from Dr. Jenn Milam, Middle School director

Editor’s Note: Periodically, you will find a guest Head’s Message here from members of the administrative team. We hope you will enjoy reading their thoughts and reflections about life at MPA.

“It is a deep comfort to children to discover that their feelings are a normal part of the human experience.” -Haim Ginott (1965)

“For teenagers, powerful emotions are a feature, not a bug. This has always been true, but these days it seems to be less widely understood.” -Lisa Damour (2023)

These two quotes, while written by two different people in two different centuries (wrap your head around that!), in what most would say are, societally, two entirely different worlds, point to the same thing—emotions are normal, for all of us, and are even more a hallmark of what it means to be a teenage human—regardless of decade, generation, identity status, or continent. Both Haim and Lisa are child psychologists, parent educators, and child advocates of the best kind—the kind that see childhood as a journey, a time of exploration—of really high highs and some rough lows. Bumps, bruises, broken hearts, and bad grades are partners (even co-conspirators) of the best kind to championship wins on the ball field or volleyball court, best friend adventures, all-night-giggly-sleepovers, a cute prom-posal, or a new pair of sneakers. It’s like a middle school dance where we stood on opposite sides of the gym, not sure what to do, but no one wants to miss anything, so we all stand around awkwardly hoping for something great—and wouldn’t you know, while we might not get asked to dance by our secret crush, our favorite song comes on, and we end up on the dance floor jumping around to “Shake It Off!” by T-Swift having the time of our life!

In Lisa Damour’s latest love letter (I mean, book) to parents of teens, “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents” (2023), she urges us as parents and caregivers to teens to approach the emotional lives of the young people we care for and about, from a place of curiosity, observation, and courage. Moreover, she is unwaveringly clear: distressing and disturbing emotions are not something to be eliminated, prevented, or banished. They are not something to fear, but rather to seek to understand and manage in healthy ways, to name and to process with the goal being growth, emotional regulation, and a well-balanced acceptance that to be human is to feel. All emotions are valid. Our feelings are important.

While we’re on the topic of great reads and young people, let me offer you an oldie-but-goodie, which was given to me by my own children’s pediatrician right after they were born just fifteen months apart. “How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk” (1980) by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish was transformative in the way I thought not just about parenting but also the way I came to understand teaching and working with young people—whether they were three or 13 or 23. Essentially, what Faber, Mazlish, and Damour (and yes, even Haim) all have in common is a call for grown-ups, parents specifically, to realness, to authenticity, to vulnerability, and to openness about the humanness of our children’s feelings. Perhaps the most salient connection between these two texts is the call to take what our children tell us, what they choose to share with us, as real, important, and true. We often rush to minimize or reframe because some feelings are uncomfortable—we often will say, or at least think to ourselves, “Why are they so upset about this? It’s not a big deal!” When instead, what we should be doing is sitting with them, helping them work through what it is they are feeling and why, and then guiding them in a way that honors their feelings and a healthy balancing of perspective so that they can grow and learn from one experience to the next. Sure, sometimes this is easier than other times, but our ability to sit with (to observe, not absorb, as I wrote about in my last message to you, “A Love Note To Parents,”) and affirm, validate, and hold space, creates healthy attachment, trust, and openness for the next hard feelings that come around. It goes without saying that none of us like to have our feelings dismissed—and teens are no different.

In the conclusion of her book, Lisa encourages us to see emotions less as a fire to be extinguished and more like a river swelling during adolescence, with great power to build connected, capable, and compassionate humans. Young people who connect with their own emotions are more connected to others—they learn that in the connection, there is confidence and safety. Adolescents who have emotional regulation modeled, taught, and consistently encouraged by parents, teachers, and community members develop skills that serve them well when they encounter life’s inevitable ups-and-downs. And teens who are familiar with their emotional landscape, can name their emotions, and navigate through them are more compassionate not just to others, but to themselves.

Young people are truly remarkable creatures. Mostly untouched by the worries of adulthood, still idealistic and unabashedly creative because rules are, of course, made to be broken and so full of energy and life that they’re hard to keep up with—they are superheroes. And every now and again, even Super Man and Wonder Woman, and Batman and Robin, even Thor or Ironman, didn’t feel invincible. In each of their stories, their emotions didn’t make them less—they made them better, stronger, more insightful, more resilient versions of themselves. As the parents of superheroes, we’re invited to the party of their life—let us attend with courage, patience, and an awareness that “being able to turn toward and withstand even the most challenging emotions makes it possible for our teenagers to put their natural idealism into practice, reaching out and extending themselves to those who suffer or are in need” (Damour, p. 184).

Resources from Dr. Lisa Damour:

  • “The Emotional Lives of Teenagers: Raising Connected, Capable, and Compassionate Adolescents” (2003).
  • “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls” (2017)
  • “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions to Adulthood” (2016)
  • Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting” podcast (Lisa Damour and Rina Ninan)
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