Ep 50: Teenagers Under Pressure

Episode Summary

Lisa Damour, bestselling author of Untangled and Under Pressure, reveals a startling trend on this episode: stress and anxiety are on the rise among teenage girls. Learn why this is happening and what parents can do about it from the psychologist who writes the adolescence column for the New York Times.

Show NotesParenting ScriptsWorkbook ExercisesInterview TranscriptGuest Bio

Full Show Notes

Imagine this:

Your young teen has been practicing piano for almost a year now, and his teacher is holding a recital for all the students. Your teen has just found out about the recital, and wants out.

The thought of performing a skill he’s just starting to learn in front of an audience is stressing him out. He’d rather just not go, and asks if he can have another year to practice before the next recital. You agree to let your teen skip this year’s recital and try again next year, but then what happens?

When next year’s recital date is announced, your teen is more stressed out than the last time! What happened? He’s had a whole extra year to practice, and you can hear from your own eavesdropping that he is in fact twice as good as he was a year before. But he doesn’t want to perform, and he’s mega stressed out about it.

When parents don’t have strategies for comprehensive teenage stress management, there can be devastating long term consequences for the child. If kids are taught that feelings of stress and anxiety are bad feelings to be avoided, then avoiding those feelings is what they will become experts at.

One day, however, those feelings of stress and anxiety will be unavoidable. Your teen’s friends may want him to join their band, or try out for their orchestra. Of course he wants to play music with his friends, but if he’s been avoiding live performances all these years, then what’s to stop him from having a full-blown panic attack?

Learning to teach teenage stress management isn’t straight forward. It’s hard to imagine the long term consequences of seemingly inconsequential choices. So to better understand the complexities of teenage stress management, I got on the phone with New York Times bestselling author, Lisa Damour, Ph.D.

On top of being a bestselling author for her two books, Untangled and Under Pressure, Lisa writes the monthly Adolescence column for the New York Times. She maintains her own private psychotherapy practice, she’s a regular contributor to CBS News, and she’s an international speaker and consulter. Oh! And she’s a mother. Not surprisingly, she had a lot to say on this episode about teenage stress management.

Anxiety Isn’t Always Bad

Lisa says that if parents learn only one thing about teenage stress management, it’s this: Psychologists see stress and anxiety as normal, healthy functions.

More often than not, anxiety is your friend. It’s one of your body’s alarm systems that tells you when you need to pay attention and keep yourself safe. If you were driving, and the car ahead of you were swerving back and forth, Lisa would be more concerned if you weren’t having an anxiety attack at that moment. Your body’s alarm system should compel you to respond. Get away from the swerving car!

The same goes for teenagers. If a teen comes to Lisa and says they’re feeling anxious about an upcoming performance, and she learns they haven’t been practicing, then she says,

“Good! You’re having the right reaction to being unprepared!”

Even if the teen did practice for their performance, Lisa says it’s good for them to feel a bit anxious. Research shows that a little anxiety improves performance, and we want our kids to do a good job. She says you don’t want your kid to be in a total zen state before going into a test, performance, or competition. You want them to be a bit “revved up” by some stress.

Anxiety is good because it protects you. It gets your juices flowing. Anxiety makes you do those tasks you’ve been procrastinating, or not taking seriously. Sure, it doesn’t feel good, but neither does exercise, and no one is saying that exercise is bad for you!

There are times when anxiety can be bad, and Lisa helped me understand when that is. She says anxiety is bad when the alarms don’t make sense, and when the alarm is hugely out of proportion to the event. You don’t want your teen having full blown panic attacks over small quizzes. Also, if your teen is feeling anxious all the time, and nothing is wrong, then there’s something faulty with their body’s alarm system. 

Most times, though, anxiety is a good thing. But how does knowing this help us parents better understand teenage stress management? How can we help our teenager who is really concerned about that upcoming piano recital? These are the exact questions that drove Lisa to write her book!

Here’s what NOT to do… 

Avoidance is Your Worst Option

The one strategy that’s most likely to heighten anxiety is avoidance. Lisa points out, though, that avoidance is often people’s first instinct when faced with anxiety.

