Home » The Difference Between Adults and Grown-Ups: Dr. Lisa Damour (Transcript)

The Difference Between Adults and Grown-Ups: Dr. Lisa Damour (Transcript)

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.

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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.

Now, the capacity to do this, the capacity to think in these ways doesn’t even become available until adolescence. So 70 years ago, Jean Piaget, the developmental psychologist, talked about the emergence of what he called “formal operations“, which is the ability to do abstract reasoning, to think about thinking.

What’s amazing is that modern neuroscience has actually supported all of what he described in this area. We used to think the brain stopped developing by age 10 or 11, but what we know now is that there’s incredible development in the brain all the way through adolescence.

And you see it especially appear in the area that’s in a red, which is the frontal lobe, which is where all of the very sophisticated thinking goes on.

So, this sophisticated thinking makes for amazing things that can happen. So here, I think about a 15-year-old girl I worked with who really struggled with her dad around money. She would complain to me that he would do things like require her to use her own money to buy school clothes, and he would say to her, “I don’t have the money for it.”

And then a couple of days later he would drive home with some really nice new car. So she was hurt by this, she was confused by this. It bothered her a lot. She didn’t understand, “Why can he be generous with himself, but not with me?”

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And then, about a week after Thanksgiving she comes into my office and she says – she tells this amazing story. I love the way teenagers talk. She says, “So, Oh my god! So, you know – My grandma came for Thanksgiving. My dad’s mom comes for Thanksgiving. And while she was at our house, I could overhear her talking to my dad. And it was clear from the conversation that she had promised to give him a check for his birthday, but that she was changing her mind and that she was going to keep the money. And I could hear my dad talking to her, and it was clear that he really wanted the money, but he didn’t want have to beg his mother for the money. And I’m thinking, Oh my god! That’s why dad’s so weird about money! Because grandma is so weird about money.”

All right? So, I love them. I love them.

And here’s what’s amazing. When a teenager makes this step, two incredible things happen. First, all this energy is freed up. All of the energy that this young woman had been expending on fighting with her dad, trying to change her dad, feeling hurt by her dad, trying to make sense of him she could let it all go in some much more profitable direction.

The other thing, and this is the part I love the most, actually. They become more tender towards their parents, and they become more tender in the exact same domain where they had previously been so annoyed with the parent.

So, this girl still did feel hurt by her dad at times about money, but she could also at the same time feel some sympathy for him because she knew that for him this was actually an area where he really struggled.

So, I want to put a little couple of caveats in here. One is, when it comes to coming to terms with parents’ crazy spots, I think for most of us this starts in adolescence, but continues for many many years after that.

I think the other, and this is very much, you know I think all people who know people would agree is that – if the parents’ limitations are extensive, if the parent has lots and lots and lots of crazy spots coming to terms with them is not so easy.

So, this is a bit of a plug for psychology and psychotherapy.

OK, so, you may be listening to this and thinking, “Hmm. This is pretty interesting, but how does it fit in for parents?”

So, here’s how I want you to think about it. If you’re a parent and you want to try to promote this growth in your child, you could own your crazy spots, right? I know this is a very tall order.

But if you’re the father I just described, you might say something like, “Hey, I got bad news and good news for you. The bad news is: I do not handle money well. This is not an area that is very comfortable for me. The good news is: this is my issue not yours. This is not something you need to be taking personally. You have to work with it, you have to work around it, but you don’t need to take it personally.”

Now if you’re thinking, “Oh! That’s so funny, you know? I really don’t have any crazy spots. I’m thinking about it, and I just don’t. OK, well I got bad news and good news for you, right?

So the bad news is: you do have crazy spots. Everybody has crazy spots.

The good news is: if you want to know what they are, just ask the people who love you, right? You can ask your children, you can ask your partner, you can ask your friends, they’ll let you know.

OK. So finally, another difference between people who are adults, merely adults, and people who are really grown-ups has to do with what I call goal orientation.

We all know people who don’t have goal orientation. They kind of drift from one thing to the next. They may even make a plan, but as soon as something comes up, or gets in the way, they give it up.

In contrast, people who are grown-ups make and pursue meaningful goals. They set aside short term gratifications, they can deal with obstacles in order to get some bigger payoff down the line.

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Now, we think about it, “OK, that sounds great. This is what we want for teenagers. How do we get them there?”

This is an area where teenagers benefit tremendously from advice and guidance from grown-ups around them. I think about a young man I worked with who was actually really getting himself into trouble. He was messing around with drugs, he had started skipping classes in high school. He was really at risk of not making it out of high school.

Somehow, in the midst of this, he got himself a job as a busboy at a small restaurant and the owner of the restaurant liked him, the owner of the restaurant made a connection with him.

And when a spot opened up in the kitchen he offered it to the guy. The young man started working in the kitchen and he just fell in love with cooking. And it was clear from what I was hearing of the story, that the owner of the restaurant was definitely cultivating the romance between this young man and cooking.

And the young man decided he wanted to go to culinary school. At which point, he started going to class because he knew he couldn’t go to culinary school without a high school diploma.

So in the end, he actually did become a chef. But even if he hadn’t, even if he had changed his mind, he would’ve changed his mind with a diploma in hand, which makes all the difference.

So, now you may be a parent listening to this, thinking, “Yeah, that sounds great. I would love to give advice and guidance to my teenager. She won’t do anything I say, right?” And this is true.

There’s something about being a teenager, something during puberty, that seems to happen where teenagers get this reflex installed in them that if their parents suggests it, it is completely off the table. You know, and we think about – we all have seen this happening like the teenage boy who was walking towards the coat closet on a cold day, but if his mom says, “You should probably bundle up!” He will turn around and leave the house on purpose without his coat on.

Now, evolutionary psychologists say this is a good thing. They say this is good because for children to reject the advice of their parents has probably contributed to all of this innovation in the culture over the years.

I know this is a cold comfort for parents, but at the same time if we think about it like, “OK, who discovered fire, right? I am so sure it was a cave teenager messing around.”

So where does this leave us?

Well, luckily teenagers don’t reject advice from everybody, mostly just from their parents. In fact, every teenager I know wants to be taken seriously, wants to be treated like somebody who’s going somewhere.

And I think we can all think of somebody who did this for us, right? Somebody who looked past our youth and maybe our goofiness and communicated in one way or another, “I see that you have a contribution to make, I see that you are headed somewhere.”

So what this means is that we absolutely must surround teenagers with devoted teachers, and coaches, and bosses, and family friends, and aunts and uncles.

We need more – fewer people who say, “Ugh. Teenagers.” And more people who understand that it is the work of the entire community to help young people grow up.

So I’ll leave you with this. Working with teenagers can actually be pretty stressful. And I think largely it’s because being a teenager can be very very stressful. I do know some teenagers who basically, function like grown-ups, but most teenagers are still making their way.

Because there is so much at stake in this point in development. We really have so much of a better handle if we do more understanding and less handwringing about teenagers.

I think that my hope is that in stepping back from the swirl of adolescent development and breaking down the exact kind of growth we do want to see in these years. My hope is that it has helped to orient all of us to how we fit in to this process of helping young people grow up and not just age into adulthood.

Thank you.

Resources for Further Reading:

The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong by Amy Morin (Full Transcript)

My Journey to Self Love: Dr Andrea Pennington (Transcript)

Hacking Yourself: Dave Asprey (Full Transcript)

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