A message from Dr. Lisa Damour, author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood (Ballantine Books, February 2016).
I’m often stunned by what people say to me when they learn that I’m a psychologist who specializes in working with teenage girls:
“You work with teen girls? There should be a medal for that!” or they shake their heads and say, “Teenage girls … I’m so glad I only have sons.”
When talking about adolescent girls, adults are quick to fall back on stereotypes. Too often, we describe girls as being mean or marginalized, wild or mild, stressed or buoyant. But anyone who spends time with teenagers, anyone who really knows and cares about them, can tell you that most teenage girls could fit all of these descriptions, and more, on any single day. It’s time to address how dynamic and intricate girls really are.
It’s time to shed light on their inner lives and do so in a way that honors girls and the intelligence of the adults who care about them. As the mother of two girls and a psychologist who consults to schools and treats girls in my private practice, I wrote Untangled to replace our two-dimensional stereotypes with a sophisticated framework for understanding adolescent development.
Untangled takes the teenage years and organizes them into seven developmental transitions that all girls must navigate as they move from being girls to grown-ups:
• Parting with Childhood
• Joining a New Tribe
• Harnessing Emotions
• Contending with Adult Authority
• Planning for the Future
• Entering the Romantic World
• Caring for Herself
Though teenage boys go through the same transitions, Untangled dives deeply into the research on how these transitions play out specifically for girls. For example:
• When teenage girls are parting with childhood they seek and deserve privacy, but parents are more likely to grant it to their sons than their daughters.
• When girls join a new tribe the issue of popularity often becomes paramount, but many popular girls are disliked and many well-liked girls aren’t considered to be popular.
• Research tells us that when it comes to harnessing emotions, boys tend to distract themselves from difficult feelings while girls tend to discuss their feelings with others.
• During the teenage years girls contend with adult authority and research tells us that they live up, and down, to adult expectations.
• As teenage girls plan for the future, studies find that boys are more likely to blame outside factors when they run into difficulty at school while girls often blame themselves.
• Body perception plays a big role as girls enter the romantic world. When girls are made to feel self conscious about their bodies they actually lose focus and get lower test scores.
• As a teenage girl takes over the work of caring for herself, she will almost certainly encounter alcohol and drugs. New research sheds light on how substances harm the developing adolescent brain.
Thinking in terms of seven distinct developmental transitions gives adults a way to consider the domains in which a girl might be thriving, struggling, or stuck, and to focus their energy where it’s needed most. Further, each chapter of Untangled ends with a “When to Worry” section that helps adults recognize truly concerning behavior and shares the latest research on how to help girls who are suffering.
Adolescence doesn’t have to seem like a tangled mess. In fact, there’s a predictable pattern to the teenage years, a blueprint for how girls grow. I wrote Untangled to illuminate the teenage years and give us a new way to talk about girls. I hope you’ll join me in changing the conversation.
LISA DAMOUR, PH.D., graduated with honors from Yale University, worked for the Yale Child Study Center, then received her doctorate in clinical psychology at the University of Michigan. She is the author of numerous academic papers and chapters related to education and child development. Dr. Damour directs Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls, maintains a private psychotherapy practice, consults and speaks internationally, and is a faculty associate of the Schubert Center for Child Studies and a clinical instructor at Case Western Reserve University. She and her husband have two daughters and live in Shaker Heights, Ohio.