{Virtual Book Club} Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood

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Adolescence, as we parents know all too well from having lived through it ourselves, is fraught with angst, drama, hormones, cliques, peer pressure, risk taking, and assorted other emotional chaos and confusion. It’s a time when formerly sweet and easy going kids can suddenly become snotty and sullen, pushing their parents away and seeking independence. Teenage girls are rumored to be a particularly tricky breed: if you have a daughter, you’ve no doubt been told at least once since she was born, perhaps while in the throes of a toddler meltdown, “just wait until she’s a teenager!” It’s no wonder that many parents of girls feel at least a little anxious about their daughters’ teenage years.

My fears about the impending adolescence of my own two daughters, now ages ten and twelve, were significantly reduced after reading Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood. Written by Lisa Damour, Ph.D., a widely respected and experienced clinical psychologist who has spent decades working with girls and their parents, Untangled explains and demystifies the many facets of female adolescence by putting them in the context of seven developmental transitions that, Dr. Damour posits, girls must go through to become adults: (1) parting with childhood, (2) joining a new tribe, (3) harnessing emotions, (4) contending with adult authority, (5) planning for the future, (6) entering the romantic world, and (7) caring for herself.    

Importantly, Dr. Damour explains how these transitions and many of the typical teen behaviors and challenges associated with them are not only normal but necessary elements of the “work” girls must do to successfully transition into adulthood. Viewed in this way, the teenage years simultaneously make a lot more sense and seem a lot less scary. While Untangled is aimed at explaining and guiding parents through the normal developmental challenges of adolescence, each chapter ends with a brief outline of “when to worry,” providing a helpful reality check on when parents really should be concerned and in some cases seek more help.

In addition to mapping out the phases of a girl’s journey into adulthood, Dr. Damour offers parents a wealth of practical and down-to-earth advice on how to best respond to and guide their daughters through the difficulties and conflicts that typically arise in the course of these transitions, often using the stories of past clients to illustrate. Teaching parents how to talk to teenage girls in a way that is more likely to be effective is something that Dr. Damour focuses on – and does especially well — throughout the book. I found her advice on what to say in specific scenarios (with examples of actual verbiage to use), how to say it (striking the right tone with teenagers is critical), and when to bite your tongue (sometimes teenagers, like anyone, just want someone to listen) to be very helpful and will definitely return to those dog-eared pages in the future to remind myself how to take a better approach when my first impulse is to yell or lecture.

Yet another great thing about this book is the voice of Dr. Damour, herself: sympathetic, caring, reasonable, and down-to-earth. By the time you finish the book, she feels like a dear and trusted friend who is there to support you in your efforts to raise your daughter. I also really appreciated Dr. Damour’s clear and engaging prose, and her use of colorful metaphors, through which, for example, parents are encouraged to stop insisting they are “the Wizard” and instead make like a swimming pool (you’ll have to read the book to find out what I’m talking about here!)

Finally, the book contains a lot of helpful insight into the role that technology and social media play in the lives of teenage girls – a Pandora’s box of issues that today’s parents did not have to contend with as teenagers – and how to help our daughters manage their online lives.

For all of these reasons, I highly recommend Untangled to anyone lucky enough to be the parent of a girl. As Dr. Damour so beautifully describes it: “raising a young woman will be one of the most vexing, delightful, exhausting, and fulfilling things you will ever do. Sometimes all on the same day.” You’ll want to read and reread all of Lisa Damour’s words of wisdom yourself, but for now, here is the Cliff’s Notes version of the seven transitions into adulthood that she discusses in her book:

Parting with Childhood

On their way to adulthood, girls must gradually “part with childhood” and a big part of that involves seeking and establishing independence from parents. Pulling away from parents, demanding more privacy, bristling at questions, and being snotty or even out and out mean at times, are all normal (albeit frustrating and heartbreaking) behaviors associated with the important step of parting with childhood.

Joining a New Tribe

During the teenage years, friendships become critically important. As Dr. Damour notes, “Teenagers aren’t just looking to make friends, they are replacing the family they’ve withdrawn from . . . with a tribe that they can feel proud to call their own.”  This chapter explains the social drama that occurs during this stage in girls’ lives as a normal consequence of their efforts to secure membership in a tribe and takes up topics such as popularity, peer pressure, and the impact of technology and social media.

Harnessing Emotions

Learning to manage their notoriously erratic and potent emotions and eventually gain “emotional intelligence” is another developmental transition that teenage girls must go through on their journey to adulthood. What can look pretty irrational, Dr. Damour explains, is actually “healthy teenage emotion” due in large part to changes going on in girls’ brains during the teenage years.

Contending With Adult Authority

Questioning adult authority and the power that adults exercise is an important way in which girls learn how to make thoughtful choices about when to resist orders and when to toe the line; something they will need to be able to do as adults. Parents will need to offer fuller explanations for their rules than they may have done in the past, sometimes negotiate, and sometimes see their daughter’s view and change their approach when they come into conflict with their teenage girls. Adolescence is, as Dr. Damour points out, “the end of because I said so.”

Planning for the Future

In this, one of the final transitions to adulthood, teenage girls must start making and pursuing plans for their own future. Dr. Damour offers advice on how to guide girls through this important process and how to handle issues that often come up along the way, like procrastination, testing anxiety and disappointment. She also discusses the importance of encouraging girls to have a “growth mindset” rather than a “fixed mindset” by celebrating their efforts over outcomes.

Entering the Romantic World

This chapter walks parents through the common phases in girls’ romantic lives, from the casual crushes of 5th and 6th grades to the more serious (and often sexual) relationships of the older years of adolescence. It also touches on many related topics like the problem of sexting (according to Dr. Damour, “most adults don’t know just how much pressure girls can face to participate in sexting”) and the impact of sexualized images of women in the media. As always, Dr. Damour’s advice on how to talk to girls about sex and romance – areas in which parents are often in the dark with their daughters — is extremely useful.  

Caring for Herself

Finally, girls must learn to make wise, independent decisions about their own health and safety before setting off into the world on their own. In this last chapter, Dr. Damour explains how girls gradually learn to assume responsibility for themselves and offers advice for guiding them on issues like food and weight, getting enough sleep, drinking, drugs, and sex.


Join us for next month’s book club selection, Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting that we’ll review on Monday, June 25.

Click here for all of our past reviews.

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