PTF Parent Up Speaker Series Kicks Off 2021-2022 With Dr. Lisa Damour

The 2021-2022 PTF Parent Up Speaker Series, centered around the theme of mental health and well-being, kicked off last week with Dr. Lisa Damour, a clinical psychologist and author of two New York Times-bestselling books on mental health in children.

Dr. Damour gave an insightful virtual presentation to the parent community titled “Coming of Age in Challenging Times: Helping Children and Teens Build Emotional Strength” which reexamined the definition of mental health, illustrated how the pandemic has redefined mental health, showed how children express their mental health struggles, and gave tips on when and how parents can help.

In addition, there was a separate discussion specifically for Upper School students led by two Peer Counselors—junior Kaitlin Tam and senior Trey Kingsley—who asked student-specific questions on topics from teenagers living through the pandemic to comforting peers with mental-health struggles. Dr. Damour also led a presentation for St. Margaret’s professional community, sharing her observations of the mental health challenges educators have faced through the pandemic as seen through the experience of her spouse who is a classroom teacher.

“Even before the pandemic, we were working with a definition of mental health that I thought was problematic. It is something along the lines of ‘You know you’re mentally healthy when you feel calm or good, and your kids are mentally healthy if they feel calm or good,’” Dr. Damour said in the parent presentation. “This sounds great, but it’s an unrealistic, unnecessary and actually unhelpful way to frame mental health.”

Dr. Damour said the pandemic, difficult as it has been, has allowed us the opportunity to reframe how we talk about mental health to ourselves and within our family.

“Mental health is about having the right feelings at the right time, and then being able to manage those emotions effectively,” Dr. Damour said.

She further noted that managing emotions effectively means accomplishing a healthy balance of emotional expression and emotional containment. She compared our emotions to being one seat on our personal board of directors, alongside our values, personal ambitions, ethics, obligations and other factors that drive our decision-making.

“There is a seat on that board for our emotions. It is informational. (Emotions) can give us feedback on how things are going, and helps us make decisions,” Dr. Damour said. “But the key is that they have one seat. They are part of an array of interests which help us decide what to do. They are not the chairman of the board and they almost never have the deciding vote.”

So how do we promote this to children? Dr. Damour ran down how parents can be helpful when their children express their emotions—be it verbally or through other means—and when parents should be concerned about children and their emotional expressions (“Worry if the feelings are in charge. If they are the chairman of the board. If they get in the way of what they want to do and what they need to do.”)
She then pivoted to the second part of the emotion-regulation formula—how to contain emotions, which can range from embracing a distraction to focusing on pockets of control. An issue with emotion containment can come if children are acting inappropriately as a result, or getting caught in a “worry loop.”

After her presentation, Dr. Damour took part in a Q&A moderated by Parent Up Speaker Series chair Carrie Quintanar, who asked questions submitted by St. Margaret’s parents.

If you missed the presentations, video recordings are posted on the mySMES Resources page under the Parent Up tile. You can view the parent presentation by clicking here (password: parentupspeaker) and the Upper School student presentation by clicking here (password: parentupspeaker). Dr. Damour also provided a helpful resource, “How to Manage a Meltdown,” that can be accessed by clicking here.  A Spanish translation is available by clicking here

The Parent Up Speaker Series is funded through a generous PTF grant, and speakers are selected by PTF leaders in conjunction with St. Margaret’s school leaders. The next Parent Up Speaker Series event will take place January 28 and feature Dr. Wendy Suzuki, a professor of neural science and psychology at New York University and an internationally recognized authority on neuroplasticity.
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