Why Your Middle Schoolers Need Ten Hours of Sleep: A Conversation with Lisa Damour

Why Your Middle Schoolers Need Ten Hours of Sleep: A Conversation with Lisa Damour

By Elaine Griffin

It’s hard to read an article about middle schoolers without also seeing a reference to their rising levels of stress and anxiety. Some writers blame the prevalence of smartphones. Others cite the “compare and despair” culture of social media. Still others credit the uncertainly inherent in the current pandemic.

I recently interviewed Dr. Lisa Damour, an expert on adolescence, to shed light on what’s causing such a dramatic rise in anxiety among the young, as well as how we might better support this vulnerable population as it wrestles with seemingly unmanageable anxiety. A clinical psychologist, Damour has written two critically acclaimed books on raising girls: “Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood” and “Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.”

I spoke with Damour by phone to explore her work’s renewed resonance given the global pandemic; she was as sharp and clear as she had been when she came to University School of Milwaukee in April. What had been true during Damour’s live presentations to students and parents here was confirmed during my conversation with her several weeks later: Her excellent use of metaphors and examples allows even the most difficult ideas and intractable problems to seem manageable.

At the end of our interview, Damour said something that really resonated with me: “Kids have traveled through a dark tunnel during this pandemic. We shouldn’t make assumptions about what they know. We shouldn’t be mad at them for not acting their age.”

Indeed! We should instead commend them for surviving a rocky road. And, as noted below, we should ensure they get plenty of sleep so that they can continue their journey successfully into the future. I encourage you to continue your own travels with Damour by ordering her excellent books from a local bookstore so that you can support your middle schooler’s ongoing growth through adolescence. 

My conversation with Damour has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

In your book “Under Pressure,” you talk about anxiety as “a gift, handed down by evolution, to keep humans safe,” because it “serves as a finely tuned feedback system that helps us to course correct.” But the anxiety that the pandemic fuels isn’t just an intermittent and welcome course correction. It’s constant. How can we help kids filter out that noise?

There’s much we can do to help young people assess their anxiety. Ask them if they are overestimating the risk or underestimating their ability to manage it. On the website Cosmic Kids, there’s a beautiful metaphor. Your mind is a pond and the fish within it are your various feelings. Your job is to be the pond and understand that you contain many different feelings, all the time. You can acknowledge that you are anxious about something and do other things; your anxious feeling doesn’t have to obliterate everything else. We can teach kids to have perspective.

With the loss of some socialization during the pandemic, students haven’t had as many organic opportunities to practice emotional regulation. What advice can you give parents for helping their middle schoolers better manage emotions right now?

The pandemic has worn everybody down; our reserves are depleted, and emotional regulation requires reserves. Adolescent development has always been a bumpy road, but now our kids are driving down it in Jeeps with no shocks. They’ve had to go through so much more than usual in this developmental phase. We need to name what’s going on and normalize it.

Parents need to make sure kids get sleep. The first question I ask an emotionally fragile kid is, “How much sleep are you getting?” Middle schoolers need 10 hours. Sleep is an important buffer. When kids are worn down, a small problem like not being able to find a book turns into a crisis. Life’s going to happen, and without enough sleep, even a small event spirals out of control.

In “Untangled,” you caution parents against intervening in situations that their kids can handle, as parents may unwittingly send a message to their kids that they aren’t resilient. But parents are understandably reluctant to sit on the sidelines when their children have experienced a pandemic-related series of disappointments. How can we help parents here?

Part of the challenge with parents is that they also don’t currently have ordinary emotional reserves. So they just want to fix things, and that means they may act too quickly to do something. Schools can help. They can talk with parents about what to expect at each grade level: What, for example, should parents expect when parenting a 5th grader? We can’t expect parents to know what to do, especially with their first child. A parent may have never had a 6th grader before, but the school has seen hundreds of them. Schools have the perspective to tell parents that even many uncomfortable situations are actually normal.

In “Untangled,” you advise parents to limit their girls’ access to devices. During the pandemic, many students’ social exchanges were necessarily relegated to digital formats. In USM’s Middle School, we found ourselves having to address negative styles of communication learned outside of school on social media or messaging platforms, such as Discord. How has this recent increase in screentime affected the emotional health of the students you see in your practice?

First, can you imagine the pandemic happening when we were young? We would have been so alone. Social media has helped students feel less isolated. But the norms around social behavior are different online. For example, Discord’s norms are nasty, racist, and homophobic. Middle schoolers can sometimes see slurs as a joke and cruel banter as normal. They may not question it if they see so much of it. We need to directly address and articulate the behaviors we expect, whether they are online or in person. They are being taught gaming norms online, so we need to teach them our norms.

In “Untangled,” you talk about the social friction, including “mean” and “nasty” behavior, that kids may be subjected to as they establish their tribes. How can parents distinguish between social conflicts and bullying in middle school? 

There is a key distinction between the two. Conflict occurs when kids just aren’t getting along. Bullying results when kids are systematically harassed and have no means of defending themselves. Think of conflict as the common cold and bullying as pneumonia. The identification part is important because the treatments are so different. I didn’t hear as much about bullying before the pandemic, but I’m hearing about it a lot more now.

In “Untangled,” you encourage parents “to take popularity off of its pedestal” by asking their daughters, “Is she popular or just powerful?” You explain that sometimes popular students simply wield social power and are not necessarily admired. How can we help demystify popularity when students are steeped in social media, where being popular is the ultimate currency? For example, if a student sees a post of a group of peers out having fun, they are terribly sad that they were not invited.

The way that I talk about this issue in “Under Pressure” is that numbers bring drama. Friction occurs as kids are pulled into and out of a larger group; disagreements occur. However, if there are only two or three kids in a group, those groups tend to fly under the radar. There is a lot less drama in a small group of friends.

Of course, middle schoolers want to be included, so parents must help kids navigate that. A lot comes down to what gets posted on social media. Kids should go out and have a great time, but if everyone isn’t there, what does it mean to post? If a group socializes and posts, who gains and who pays a cost? Parents need to help their kids ask these questions and make good choices.

About Elaine Griffin:

Elaine Griffin has worked at University School of Milwaukee since 1998, serving as the head of Middle School since 2019. Previously, she served as USM's assistant head of Upper School and taught Upper School English. She has both a bachelor’s degree and master’s degree in English, and served as the president of the Whitefish Bay Library.

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