a nose like a bloodhound.” Allow your daughter to blame her good behavior on you.
  • Arrange a code for your daughter to help her get out of situations. If she calls and says “I forgot to turn off my flatiron” the parents know she wants to be rescued and they start yelling into the phone. The girl can hold the phone away from her ear, make faces, and blame her parents for having to go home. Save face.
  • Teens aren’t addicted to social media. They’re addicted to each other. Just like we were on the phone as teens, these days it’s social media.
  • New research finds that, when it comes to teens’ social lives, what happens online reflects what happens in real life. Girls who enjoy happy, supportive friendships in real life use their digital communications to build those friendships, and girls who are having trouble getting along in person also have trouble getting along online.
  • Make it clear that rules for virtual social behavior are the same as rules for social behavior in the real world: she doesn’t have to like everybody, but she should never conduct herself in ways that are less than polite.
  • IMPORTANT:Three conditions regarding your daughter’s social life that should cause you to worry: if your daughter has no tribe, if your daughter is a victim of bullying, or if your daughter bullies her peers.
  • Point out the critical role that bystanders play in helping victims.

Harnessing Emotions

  • Emotions. The brain remodels dramatically during the teenage years.
    • Teens’ amygdala’s reacted strongly to fearful or happy faces…emotional input rings like a gong for teenagers and a chime for everyone else.
  • If your teenage daughter is developing normally, you are living with someone who secretly worries that she is crazy and who might have the psychological assessment of a psychotic adult.
  • Rorschach tests for teens look the same as those for mentally ill (crazy) people.
  • Empathy: “Your daughter works hard every day to harness powerful and unpredictable emotions so that she can get on with doing everything else she means to do.
  • Externalization: when your daughter wants to get rid of an uncomfortable feeling, she will give it away to someone else and who would she trust more than someone who loves her as much as her parents. “When they externalize, they want you to accept ownership of the offending feeling and will prevent you from giving it back.
  • What to do when your daughter externalizes to you. Avoid taking urgent action or overreacting.Our overreactions only seen to confirm that it really is that bad and usually make the situation worse.
  • Teach them to embrace their feelings. “When I find myself with a girl who is shaken by a feeling she doesn’t understand, I start by reassuring her that mental health is like physical health: mentally healthy people get upset, just like physically healthy people get sick. We only worry when a person can’t recover.
  • Be aware of how they handle feelings. “Girls can seem to be putzing around when, in fact, they are using effective tactics for helping themselves feel better. Tune in to how your daughter gets a handle on her feelings—the approach will be entirely her own—and suggest or support her strategies when she needs them.
  • Be aware of how they might use digital technology to manage painful feelings. “I’ve seen girls turn to their phones every time they feel lonely. Rather than wondering about the reasons for their loneliness or making plans to get together with a potential friend, they search online for an instant connection or at least an immediate distraction from their isolation.
  • When to worry:So long as your daughter’s feelings are all over the map, she’s probably doing fine. You should worry if your daughter’s mood inconsistently somber or crabby, goes to frightening extremes, is dominated by anxiety, or if she uses self-destructive measures to cope with her feelings.
  • The symptoms of depression in teens are usually different from those in adults. “Instead of being sad and gloomy, depressed teens are more likely to be highly irritable with most people, most of the time. Living with a teenager who suffers from depression is like living with a touchy porcupine.
  • It’s normal for girls to be temperamental, but they shouldn’t be so out of sorts that they offend every adult, can’t plan for the future, won’t pursue romantic relationships, or don’t care for themselves.

