It was a timely return for a trusted friend to Branksome, Clinical Psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour. She made an expertly informed and extremely reassuring case for the idea that youth can best manage strong but perfectly normal feelings such as pandemic-induced anxiety with a combination of expression and containment strategies.
“We’re pushing back against this idea that I’m only mentally healthy if I feel calm and relaxed, which has tremendous traction in our culture,” said Damour, Executive Director of the Laurel School's Center for Research on Girls and New York Times bestselling author, speaking to parents and the Branksome community at a virtual evening webinar, October 13.
Indeed, she even likened the rise of the idea of the commercial wellness industry, and its promise of bliss, as a conspiracy theory. “First you convince everyone they’re supposed to feel good, then wait for their [stressful] day to start and show up with a product, an app or an oil.”
Returning to Branksome after her last visit in 2019
, she again shared insights, strategies and learning grounded in evidence-based research and clinical expertise, and responded to parent questions facilitated by Lead Social Worker Carolyn Mak.
Pushing aside what she called the “prevention and banishment” model of uncomfortable feelings, the first part of her talk defined mental health in two parts—having the right feeling at the right time, and realizing that one’s emotions make sense in light of what one is going through. In other words, it’s healthy to feel frustrated about the pandemic, as she noted.
“Emotions that mirror the world serve as a navigating system,” Damour said. “If your daughter is angry or frustrated by a friend, [that teaches her to] advocate for herself with kind and appropriate feedback, or [by] having lunch with someone else—using the feeling in service of good choices.”
The second part of her talk offered useful tools to support the two options she proposed for an emotional regulation framework; expression and containment. Verbalizing and naming one’s emotions as a form of emotional discharge or relief, or expression, is a “strong suit” for girls, gendered only because of society normalizing and supporting the bias towards girls talking about their feelings, as Damour explained in response to a parent’s question.
The other option, more traditionally used by boys who’ve been told to “pull yourself together,” is containment. A tool for this would be distraction, i.e video games.
While the “goal is to push girls to distract and boys to use verbal expression,” as a way of meeting somewhere in the middle of the two approaches, containment is actually a hugely helpful and necessary strategy for self-regulation, says Damour, if not to be used exclusively. The aim is to find a way to label and then press pause on an uncomfortable feeling and distract oneself with a fun activity to keep one’s feet on the ground, toggling between the two compatible strategies of expression and containment.
Damour suggested that when a youth is sharing a difficult experience and feelings with a parent, or “dumping their emotional trash,” as she humorously put it, the best tool is to use one of the most valuable questions in child psychology: “‘Do you want my help or do you need to vent?’ They almost always say they need to vent. Because expression provides relief.”
Finally, Damour shared the true warning signs, that uncomfortable feelings are rarely truly harmful, but if a youth is ruminating to the point where feelings are getting in the way of everything, or if there’s a turn towards addictive behaviour, it’s time to seek professional help.
“What makes Dr. Damour such a trusted friend to our school, and to many,” said Mak in her remarks, “is her ability to translate best practice and science into pieces of advice and counsel that are usable, practical and ultimately, better the lives of young people.”
And as Aimee Carmody said, speaking on behalf of the Parents’ Association, who co-hosted the event, “We only wish we had time for more.”