When your teen is stressed out about that piano recital, it’s easy as a parent to think it’s no big deal. What’s the harm in letting them skip that one performance? But here’s the problem: the first thing your teen is going to feel when you make their problem disappear is glorious relief. They’re going to feel great! So when the next recital comes around, their brain is going to scream, “Give me that fabulous relief I had before!”

We don’t want to set our teens up for future avoidances. The more your teen avoids recitals, the bigger and scarier they become until their anxiety turns into full blown stage fright. They instead need to seek teenage stress management strategies that can help them confront challenges like this. 

Go Against Their Instinct

The goal of teenage stress management is to teach teens that they have a TON of strategies for dealing with their stress. Lisa says it helps to go against their instinct. You can say,

“Look, avoiding this recital is a phenomenal short term solution. It is a TERRIBLE long term solution.”

The teenage brain is often not developed enough for comprehensive long term planning. Teens need parental guidance and support to realize that their decisions do have long term consequences. Once teens see that avoiding challenges makes things worse in the long run, you can then help them build a set of teenage stress management strategies. (High on that list will be breathing for relaxation.)

Once your teen understands that avoiding the piano recital is a bad long term solution, you can then ideate with them! There are loads of teenage stress management tactics they can use to engage with the recital. Maybe they don’t have to perform for the whole recital. Or, if they don’t perform at all, they can at least go and listen to everybody else. See if they can talk to their teacher and get access to the space beforehand to see how it feels. As long as they’re not avoiding the source of their anxiety and are willing to teenager stress management, there are so many options!

“Stinks” and “Handle”

Two words that Lisa thinks will help parents with teenage stress management are “stinks” and “handle.” Of course there are loads of words you can use when it comes to teenage stress management. These are just words Lisa uses to help parents picture what they must do: help teens understand that although anxiety is uncomfortable, it isn’t necessarily bad.

For example, when a teen tells Lisa about an experience that was awful (a flat tire, being cut from the soccer team, messing up during their recital, etc.), she says,

“That stinks!”

She lets those words linger. By resting on those words, she hopes that her unspoken message is: There’s a ton of empathy here, but I have no problem with the fact that this occurred to you. This means her tone and body language also need to communicate this unspoken message, and the word “stinks” helps her be mindful of that.

After empathizing with the teen’s problem, Lisa can then say,

“How can we help you handle this?”

Lisa believes that these words equate to a vote of confidence in the teen. It communicates that the teen’s problem is still within their capacity to manage. This doesn’t mean they will enjoy managing the problem, but they can, and you’re there to help them find a way.

The idea behind teenage stress management is teaching teens that anxiety comes in two categories: events that are annoying and aggravating, and events that are full-on crises. There will be crises, but most events that teens get anxious about are things they can handle. As parents, we can acknowledge that these events are challenging, and help teens learn to handle those events, and not avoid their problems.

Scratching the Surface

Dr. Lisa Damour had so much more to say about anxiety and teenage stress management! Other topics that she was able to share her wisdom on included:

  • Proven Strategies for Girls in Situations with Boys
  • 2 Reasons Why Saying “No” is so Hard
  • The Messiness of “Affirmative Consent”
  • American Refusal Strategies
  • The “Yes, No, Yes” Strategy
  • Should We Tell Our Daughters They’re Beautiful? (Of course! But…)
  • A “Fixed” vs “Growth” Mindset
  • Predictable (Not Rational) Parenting
  • A Nice Way to Say, “You’ll Be Sorry”
  • The Positive Benefits of Keeping Your Mouth Shut

Teenage stress management is such a fascinatingly complex problem for parents today. I’m so thankful to have gotten to talk to Lisa about it. Be sure to give this episode a listen!

Parenting Scripts

Word-for-word examples of what to say to your teen

1.  Remind girls that there are many different ways to turn someone down:

“You have a whole toolbox of communication strategies at your disposal. ‘No’ is like a hammer. If you’re in a bar and some random dude shows up and starts being gross on you, say whatever you want to him. You don’t know him. You are safe. You can lay it down is really cruel terms if you want. That’s one tool in your toolbox. You also have your ‘canned air’ where you can say to someone, ‘This is so fun. I’ve really enjoyed this. I hope we can hang out another time. I don’t want to do this tonight.’ That is another option.”