Contending with Adult Authority

  • Around age 11, girls begin to develop the ability for abstract reasoning.
  • When she has a rude or provocative tone, ask her to communicate her dissent in a more mature way. It’s her right to disagree with you, and it’s your right to expect that she be civil while doing so.
  • Emotional intelligence requires the collaboration of the two areas of the brain…(the limbic system) which processes emotional information and generates emotional reactions, and…(the cortex), where rational thinking lives. When we feel threatened or when our feelings are running high, the limbic system can take over and send us into an attacking or defensively protecting mode. This is especially true for teenagers whose brains, as we know, are in the middle of a renovation project that upgrades the limbic system before bringing the higher-order, rational system fully online.
  • Communicating with your daughter and tuning in to her emotional intelligence lets “her know that she deserves to be in relationships with people who are interested in her perspective, can reflect on their own, and are willing to do the hard, humble work of using conflict to deepen and improve a connection.
  • Apologize to your daughter if/when you are provoked into saying something you didn’t mean.
  • Admit to and own your crazy spots. “Teens generally have more respect for adults who admit what they as adolescents can plainly see.” This allows them to let go of the dream that you’re the perfect parent and the energy they had devoted to “being angry with you, feeling hurt by you, or trying to change you.
  • Regarding teachers: “There will be no place on your high school transcript to explain that you didn’t like [teacher’s name]. You’d better figure out how to manage.
  • Regarding piercings, hair color, makeup, and the like that you don’t agree with, don’t stand between them and the natural consequences of their choices, but point them out. Someone might not hire you, treat you differently, or any number of things.
  • When to worry:When it comes to the issue of contending with adult authority, three scenarios are grounds for concern: when your teenager never rubs an adult the wrong way, when your teen rubs most adults the wrong way, and when key authority figures work against each other.
  • Too good to be true:It’s healthy for teenage girls to find a way to buck authority—even as they meet or exceed adult standards—and we should worry about girls who never oppose adults.
  • Research suggests that parents who hold negative stereotypes about the teenage years can actually create a self-fulfilling prophecy with their own children.
  • Put simply, teenagers live up to expectations, and they live down to them, too.

Planning for the Future

  • Impulses and the internet.Teenagers are and always have been impulsive. And really great teenagers do really dumb things. Unfortunately, digital technology makes it possible for teenagers to act on their impulses in ways that are immediate, public, and permanent.
  • Be honest with your daughter and let her know you’ll be checking her digital activity. “First, knowing that you’ll be checking not only gives your daughter an important speed bump, it provides her with a convenient excuse for bowing out of some digital naughtiness…. Second, if you come across troublesome content while secretly monitoring your daughter’s use, you’re stuck. You can’t confront your daughter without owning up to your sly behavior, and you may fear that if you admit to your snooping, you’ll miss out on future valuable information.
  • The best predictor of future behavior is always, always, past behavior. If you want to know what someone is going to do, look at what she has done. If your daughter has handled technology well and hardly needed monitoring, you’re probably safe to let her proceed into adolescence with minimal supervision and perhaps a simple warning that you’ll revisit your loosened policy if news of any digital naughtiness comes your way.
  • Tying privileges, such as their social life, to grades makes sense because it’s how life works beyond the home. “When people are irresponsible (doing shoddy work, not paying speeding tickets) they tend to lose privileges (professional autonomy, their right to drive).
  • Some levels of anxiety aren’t necessarily bad. It’s our body and mind signaling us to be prepared for something (like a test or sporting event).
  • Take tests, give speeches, practice singing in areas/places that are physically similar to where they’ll do the activity. It’s proven to help improve performance.
  • A test only measures her mastery of the material on the day of assessment. It does not reflect her value as a girl, daughter, or person. It doesn’t even measure her promise in the subject being tested.
  • Girls are more likely to explain failures in terms of internal, permanent factors: she’s broken and can’t be fixed…. Worst of all, girls’ explanations for failure take them out of the game. Once a girl decides that she’s weak in a subject, it doesn’t matter if she’s smart or talented; she’s likely to stop trying to build her skills and thus surrenders her chance at success.
  • Emphasize a growth mindset. Teaches girls to “embrace challenges because they know that hard work will expand their skills, welcome feedback from teachers and coaches because it provides information about where they need to aim their efforts, and feel inspired by talented peers.
  • When it comes to dealing with more talented peers, “focus on helping your daughter be her best, not the best.
  • When to worry:if a girl is so fixated on her future plans that she can’t enjoy herself at all, or if a girl is so indifferent to planning that she’s closing all sorts of doors.

