Laughter rippled through the sanctuary as Lisa Damour, a Cleveland psychologist, described the feelings of discomfort when first bringing a baby home. When a person adapts to uncomfortable situations, she said their capacity and durability expands.
“Like the first baby, you’re like, ‘We’re never going to make it,’ and then the second baby, you’re like, ‘OK, we basically have this.’ Right? And then you don’t,” Ms. Damour laughed.
Around 60 people, mostly women, gathered at Federated Church in Chagrin Falls to hear the best-selling author speak on anxiety and to buy her book, “Under Pressure.” During the Chautauqua-in-Chagrin event “Empowering Girls to be Successful,” Ms. Damour, executive director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls and a CBS contributor, addressed the audience of parents.
Ms. Damour used the baby analogy to show how feelings, which are like data, indicate disagreeable circumstances. Changes happen so often, she said, that physiologists accept stress as an inescapable part of life.
“The other reason we’re OK with stress is it actually makes you stronger and tougher,” she said. A beautiful thing about being middle-aged, she said, is that “stuff doesn’t get to me like it used to.”
When teenage girls walk into Ms. Damour’s 20-year-old Cleveland practice, she said she loves to learn new slang, or the “poetry of the people.” She said studies show that “female speech,” where girls are supposedly more prone to use “ums,” “likes” and up-talk (finishing a sentence like a question), doesn’t actually exist – boys use those hedging terms three times more at Saint Ignatius than the girls at Laurel School. At the same time, Ms. Damour said girls are the ones who carry new terms into language.
Attendee Lauren Hertzer, an upcoming college freshman, said she notices that her girl friends do use hedging terms more often, and wondered why Ms. Damour said girls don’t speak that way more than boys. Ms. Damour advises against trying to tell girls to talk more boldly and clearly, like boys, which often comes across as brassy. Rather, she thinks girls should have a handy toolbox of assorted speech styles to use in various situations.
Ms. Hertzer inquired about sleep during the question portion of the event, and Ms. Damour replied that she could have talked for the full 45 minutes on the crucial matter of sleep. “It is the most obvious, straightforward, without-a-question explanation for why kids are struggling – it is almost always that they’re sleep-deprived as a first start,” she said.
At least nine hours for high schoolers, 10 for middle schoolers and 11 for elementary students is vital, without technology in the bedroom, she said. “Anything short of that, and you have a really fragile person on your hands,” Ms. Damour said.
Rather than focusing on sleep, Ms. Damour spoke of other aspects of anxiety, like conflict. In the past, she told girls to speak up for themselves and take on conflict. Now, she’s more conservative, cautioning them to take a wiser, “empowered” approach.
Sometimes, she said, it’s best to let it go and move on. She tells them to “emotional aikido” it. The martial art aikido first teaches you to step out of the way of a charging enemy.
Conflict is depleting, and if a girl decides to ignore something a friend did, she might be really glad that she didn’t say anything when after another week rolls by, things feel friendly again, Ms. Damour said. She showed how adults must say, “I’m going to ignore that, and I’m going to ignore that,” putting up with all sorts of annoyances. Will confronting someone just make it more unbearable?
If one does choose to engage in conflict, there are four different ways people act when coping with conflict, Ms. Damour said. There’s the doormat, who thinks, “I’m a loser; woe is me.” There’s the bulldozer, who tramples people. Then there’s the doormat with spikes, who might passive-aggressively use an Instagram post for revenge. And then there’s the pillar, who “stands up for themselves while respecting other people.” The pillar is the best option, according to Ms. Damour.
Sometimes, girls might just want to express their hurt. Other times, they might be bothered by something, but not want to rehash the entire affair to their mom or dad. Treat a quiet, sad, anxious girl, Ms. Damour suggested, like she has the flu. Watch TV with her, eat ice cream together, make tea and spend time with her, she said.
That’s just what attendee Isaac Weiss’s mother, Audrey, did for him just before the event. They ate a snack together, she said. Though the Shaker Heights resident generally processes issues internally, this time he told her that emotions boil inside him, confusing him on what to do after his last year of high school. “I understand how my emotions will impact other people’s emotions,” he said. “Like, I know that if I’m sad, then by default, other people will become sad just because of my presence.”
Another aspect Ms. Damour addressed was diligence versus overwork. It’s great to instill a growth mindset, where girls are curious, innovative and know that they can improve with practice, she said, but parents can prevent overwork and anxiety if they teach their girls to tone down the work some and instead learn to be efficient.
Rewriting notes for a test again and again might be a way a girl tries to soothe the nervous feelings. Instead, she said, it’s important to know when to rely on your brains versus your brawn.
For example, Ms. Damour’s daughter calculated the grades she needed on her finals in her classes in order to maintain all her A’s, and she only needed to earn 64 percent on some of them. Her mom wanted her to rest and not overwork herself, she said.
“I was like, ‘Do not get straight A’s,’” Ms. Damour said. “‘Like, get sleep. Like, be tactical. Be strategic.’” Near the end of the school year, her daughter wanted to purchase and watch a TV show that cost $10 per season. Her mother happily obliged, she said.
“I was like, ‘They’re on me,’” Ms. Damour said. “‘One season is for the straight A’s. The second season is for the B’s on the finals. I am equally delighted with both.’”