Full text of clinical psychologist Dr. Lisa Damour’s talk: The difference between adults and grown ups at TEDxCLE conference.
Dr. Lisa Damour – Clinical psychologist
Hi. So everything that I know about what it means to be a grown-up, I’ve learned from teenagers. I’m a psychologist who works with teenagers and doing this work has taught me so much about growing up.
And when I say growing up, I don’t just mean aging into adulthood, lots of people do that. I mean maturing into a real grown-up.
Now, all of us are connected to teenagers whether it’s our teenager or somebody else’s. So I’m going to share what I’ve learned about the differences between people who are merely adults and people who are really grown-ups. And I’m going to do this to clarify how all of us fit in to the process of helping young people grow up.
Now I will tell some stories from my work with teenagers, and I won’t share the details of any one person’s life. But I’ll share really amalgams of many, many moments I’ve spent with teenagers over the years.
All right, so let’s get down to business.
So the first difference that I’ve observed between people who are adults, so not really grown up, and people who have really grown up has to do with risk assessment.
So, what I mean is, how do we decide what chances to take? The way I see it, is that people who are merely adults, who haven’t really grown up, assess risk in terms of the chances of getting caught engaging in risky behavior.
In contrast, people who are really grown up assess risk in terms of the chances… in term of the actual consequences of the behaviors that they’re considering.
So using this as an example we see signs like this all the time. So people who are not grown-up see a sign like this and think, “Yeah. But what are the chances there’s a cop around the corner.”
People who are grown-ups see signs like this and think, “Well, of course you have to slow down to take a curve. you can’t safely take a curve going full speed.”
Now the issue of risk assessment is especially critical when we talk about teenagers. If we look at data like this about risk taking over the life span, you see this big peak in adolescence. The fact of the matter is – teenagers take more chances than they should. And as a result, they do have higher accident rates than almost any other age group.
So, here’s a story from my work that really clarified for me this whole issue about risk assessment.
So, it’s a Thursday afternoon and a 17-year-old girl comes into my office and she’s in a great mood and she says, “Oh gosh! I can’t wait to tell you about my plans for the weekend.”
So the plans for the weekend are that she’s going to have a sleepover on a friend’s boat. And she’s going to have this sleepover with a boy who she does not know well.
And the kicker, right? She’s going to do all of this without her mother knowing where she is.
So she’s telling me the story, but she says, “It’s okay. I’ve thought it all through. I’ve thought it all through.” And she goes on to describe what she’s thought through and all that she has thought through is how she’s not going to get caught by her mother, right?
So she’s telling me this and of course it involves she’s telling her mom she’ll be at a sleepover at a friend’s house, and that friend knows to call my client, should the mother call that house.
And I’m listening to this, right, I’m supposed to be coming up with something useful to say. But I’m listening and all I am thinking is, “I’m going to call your mom, right?”
“You walk out that door, I’m on the phone with your mother, right?”
But, okay. So here’s the problem. So tattling on teenagers to their parents is not my job, right? Actually, protecting their confidentiality and helping them turn into grown-ups is my job.
So, I pull myself together and I say the word, “OK, look. You and I both know that you getting caught by your mom is the least dangerous thing that could possibly happen to you this weekend.” And I don’t know that she knew it, but I always give benefit of the doubt and it worked. It got our conversation going in the right direction.
And we started talking about the actual risks that she would be facing with this incredibly dangerous plan. And luckily, she just decided to cancel the plans.
So, now if you’re a parent and you’re thinking, “OK, well, how do I get my teenager to do this? How do I get my young person to start to think in more mature ways?”
I think you’ve got some say. So if your teenager says things to you like, “Hey, what would you do if you caught me texting while driving?”
I think we should resist our first impulse to say things like, “I would ground you until you were 45! I would take away your phone.”
And I think instead, we could say things like, “I would be so glad I caught you, before you hurt or killed yourself or somebody else.”
So in another words, when we frame the consequences in terms of getting caught I think we actually give teenagers the wrong message. When we frame the consequences in terms of the actual dangers they would be facing, I think we start to help them to move towards being grown-ups.
OK, here’s my second one. Crazy Spots. This is what I call crazy spots at any rate. So I kind of have bad news for everybody on this one. We all have crazy spots. And what I mean, when I say crazy spots, is that we all have aspects of our personality that are totally irrational. And that the people around us – the people around us should not take it personally. OK?
So now what does this have to do with adults and grown-ups?
Well, people who are really grown-ups have actually learned and accepted that their parents have crazy spots, OK? So in other words, they’ve learned and accepted that their parents have aspects of their personality that are not well suited to parenting, and that do not need to be taken personally.
And this is tough, because I think even though we all can kind of know that parents are just people who had kids, right? And even though we can all kind of know – we all kind of know that all parents come with limitations. We know this and yet we kind of wish, well that’s just going to be true for everybody else’s parents, right? Not for my parents.
And when we come up against our parents’ limitations, I think we take it personally. So a huge step in growing up is to stop taking personally everything your parents do.
So when teenagers come into my work, and we’re doing our work together and they complain to me about their parents which, not surprisingly, is some of what we spend time talking about. I never question their complaints, I never ask them about the details of it.
Instead, I say things like, “OK, now I hear that this bugs you about your mom, but what do you think this is all about for her? I try to get them to see it from a new perspective. I try to get them to move from the kind of egocentric childlike view of the world that they start with to a view where they can see their parent as having a free-standing personality. A personality that was in place long before that child was born and a personality that’s going to be in place long after that child has moved out.