Head of School Blog: Unexpected Snow

This blog is reprinted from the archives but could easily have been written this week.

An unintended consequence of the modern era, with all its welcome conveniences, is that there seem to be very few surprises out there. We access an array of navigation apps so we never get lost. News we might prefer to share ourselves leaks out via any number of social media platforms.  Finally, the internet has deputized us all as amateur meteorologists, able to predict, almost to the minute, whatever weather happens to be coming our way.

So to awaken this Monday morning to a light unexpected snowfall was a pleasant surprise to be sure, one that invited me to savor the quiet and the light of the moment. Before too long, however, my attention returned to the week ahead—appointments to keep, deadlines to honor, meetings to plan, decisions to be made, and I wondered about our students. Despite the noble efforts of our dedicated science teachers in calendaring out preparation for this week’s Science and Engineering Fair, were there still students out there who, like me, were feeling that nagging tug of the week ahead? Kids wondering how they were ever going to get it all done. 

This little winter storm got me to thinking about one of the few storms we cannot predict, the adolescent mood swing! In an essay in the New York Times entitled, “How to Help Teens Weather Their Emotional Storms,” psychologist Lisa Damour likens the adolescent brain to a snow globe: when it’s activated, sometimes by joy but more often by stress, the snow whirls about in a maelstrom of catastrophic thinking. Your teen is emotionally upset, certain that this storm is no passing storm, and insistent that something has to be done. Now! 

The trick, however, is not to shake the globe harder but to be still and let the snow settle. According to Damour, “Somehow a misunderstanding has grown up about stress and anxiety where our culture now sees both as pathological...The upshot of that is that we have adults and young people who are stressed about being stressed and anxious about being anxious.” She goes on to write, “Every time I stop myself from trying to figure out what made a teenager upset, and focus instead on her right to just be upset, I find that doing so either solves the problem or helps clear the path to dealing with it.”

In a subsequent review of Damour’s book, How to Help Teenage Girls Reframe Anxiety and Strengthen Resilience, Deborah Farmer Kris summarizes Damour’s position: “Anxiety is a normal and healthy function...and much of the anxiety that teenagers express is a sign that they are aware of their surroundings, mindful of their growing responsibilities, and frightened of things that are, in fact, scary. Adults can make a difference simply by “reassuring them that, a great deal of time, stress is just operating as a friend and ally to them.”

Damour cautions that an emotional outburst—in and of itself—is not a reliable indicator of mental health. “If you are raising a normally-developing teenage daughter, she will have meltdowns. And there’s nothing you can do to prevent that.”

I do hope you enjoyed the long weekend, and the unexpected snowfall; but when you sense your teen is stressed, consider Damour’s advice: take a walk with her, make a cup of tea for him, let her sleep a little later, sit quietly with him… be responsive but not reactive.

The students (and teachers) have worked hard readying themselves for this week’s Science and Engineering Fair. I expect that the final products on display, however impressive, will only hint at the learning (perhaps expedited by a little stress!) that happened along the way. I hope to see many of you on Thursday–unless it snows!
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