Parenting a teen is akin to taking a masters-level course in emotional, social and household management you never knew you signed up for until yikes, that little kid who used to be so happy-go-lucky and loving becomes moody and distant. And as if that’s not enough, we’re supposed to somehow keep them showing up at school and soccer practice with a smile on their face? How to negotiate your star student who suddenly acts like a malingering bad employee? Start by asking one simple question, says psychologist Lisa Damour.
The One Question to Ask Your Teen When They Refuse School, Chores or Anything Else
Damour is the expert behind the Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting podcast and the new book, The Emotional Life of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable and Compassionate Adolescents. She’s been practicing adolescent therapy for 30 years, during which time she’s witnessed a societal movement away from managing hardship and toward prioritizing a pain-free existence. “To put it bluntly, somewhere along the way we became afraid of being unhappy,” she writes. Spurred on by the popularity of psychiatric meds, the ascendancy of the wellness industry and occurring alongside a growing number of young people who suffer from mental health disorders, Damour says we’re now living in a world in which mental health is identified as feeling good instead of being capable. “Twenty years ago, I still felt myself to be part of a broader society that accepted, albeit begrudgingly, that painful feelings are a natural part of life,” she writes. “Today, I am trying to figure out how uncomfortable feelings came to be seen as psychological states that ought to be prevented or, failing that, banished as quickly as possible.”
With this in mind, what are we to do when our teen comes to us and says “I don’t feel like going to school, I can’t to do my homework, I don’t want to go to ballet”? First and foremost, Damour says we shouldn’t raise our voices or threaten consequences. Instead, she tells parents to ask our kids, “Is it unmanageable or is it uncomfortable?”
Damour says that this phrasing is useful because it lets the teen understand that their parent is listening to them and acknowledging that the situation may indeed be unmanagable. The school may feel unsafe, the homework might be too complicated and the dance class may be an old interest they’ve since outgrown. “We lead off with the idea that perhaps more is being asked of the child than perhaps is fair,” she explained to her followers in an Instagram post. “If that’s the case, we’re going to make adjustments, we’re going to bring in reinforcements and we’re going to make sure that we are being fair to kids.”
And here’s what else is great about this question—it sends the message that the other option—uncomfortable—is still a workable situation, and we believe they can handle it. It gives parents an opportunity to show the kids that they can withstand some discomfort, and that a little bit of discomfort is in fact a great way to expand their life skills. “In other words, we’re saying you don’t have to be entirely comfortable to move forward, which is a message that can be really, really helpful for kids to hear.”