-Lisa Damour

2.  When your teen is anxious for a big test:

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3.  When your teen wants to skip a piano recital because she’s feeling nervous:

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4.  When your teen complains about something “awful” that happened to them:

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5.  Teach girls how to say “no” in a tactful way:

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6.  When your teen says they “can’t” do something (like math):

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7.  When your teenager asks for something but they haven’t been respectful lately:

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8.  Before you give advice, say this:

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9.  When something awkward needs to be said, get your teen ready for it with this line:

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Workbook Exercises

Step-by-step guides for applying the ideas from this interview

1. Give Your Teen Many Ways to Say “No”:

Adults often preach to teen girls about the importance of saying “no” when boys make sexual advances. And we tell boys to just say “no” to drugs. But, as Lisa pointed out, telling someone no is actually very hostile. If someone invited you to a dinner party and you said “no” they would see that as very rude and it might destroy your friendship. This is why it’s critical that teens have many tools in their communication toolbox for turning down things they don’t want to do. Make a list of different requests that your teen might want to practice saying no to. This might include social invitations, peer pressure, sexual advances, bullying, and more. Now sit down with your teen and say you want to practice refusal skills together. Take turns asking each other all the requests on the list and make a rule that you can never say no in exactly the same way twice.

2.  Use “Baby Steps” to Move Teens Closer to Conquering Their Fears:

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3.  Take The Focus Off Outward Appearance By Complimenting Other Things:

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Complete Interview Transcript

Andy: I’m really interested in kind of how this book came about. Because you guys interview a number of really top experts in here on all different kinds of really important issues that parents are facing as kids are starting to hit those grown and flown years. So why did you decide to write this book on Grown and Flown, and then how did you do it in this format?

Lisa: Well, about seven years ago, we started a website on raising teens, basically high school kids and college kids. Kids from the ages of 15 to 25, because my co-founder Maridell Harrington and myself were in those years. I believe we had 10th graders at the time, and we had older kids who had just gone to college. And we could find very little on the internet that spoke to parents in this demographic. We felt that we were facing some of the most challenging and rewarding, but certainly the most challenging years in parenting. And there was very little out there. So we threw up some of the stories about our lives, and we asked some of our friends to write some of their experiences and we started what you would call blog. And then one day we pushed a button on Facebook and started a Facebook group, and the group grew and grew and grew.

Lisa: We have about 135,000, 140,000 parents in there right now, discussing all of the very complex issues that parents face every day getting through these years. There’s a lot of support when your kids are little. There’s your pediatrician and there’s your kids’ teachers and there’s your kids’ coaches. When your kids get older, there’s not much support in community, you’re kind of on your own.

Andy: Yeah. Isn’t that funny?

Lisa: Yeah. Well, and it’s kind of frightening. So we hope to provide some of that, both with the Facebook group and with the website. And for a long time, it was us and a few close friends putting the site together. But as we expanded over the years we reached out to people who are experts in this field. And we made a lot of really, really amazing friends. We’ve published a lot of incredible authors.

Lisa: And at this point we have over 500 writers on the site. So it’s really no longer our personal blog if you will, it’s a website with 500 contributors. And many, many of them are high school teachers, college professors, psychologists, physicians, people who know this age group from their professional point of view and maybe the parents as well. But they’re coming to us from the professional point of view. So along the way, a publisher reached out to us, Flatiron who’s part of Macmillan and asked us if we would turn some of this content into a book.

Lisa: So we got together with some of the smartest people that we know in this field. Asked them for insights. We did interviews. We’ve got some amazing interviews with people like Frances Jensen who’s the head of neuroscience at Penn, talking about drinking and drugs and teenagers and the dangers of addiction particularly in this age group. As well as some of the other dangers like driving, and the other things we worry about as parents. And we put it all together over the course of a year and a half and it was published this fall.

