Renowned psychologist and author Dr. Lisa Damour visited Wellington to share her expert insight on helping children navigate stress and anxiety in their lives.
As the executive director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls, Damour is also a New York Times columnist, a regular contributor to CBS News, and has written two New York Times best-sellers, “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood” and “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.” She came to Wellington in November as a guest speaker in the Well Life Series to discuss with students, faculty, and families the benefits of stress and the importance of curating coping strategies to maneuver through difficult times.
“Stress makes you stronger,” Damour told upper school students before likening school to a weight room in which athletes only build muscle by enduring a certain amount of discomfort when lifting. She pointed out that with each new grade level comes greater stress but students also have greater capacity to work through it because of their increasing strength.
Equally important is developing a recipe for recovery. Damour advised students to know strategies that worked best for them and walked them through a breathing exercise that regulates, deepens, and slows it down so the brain receives the message that everything is okay.
With middle schoolers, she focused on how to handle conflict. Similar to destigmatizing stress and anxiety, Damour said there was nothing wrong with conflict. It’s only natural that whenever groups of people share space together for long periods of time. She described three types of behavior that were not helpful in conflict resolution:
Bulldozer - aggressively charging through
Doormat - allowing others to run over you
Doormat with spikes - engaging in passive-aggressive behavior, e.g., gossiping behind someone’s back
Damour explained the ideal behavior type was a pillar, or someone who stands up for themselves while also being respectful of the other person. Acknowledging that’s not always easy to do, she told students that it was sometimes okay to daydream about the bad techniques, just don’t act on them.
At the evening event for parents, Damour gave parents practical tips and clear steps for helping children when they feel overwhelmed. She also differentiated between healthy, acceptable stress and unhealthy stress. Chronic (when a child has no chance to recover) and traumatic (psychologically catastrophic) stress are harmful because they both “exceed the level that a person can reasonably absorb or to build psychological strength,” according to Damour.
She explained school today is stressful, much more than when parents were students, and it’s vital for adults to recognize that and protect children’s time to recover, including making sure they have enough sleep. Damour cautioned parents against allowing their children to avoid things they fear, like tests for example, because it will only feed their anxiety and make them more frightened of the situation the next time it occurs.
Addressing the battle against technology most parents find themselves fighting on a daily basis, Damour suggested “It’s easier to be ‘for’ things than ‘against’ them. Don’t be ‘against’ technology. You’re not going to win that. Be ‘for’ sleep and social skills and exercise. Make your kid so busy with those, that you actually crowd out the time for technology.”
Bringing in experts like Damour to work with students, faculty, and families is intrinsic to Wellington’s mission to create an engaging learning community for all ages. As Head of School Dr. Jeff Terwin said in his welcome, “We put students at the center of that learning. We give them ownership and autonomy. So with that comes additional challenge. Making sure they’ve got the ability to navigate that is critical.”
Check out more photos from Dr. Damour's visit on Vidigami.