Entering the Romantic World

  • Help your daughter “come to know what she’s hoping for, how to pursue it when ready, and how to make clear what she doesn’t want.
  • Psychologists Jennifer Connolly and Adele Goldberg of York University have pointed out the irony that young crushes change how girls interact with other girls long before they have much impact on how girls interact with boys.
  • Researchers “agree that girls can easily lose sight of their own romantic interests because our culture dictates crazy terms to them. Through magazines, songs, videos, and online content, the popular media tells girls that they should be sexy, but they shouldn’t be slutty; that being a prude is bad, but so is having sexual desires; and that having romantic or sexual connections to boys makes a girl cool, but it also exposes her to accusations that she is needy, striving, stupid, or all of the above. Girls become so perplexed by the funhouse mirror image of female sexuality that they can’t even begin to reflect on what they want for themselves.
  • Talk with your daughter about how our culture views women and how “the girls’ wishes are left out of media messages and encourage her to take a critical, if not robustly skeptical, view of what drives sexist media content.
  • Sexting requests from boys. It’s usually a subset of boys in the 7th and 8th grades. It’s a win win for the boys because they either get what they asked for or, if denied, they get proof of their machismo to pass around.
  • Teach girls to use their inner compass to decide what they do or don’t desire (romantically, sexually). “Once they’ve done that, they should feel empowered to express their wishes to their partners.
  • Parents have three important jobs in helping a girl to know her inner compass:to alert your daughter to the fact that she has an inner compass, to support her in asking for what she wants, and to make sure she knows how to express what she doesn’t want.
  • As one especially wise mother of three teenagers once told me, ‘The best conversations I’ve ever had with my kids always started when I said, ‘Wow, that’s a really complicated situation. I don’t know what to say. What do you think?’‘
  • Studies consistently find elevated alcohol and drug use among LGBTQ teens who may turn to substances to manage the hardship of being a sexual minority. Yet research also finds that parental acceptance reduces stress for LGBTQ teens and, accordingly, reduces drug use, depression, and suicidal thoughts and actions, while increasing self-esteem.
  • When to worry:girls whose capacity to attract romantic or sexual attention is the only tributary feeding their lake.” Where the lake represents the girls feelings of self-worth and the tributaries are the ways in which self-worth is created and reinforced.
  • When to worry:Studies find that, compared to girls who are dating age-mates, girls who date boys two or more years older have sex at younger ages, are more likely to contract a sexually transmitted infection, and are less likely to use condoms or other forms of contraception. Further, dating older guys increases the chances that a girl will use drugs and show signs of depression.” Older kids tend to do riskier things.

Caring for Herself

  • Girls stop listening when we lecture.
  • Don’t label foods as good or bad, which can make “bad” foods alluring. Even the words healthy and unhealthy can have the same effect. She recommends using the method used on “Sesame Street, who describe foods as being ‘anytime foods’ or ‘sometime foods.’
  • Food [and diet] is one of the many domains where you’ll want to frame your daughter’s choices in terms of the care she takes of herself, not in terms of the rules you are telling her to follow.
  • Digital technology should never find its way into anyone’s need, and everyone in the family should step away from his or her devices at least a half hour before trying to go to sleep.
  • To help with better sleep, have her do her homework anywhere but her bed.
  • Promote healthy sleep habits!
  • Alcohol use: “Because the adolescent brain reacts to alcohol and drugs differently than the adult brain does, teenage substance use can shape what the brain deems pleasurable and lay the groundwork for addiction.
  • Advise them about good judgment and alcohol.‘Consider a situation with the following variables: you go to a party, your friends ditch you, and there are some guys at the party who seem creepy. To that equation, let’s add one more variable: whether you are totally sober or whether you’ve had a few drinks.’ From there, girls can readily imagine any number of scenarios if they’ve been drinking. And they can strategize about how they would keep themselves are if they were sober.
  • Just holding a beer and nursing it all night long is a good tactic for avoiding over consumption.
  • When it comes to talking with your daughter about drugs, play the role of the dispassionate purveyor of reliable information and let the facts about illegal substances do all the work for you. Trust me, they are terrifying enough.
  • Studies show that, like alcohol, marijuana is toxic to the maturing adolescent brain.
  • A short list of risks associated with having sex for teens to consider:unwanted pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, a misunderstanding about what sex means to each partner, and the potential for the encounter to go past the point of consent.
  • Words for your daughter about sex: “The age at which you have sex and the nature of the relationship isn’t what matters most to us; our expectation is that you won’t have sex until you are responsible enough to work with your partner to make sure nothing goes wrong.