Andy: And it’s beautiful. It’s like huge too. I mean, the thing is over 300 pages long and it’s fun because it’s not all just you guys. You bring in all these different experts, and different writers, and different voices, and people who are just kind of a sharing experiences, and personal stories that back up the points that you’re making. It’s really a great guide to this time. And it’s a unique time of life, that there’s not a lot of stuff about. A lot of our research in our lab here was dealing with the transition into college. And we look at what forces caused kids to drink to problematic levels. And there’s a lot of research showing that parents make a big difference in parenting matter. So I think it’s cool to see this book for parents and showing how they can make a positive difference.

Lisa: We tried to cite a lot of research, so the parents would feel like they were getting the most up to date information. And as you say, we asked a lot of writers. Really, really wonderful writers to tell some of their personal stories so you’d also feel like you were listening to that parent who was just a few years ahead of you and had experienced something that you hadn’t experienced yet.

Lisa: But one of my favorite pieces of research in the book, and I feel like it speaks to us as parents and it’s so compelling and we need to remember it was about drinking. It was about the fact that freshmen drank less alcohol on days that they spoke to their parents, even if they never spoke about drinking. So they monitored a group of freshmen over the course of their first semester. They monitored whether they drank and how much they drank. So they were looking both for whether they drank at all, and about obviously the big danger with drinking, as we all know with kids in college’s binge drinking. And kids who spoke to their parents on those days actually drank less. So just being with them and continue to communicate with them and staying close to them, conveys to them some of the values that we raised them with. Our voices remind them of what they’ve heard so many times in our homes.

Andy: There’s all kinds of stuff to talk about in this book. One thing is we’re kind of this generation where everyone’s talking about helicopter parenting and how you need to not do that. We don’t want to be a helicopter parent. We don’t want to over parent, we don’t want to bulldoze things away from being in front of our kids. But then of course, that is a two edged sword because you do want to stay connected to them and you do want to stay close to them and you do want to be helping them. So something that I thought was really interesting that you guys talk about in this book is how to be close to them, talk to them regularly, share dinners, group texts, but still let them find their own way and solve their own problems.

Lisa: Yeah. I feel like the helicopter parenting has really been overblown in the press. Not in the sense that it’s not a problem, if you helicopter it is. But that I don’t think it’s quite as many people as we think it is. There’s very little data on how many parents truly count as helicopter parents. But it’s kind of messing with the rest of our heads because we’re worried constantly about being too much in our kids’ lives, overstepping. Parents are tortured by whether they should or shouldn’t do something. We had a parent write in one day and this really stuck with me, right when the kids were going back to college and asked if we thought if she cleaned the dorm room before her son moved in. So she had a big wipe down, because the kid was moving into not completely clean dorm room in September, would that be helicopter parenting?

Lisa: No. If you go back every Wednesday and do it, yes. One day on moving day, you bring some Clorox wipes and you have a little wipe before your kid leaves, that is not helicopter parenting. Helicopter parenting is if you show up every week and do it. So it’s really messed with parents’ heads just about… It’s also like many of us forget that these are loving acts. These are caring acts. These are the things that we want to show our kids. You want to do things for your kids because you want to show them that they will then do for their partners and for their children and for their friends. And this is the way we show care and love for other people. So it has messed with our heads a little bit. I think the important thing to remember is when you try… There’s a huge amount of research about this.

Lisa: And we read a lot of it. Some of it’s in the book, some of it we’ve been speaking about when we got all the country speaking. When you try and control your kid’s life, when you don’t give them autonomy, when you don’t trust them, when you don’t value their judgment, that’s when you’re helicopter parenting. When you talk with them about their problems, when you’re available for them so that they can have an ear to listen to them. When you do small things for them, if you get up early and make breakfast for them, when you know they’ve been up studying till midnight, your high schooler. That’s not being helicopter parenting, that’s just being a really nice person.

Andy: Yeah, it’s caring.

Lisa: Yeah. So we have to really separate those two things. Helicopter parenting is saying, I don’t trust you. I don’t trust your judgment. I don’t trust you to be able to do this. I’m going to do this for you. I’m going to talk to your teacher for you. I’m going to talk to your doctor for you. I’m going to run in and talk to your coach. Helicopter parenting says, I don’t trust you, I’m going to do it for you.

Andy: You’d mess it up if you did it by yourself.

