July 12, 2013

Stop Texting & Let’s Talk: Communicating with Your Teenager.

Okay, I got it; parenting can be very, very challenging.

As parents, it’s nothing like how we thought it was going to be, and we’ve expressed concern for years about not receiving a “how to” manual. The hardest job in the world, and no formal training to be had. How can that be?

The little training we did get came from our own parents. We learned how to communicate, how to show love, how to express emotions, how to follow through goals, and how to be a person, in general, by existing in our own families.

But that was the pre-technological age.

Of course, today’s youth are still learning all of that in the context of family, but they are doing so with the ever present pull of the latest electronic gadget. Today’s parenting requires creativity in guidance and teaching boundaries in a different way than in previous generations. Today’s youth have grown up with the power of technology at their fingertips from a very young age. They know no different. There is a constant flow of distraction that can take them out of the present moment, out of the surroundings in front of them. The stimulus that electronics provide to the brain, over time, tends to make most other daily experiences dull by comparison.

Homework is even more “boring” than it was when I was doing it, chores are a bigger “waste of time” and teen’s access to social media has become a “right” somewhere along the way.

I don’t know how it was for you, but when I was growing up, social time was earned—I had to complete my responsibilities prior to communicating with friends, and when I did communicate with friends over the phone, the whole family could hear the conversation, as the phone was stuck to the wall in the kitchen. We actually had to verbally converse in order to share, plan or discuss. My parents knew who I was hanging with and talking with for the most part.

Most teens today have the majority of their conversations via texting, which tends to be more private in that others around them are not involved in the communication, but ultimately, these texting conversations can lead to a false sense of privacy, for the uneducated and immature communicator.

As teenagers, we learn through experience. We develop healthy habits and unhealthy habits.

Teens are still learning boundaries, healthy communication, emotional awareness and regulation—to allow them to learn under false pretenses is on us, the older generations. Any text, written chat, Facebook post, etc. can be forwarded to whomever the recipient wishes. It is, at this time, that teens are no longer the holder of their own information, learning how to internally process for themselves before sharing what ails them. Emotions, immediate thoughts and actions are disseminated to the world too quickly at the touch of a button. Of course, some will learn from experience that immediate sharing has its consequences, but once a habit is formed, we know it takes much more effort to change it than to just learn healthy habits from the get go.

Most of us want healthy and open communication with our teens as they move toward becoming more independent; I know that I do. Their reliance and consumption of electronic gadgets is a significant barrier to this. I remember when I was a teenager and when I was at home, I had just a few choices in how I was going to spend my time. I could do my homework, complete my chores, hang with friends outside, call a friend on the phone in the kitchen, or watch a bit of TV (only prime time TV, though). Communicating with my parents sometimes seemed much more favorable than my other options.

Fast forward to current time, and children and teens have an unlimited amount of things to do via electronics—keeping their brains constantly stimulated and sometimes reaching overload. The fact-to-face learning often gets put on the back burner. As a counselor to teens, I see over and over again that they have difficulties prioritizing, staying on task and completing chores, projects, homework, etc.

Their brains have become wired for distraction and staying focused is becoming more and more difficult. We, as parents, are expecting them to have the cognitive ability to regulate the distractions via electronics on their own, but they simply do not have the brain maturity to do so effectively, most of the time. Children and pre-teens have so much access to electronics—and often without any direction on how to make choices around how to use them. Certainly, time limits are often given by parents when kids are young, but I am continually surprised at how many parents feel unable to teach and guide their kids around their electronic habits.

How do we teach our pre-teens and teens to regulate themselves when using electronics and how do we teach them to use electronic communication appropriately, so that they move through developmental phases with the least amount of distress or at least a tolerable level of stress? And further, while we are doing that, how do we still give them enough chances to practice face-to-face communication—using eye contact, asking questions, picking up on non-verbal cues, and not interrupting?

I see parents who are more concerned with making their kids happy, which results in kids having access to what they are not quite ready for. They can be so easily sucked into their technological world, that they lose sight of what is going on around them, which will no doubt affect the development of their face-to-face communication skills.

As their parents, let’s pay better attention to the development of their communication skills, because we all know that surviving those teen years can be tough, anyway. The more tools they have, the smoother transition into adulthood.

The following are some parenting strategies you might try, if so inclined:

  • We are not our teen’s friends, we are their parents and they need us to be parents—don’t be afraid to set appropriate limits.
  • “Friend” and/or connect with your kids on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and all the rest. However, limit your postings to them, except when your posts are positive, purposeful and supportive. Do not get caught up in their drama.
  • Keep the computer in a public place in the home, and keep the cell phones in a central place at night.
  •  Make a family agreement about how much technology time is acceptable and reasonable by all.
  • Monitor your own use of social media and technology, and be sure to give them your full attention when they need it. It’s an excellent way to model the behavior that you want to see and teaches them more about respectful practices.
  • Communicate with your teens about their use. Who are they communicating with, how often, how late at night? Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Monitor their technological use, especially early on.
  • Educate them about technology. Technology is not private or confidential.
  • Since technology is not private, you as parents have access to their technological communications and, especially in the beginning, make those into teaching moments. They may receive a false sense of reality if we do not teach them to communicate wisely, as that last text can be sent to anyone at all by everyone they just sent it to. We generally tend to have expectations regarding how they speak to others, and we teach healthy communication skills. It helps them tremendously when we also teach them how to communicate via technology. Teach, guide and monitor your children’s early use of technology. We can’t expect them to “just know how to use it.”
  • It’s important that we educate them about developing “online reputations,” just like school wide and/or social reputations. Once something goes in the technological vacuum, it can be accessible for years to come. This is a different phenomenon than in the past when we our peers would just forget, resulting in change. Teach your children and teens to begin to “future think” about what they put out there for their friends and anyone else, for that matter, to see.
  • Encourage your kids to “practice” talking with friends face-to-face or via phone conversations, at least as often as texting.
  • Encourage your kids to have difficult conversations face to face, not via texting, Facebook, and other chatting modes.  Model this for them.

Gratefully, I continue to manage motherhood so far, so good with my now 17 and 15 year old teenagers. I feel fortunate every day with how close we are and how easy it is to communicate with both of them, most of the time.

They have had lots of forced practice in communicating face-to-face with myself and others. The need for face-to-face communication skills will continue, no matter how technology reliant we, as a world, become. We will always need others in our space to share our lives with—whether this be with families growing up roommates, lovers, best friends, and co-worker relationships.


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Ed: B. Bemel

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