In Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood, psychologist Lisa Damour charts a course for parents through the turbulent seas of girls’ adolescence. Anyone who has, knows, or has been a teenage girl will recognize the girls Damour describes.
Damour presents the seven transitions teenage girls go through with a chapter dedicated to each: Parting with Childhood, Joining a New Tribe; Harnessing Emotions; Contending with Adult Authority; Planning for the Future; Entering the Romantic World; and Caring for Herself. Using research and anecdotes from her experience counseling girls and their parents, Damour provides concrete suggestions, including specific language, to help parents (or any adult) address the challenges of these transitions.
In discussing the painful push-pull girls put their parents through — one minute rolling their eyes and showing them the hand, the next reverting to the loving little girl parents yearn for — Damour uses a metaphor she admits is tortured and yet, she says, has been cited as helpful by many parents. She says, “Consider the metaphor in which your teenage daughter is a swimmer, you are the pool in which she swims, and the water is the broader world. Like any good swimmer, your daughter wants to be out playing, diving, or splashing around in the water. And, like any swimmer, she holds on to the edge of the pool to catch her breath after a rough lap or getting dunked too many times.”
Damour helps parents understand the best ways to provide guidance to teen girls, and the ways that will only get them the eye roll or the “veil of obedience,” when girls nod compliantly while internally checking out. She also points out that “Girls can listen and roll their eyes at the same time” and so parents will sometimes have to just talk through the eye roll (succinctly and nonjudgmentally).
Damour cautions parents to stay out of conflicts where their daughters hold all the power, such as schoolwork and food; adults can offer guidance here but cannot force a teen’s hand. She urges parents to consider whether they closely monitor their daughter’s online interactions because they think there is real risk she will do something dangerous or just because they can. She writes that the digital trail today’s teens leave means “we have a useful record of interactions that go poorly, but it also can mean we have too much access to what should be private communications among teenagers.”
She discusses not only ways to work through conflict with teenage daughters, but also the benefits of well-managed conflict to girls’ developing emotional intelligence. She addresses body image; bullying (from the perspectives of the daughter as the bullied and the bully); sexting and other forms of sexual expression; and risk-taking, from drinking to sex. Each chapter concludes with a section titled “When to worry,” and gives signs that girls might be showing more than the usual level of adolescent distress.
Untangled is highly readable and striking in its level of compassion and respect for both parents and girls. It should be helpful to parents struggling to guide their daughters through a difficult developmental stage even as they come to terms with letting go and allowing their almost-woman to find her own way to adulthood.
Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood
New Haringer Publications, February 2016
Hardcover, 352 pages