Lisa: Yeah. I think we have to be careful with that one because it’s kind of affecting the rest of us.

Andy: Yeah, right. It makes you feel like you’d question everything or second guess everything because it’s like the thing we’re not supposed to do, but then I wonder if that pushes us too far in the other direction.

Lisa: Exactly. And it’s a bounce and every day we’re faced with it. And some days we’ll get it wrong, and hopefully more days we’ll get it right.

Andy: So one of the areas where that balance is difficult to walk for sure is in the use of tracking software and the ability to track exactly where our kids are at all times. Is this something that people are talking about a lot in your Facebook group, or is it like this is not really a big issue with people today or what?

Lisa: The issue of tracking teens is a huge and very, very confounding issue. Parents come at down strong on both sides of this. It’s a very personal decision. We talk about some of the important things to think about. One of the difficulties with it is that kids can begin to feel that we can sort of help them and save them from themselves. That because we’re tracking them, we’re replacing our judgment with their judgment. And that’s where the really negative part of it comes in. As teenagers get older and older, they need to be able to rely on their own judgment, more and more, and their own safety.

Lisa: Kids now become in charge of their own safety. And they shouldn’t be thinking that the tracking is going to replace that. Replace their good judgment. Replace their safe driving, replace all of the ways in which they need to look after themselves. One of the biggest surprises to us around this issue of tracking was how many families like tracking each other and how many kids were also tracking their parents and wanted to be able to track their parents. This was something we didn’t see. We’ve had a lot of conversations in the group about this, and we’ve had a lot of conversations with parents about this. So it’s a very personal decision in families, but parents need to think through what it means, if the kids know that they’re being tracked.

Andy: We talked just briefly about alcohol, but part of it is what you need to know I think as a parent is just kind of the facts about how alcohol affects the teenage brain so that you can have a conversation with them about those. So what’s the basics I guess, that you need to know as a parent to be armed with in order to have an alcohol talk with your teenager?

Lisa: We interviewed Frances Jensen, as I mentioned earlier. She works with Pennsylvania physician around neuroscience. And she wrote a wonderful book that I can recommend highly enough called The Teenage Brain. And in it she talks about the ways that alcohol affects the teenage brain differently than an adult brain. And I won’t go into the science of it now because I’m afraid I’ll get it wrong as we’re very careful with it and quoted her very carefully in the book. But one of the things she talks about that’s super important is that addiction and alcoholism are learned behaviors. So any form of addiction is repetitive behavior that the brain. She talks about it being like learning sports, you do something over and over again and then your brain becomes habituated to it. And kids are much better at learning than we are, teenager’s brain power’s much better than ours. Their brains are more flexible and they learn more easily, which means also they’re in danger of addiction more readily than we are.

Lisa: So she talks about some of the very, very real dangers. Scientific real dangers that we now know because we can look at kids’ brains in a way that we couldn’t before. We have the medical equipment to do so. And she feels, and she’s the mother of two young adults. She feels that one of the most compelling arguments we can make to kids about not drinking or at the very least not binge drinking which is so dangerous is to explain this science to them. To tell them what this out, what alcohol the way it poisons their brains? How it’s more impactful on their young brains than it is on an adult brain? And the risks that they’re taking that may impact them for the rest of their lives.

Lisa: So she talks about teaching them and talking to them like the young adults that they’re going to be. And reasoning with them rather than sort of standing on your soap box and saying, “Don’t drink, don’t drink. It’s bad for you. Don’t do it.” That’s not that compelling to a lot of young [inaudible 00:13:10].

Andy: Right.

Lisa: So she gives us the science. She gives us the reason. She gives us really compelling ways that we can talk to our kids that honors their intelligence and honors their growing maturity. And gives them real reasons to stay away from alcohol or at least to stay away from it in any large quantity.

Andy: It’s cool thinking about it, being a good thing that teenagers can learn so much more and their brain is so much more adaptable and pliable, but then of course there’s also with that great power comes some great responsibilities or something like that. It’s kind of a double edged sword, right?

