Renowned author Lisa Damour, Ph.D., writes the monthly Adolescence column for the New York Times, serves as a regular contributor to CBS News, maintains a private psychotherapy practice and serves as the executive director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls.
The following is an excerpt from Damour’s 2019 book, “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.” Damour explains the surprising and underappreciated value of stress and anxiety: that stress can helpfully stretch us beyond our comfort zones, and anxiety can play a key role in keeping girls safe. Her previous book, a New York Times bestseller, is “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood” (2016).
Who: Lisa Damour, psychologist and best-selling author
What: NBOA Breakfast
When: Wednesday, February 26, 8:45–10:00 a.m.
Learn more and register for the 2020 Annual Meeting.
Let’s start with a look at a fundamental cause of school-related distress for girls: their misunderstanding about the very nature of stress. Stress, as we know, is often constructive, but adults in our culture sometimes wrongly believe that it’s invariably harmful and hand this view down to their daughters. In truth, being pushed beyond one’s comfort zone is often a good thing, and the stress that students encounter at school for the most part happens to be the healthy kind. All growth comes with some discomfort, and we send our children to school precisely so that they will be stretched and improved.
There’s really no better metaphor for the healthy stress of school than the strength-training model of progressive overload. The most effective way to build strength is by gradually lifting heavier and heavier weights. The term progressive overload describes the familiar training program of adding repetitions or lifting bigger dumbbells over time to trigger muscle growth.
School, ideally, is one long program of academic progressive overload. From the day a child first steps foot in a school building until the day she graduates, her teachers should steadily increase the difficulty of her work. As soon as she masters new material, they should give her something more challenging. This is all obvious, of course. But many adults and students have collectively lost sight of the reality that getting smarter — like getting stronger — is often an uncomfortable process.
Girls who believe that stress can never be good find school to be doubly trying. They feel stressed by their academic demands (as, mostly, they should), but they also feel worried about the fact that they are stressed. That second dose of psychological strain is unnecessary and unhelpful.
As our girls age, we can talk in more direct terms about the progressive overload model of education. I often point out to secondary school girls that their demanding programs are designed to help them build the metal brawn and endurance they’ll need to take on life after school.
We need to do everything we can to shape how our daughters perceive academic challenges, because girls, more than boys, worry about school. Research consistently finds that girls spend more time fretting about how they are doing academically, even though they are getting better grades than boys. To explain this paradox, experts have noted that our daughters, more than our sons, take to heart the feedback they get from teachers. Girls tend to view their grades as a telling measure of what they can and cannot achieve. Boys, in contrast, often approach school with more confidence. Even when things go poorly, they don’t always take negative feedback personally, or they chalk it up to something they believe they can easily fix. For example, boys can be more likely than girls to tell themselves that they “weren’t really trying” when they took that test they bombed.
We can help our daughters take their school performance less personally — and simultaneously help those who actually need to be taking their work more seriously — by reminding them that their grades on assignments and tests only reflect their grasp of the material on the day their mastery was measured. If they want to build their mastery, they can do so by putting in more effort. Years of research confirm that students who understand that they can build their skills by working harder or more effectively worry less about how they are doing in school than students who believe their grades provide a scorecard of abilities they cannot change.
There’s one more reason why girls, more than boys, feel stressed about school: they care more about pleasing grown-ups. In other words, our daughters often worry that we will be disappointed in them if they don’t excel academically. As the mother of two girls, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what we, as adults, should make of this well-established research finding. To be honest, my reflections on this topic have forced me to admit the fact that I sometimes make my “disappointed face” (as my daughters call it) to push my girls along in school.
A similar dynamic can unfold at school where even the most caring teachers may unwittingly signal disappointment in their students. Imagine an interaction between a busy teacher and a diligent girl who asks for an extension on a paper because she has spent the last three afternoons at the hospital visiting her very sick grandmother. Even while granting the extension, the teacher only has to hesitate before saying, “Well, yes … okay … how much more time do you need?” for the girl to wish she hadn’t made the request in the first place.
Though these interactions are small, their impact is not. They risk creating the all-too-common dynamic in which a girl is motivated to perform well in school because she is fearful of disappointing adults. I’m all for helping girls find ways to feel inspired academically. But this isn’t one of them.
It’s important to frame the demands of education in positive, capacity-building terms, because doing so actually changes how our daughters experience school. Girls go from feeling hammered to feeling fortified (if often exhausted) by it. Happily, there’s more than one way to make this point. Sometimes, we can celebrate the awesome gains girls are making thanks to their intellectual workouts. And at other times, we can talk with our daughters about how their downtime, just as in weightlifting, is a critical component of their ongoing growth.
When visiting schools around the country, I often ask groups of secondary school students how they recover from having a very bad day. I always receive a wide range of answers. Some students take naps; others have a good cry in the shower. Some play with the family dog; others clean up their rooms, watch a favorite episode of a show for the umpteenth time, go for a run, or listen to their happy, angry or sad music playlists.
I have found that students love to reflect on their preferred strategies for putting themselves back together, and once we’ve come up with lots of examples, I always end our meetings by making two points. First, recovery strategies are highly personal. What works for one person won’t necessarily work for another, and everyone needs to figure out what works best for them. Second, having a good recovery strategy is vital because, as with muscle building, intellectual growth depends on both doing hard work and replenishing one’s reserves.
In short, how girls view the mental strain that comes with learning makes a big difference. Students with the stress-is-harmful mindset approach school as a demoralizing merry-go-round where the routine burdens of school interfere with the goal of feeling relaxed. The stress-is-helpful view can turn school into a beneficial, progressive program that builds capabilities by alternating periods of demand with interludes of recovery. In the plainest terms, Monday morning feels far better for the girl with the stress-is-helpful viewpoint than it does for her stress-is-harmful counterpart.
Download a PDF of this excerpt.
Under Pressure: Student Mental Health
Wellness That Works: A Successful (and Affordable) Wellness Program
Risk & Compliance: Creative Accommodations
After School: Stretching Her Limits
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