Andy: I think talking about that and making them aware of that because also, and I think you point this out here, actually. Yeah. It can sound kind of condescending a little bit. There’s this research about the teenage brains, but when you start talking to your teenager about it and saying, “Well, your brain isn’t fully developed yet. And so it’s best not for you to do certain things until your brain just becomes a little more developed.” It kind of can sound like you’re just talking down to them a little bit, as much as you want it to turn out to be a positive conversation where you’re talking about their brain. It can actually even not go that well.

Andy: So I like this framing because it feels positive? And it’s not just saying like, “Well, because your brain isn’t ready for drinking, so don’t drink.” It’s saying, well, actually it’s really good that the teenage brain is so adaptable. It means you can learn so much new skills and the change who you want to be and all of that. And this is just kind of one of those consequences that you have to watch out for with that too.

Lisa: Yeah. Instead of talking down to them and giving them that argument she actually suggest you talk to them like an adult. Showing them that you have that respect for them. They will understand the complexity of this and that they will understand the damage and care enough about their life going forward to know that this is something they need to think hard about. So it’s a different approach than I’ve seen many people suggest. And I think it’s a very powerful one.

Andy: How should parents handle it when you have a teenager who gets their heartbroken?

Lisa: It’s the hardest thing. It’s one of the most common things parents come to us about because it’s excruciating. Actually, honestly, I think for parents it’s almost harder to watch your child go through this than it was to go through it yourself. We have a couple of great pieces in the book. And one particularly talks about having been in college, having been broken up by the boyfriend who she thought was it. She thought this was the young man that she’d spend the rest of her life with and he dumped her. And that her father took it seriously. And her father said, “Do you need me to come to school and pick you up? Do you need to come home for a couple of days?” And she said, “No, I don’t.” And she said these 30 years later, the fact that he offered that, the fact that he cared so much.

Lisa: So the number one thing is just to tell them that you completely understand and are there for them in their moment of pain. To try not to brush it off. Sometimes our inclination is to lessen something and say, “There’ll be other people, you’ll have other relationships. This wasn’t perfect anyway.” that’s not helpful. What’s helpful is to say, I see your pain. I understand your pain. I am here to help with your pain. So to be that ear. Lisa Damour who’s a psychologist, who we have a lot of admiration for. And we quote a number of times in the book, talks about being available to be the place where your kid dumps at our emotional trash. A place where they can go and just kind of throw the worst of it out there. And this is one of the worst moments for young adults and to be there.

Lisa: And that that itself is sometimes everything that they need. But other things don’t have a bad mouth, the previous boyfriend or girlfriend. Teenagers are very fickle beings. They may be back together in a week. You will rue the day that you ever said anything bad about them.

Lisa: Try and just help them in small ways that cheer them up. Sometimes it’s just a care package to college. Sometimes it’s a special treat for a high schooler. Just something that acknowledges that you see what they’re going through. And then like everything else, it doesn’t hurt sometimes to bring our own experience into the situation. Maybe they want to hear it, maybe they don’t. But you can talk to them about, I had my heart broken and I know how this feels and it takes a while. Most of us have been in that situation. We’ve had our hearts broken at various times by people, and we can just bring some of our own experience into it.

Lisa: One of the things that a lot of psychologists tell us is that teenagers think that our lives are perfect and that we handled everything. We have jobs, we have lives. We have the trappings of adulthood and that somehow it’s perfect. So it’s very important to tell them of those imperfections, of those bad moments, of those low moments in our lives so that they know that it’s just part of a journey.

About Lisa Damour

Lisa Damour writes the monthly Adolescence column for the New York Times, serves as a regular contributor to CBS News, maintains a private psychotherapy practice, consults and speaks internationally, is a Senior Advisor to the Schubert Center for Child Studies at Case Western Reserve University, and serves as the Executive Director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls.

Dr. Damour has written numerous academic papers, chapters, and books related to education and child development. She is also the author of two New York Times best selling books, Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood and Under Pressure: Confronting the Epidemic of Stress and Anxiety in Girls.

Dr. Damour graduated with honors from Yale University and worked for the Yale Child Study Center before earning her doctorate in Clinical Psychology at the University of Michigan. She has been a fellow at Yale’s Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy and the University of Michigan’s Power Foundation. She and her husband are the proud parents of two daughters.

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