To say it's a challenge to raise teens during this age of daily digital use may be an understatement. How much time should our kids be in front of a screen? Should they have this or that app? How do I set up rules and boundaries for social media use? How do we teach them kind online behavior? One version or another of these questions come up in almost every conversation I have with parents. Many moms and dads are frustrated, and sometimes even overwhelmed (especially during the many free hours the summer months bring) regarding their kids and iPhones.
I would be lying if I said screen time/iPhone use wasn't an issue in our home, with our two youngest, on occasion as well. So, I'm with you; I get it.
Last week I had a mom reach out to me to share a quandary I believe many parents can relate to; so I thought I would turn it into a blog post (with her permission of course), with the idea of sharing what may be a slightly different perspective on the topic.
Here are the nuts & bolts of this mom's dilemma:
Mary* shared with me her 14-year-old daughter Eliza* has become "sneaky" with regard to social media and phone use. Mary learned her daughter was in a relationship with a boy (because Mary's older daughter alerted her to this fact). Since that time, Mary has seen a few of her daughter's texts and social media posts that have included references of Eliza's being grateful for his holding her hand and loving her when she doesn't feel loved by her own family. Mary is both truly surprised and hurt by this comment, Eliza has never led on to any of this with her mom. Mary admits she is really struggling with how to handle Eliza's comment and the relationship with the boy; she feels she cannot trust Eliza after learning these things. Mary did put together a phone contract for her daughter when she got the phone; but it never got signed by Eliza. Mary adds that her older daughters are responsible, kind, and honest, she doesn't know where this is coming from in her youngest, Eliza. Mary's immediate response was to take Eliza's phone away as a consequence because she is not okay with Eliza's (a) having a boyfriend, (b) being dishonest about having a boyfriend, (c) general sneakiness with phone use. Bottom line, Mary feels Eliza needs to be reined in.
* names have been changed, of course*
Gulp. That's a lot to chew on and digest...but I know so many parents will relate to Mary's story because similar scenarios happen everyday, right?!
Let's pull this apart a little bit...
First...there is a lack of communication between parent and child regarding dating. Maybe it was never really discussed yet because Mary didn't think Eliza was even interested in boys at 14. Maybe, and understandably, dating and sexuality is a touchy topic for this mom to talk about with her kids (can't say I don't relate to this...). Another area where there was a breakdown in communication is the use of the phone. Likely it just became part of daily life, like it does for many families, with the best of intentions for establishing and executing the phone contract. It was drawn up, probably talked about, but not executed. We can also recognize this situation could have happened even if there was a signed contract in place. Because even the most "on-top-of-it" parents miss things.
Second, Mary is thrown for a loop by her daughter's (a) dating a boy and then (b) announcing to this boy that she feels more connected to him than she does to her family (fair statement or not; this is apparently Eliza's perception). Mary feels her daughter has always been treated with love and respect, given lots of attention and gifts. There is a disconnect between what Mary feels is going on in the family and Eliza's view of her life.
Third, and I believe most important...is the emotional reaction this whole situation is bringing up inside of Mary. On the surface she's taken off guard, beneath that she may be feeling insecure about what she thought/felt was a trustworthy relationship with her youngest daughter, and she's worried about her daughter's (potentially) over emotional investment in a teenage boy. In addition, since Eliza is not behaving as her older sisters have (or, are), Mary is unsure how to navigate the challenges she sees now, and possibly what might develop between Mary and her daughter in the future.
I would like to ask Mary to take a step back, take a deep breath, and to process her feelings BEFORE she responds to Eliza and the situation she recently learned about.
Our children's (teenagers) behavior is an attempt to get one of their six core needs met. Those core needs include attention, appreciation, autonomy, affection, acceptance, or connection. When we reframe parenting to include this concept, we have a better understanding that our emotional response to a situation that arises with our son or daughter has more to do with our (or, in this case, MARY's) emotions than it does about what a teen (Eliza) is doing. In other words, Eliza's behavior(s) are triggering an emotional reaction in Mary.
Our teens behavior can be our greatest trigger. Agreed?
- As the parent, when you respond to the situation (be it dating, the phone use, or the hurtful comment about your family) ask yourself...do I want to come from a place of fear, or a place of love (in other words; do I want to connect or disconnect with my teen over this)? If you unconsciously come from fear (worry/anxiety) the overall tone and energy of the conversation will present itself, in your teens eyes, as control. This could open up, or escalate a power struggle...not what we want to have happen with our teenager. The older they get, the more we'll want to approach them from a place of support; putting into play boundaries that give them guidance, but giving them choices as often as possible so they can tap into their own path/voice, which includes allowing them to learn [at times] by faltering in the process.
- Next, take the time to solidify what your family values are around dating. Just because the relationship has already started does not mean you should panic or throw your hands up and say "what's done is done". If you are co-parenting, talk it through together and come up with boundaries you can be on the same page about. A lot of parental anxiety creeps in when we remember our own experiences around dating and bring those fears/anxieties into the parent/child relationship assuming our kids might make the same choices or "mistakes" we did. It's true; they could. But, your child is not you. Dating is an important part of adolescence and one you (mom/dad) need to be clear on, in your own mind, when talking with your teen about what that looks like for her at age 14.
- Same process for phone use. All of us (parents) are a little freaked out at times about the potential for social media disasters or iPhone texting. We've all heard stories about predators, hidden apps, boys blackmailing girls into doing things they don't want to do and getting pictures of it, the potential for something being posted that would ruin the college/professional/social future of your child. I completely understand and there is no doubt bad/unfair things happen. At the same time, mom/dad establishing the boundaries they are going to consistently hold around social media and phone use...and then approaching your teen with a heart that speaks that you have your child's back; not that you are wanting to control your child, will make a big difference.
Mary loves Eliza, there is no question...which is why she is troubled by the situation. And the first step is for Mary to become clear in her own mind and then have an honest, open conversation with Eliza about the boyfriend, about social media and phone use. I believe the comment Eliza made about his (the boyfriend) being there and loving her when her family doesn't can be released; except for Mary to consider it may have been a momentary reaction to something that went on earlier in Eliza's day. But it may also be an opportunity for Mary to talk with Eliza about how much (intentional? or more likely, inadvertent?) emotional pressure Eliza may be placing on this boy and the relationship. This is a chance for Mary to empower Eliza around building self-reliance and strengthening the emotional connection within herself so as not to feel the need to receive too much assurance from a budding teen romance.
Have a parenting dilemma you'd like picked apart? I'd love to help. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.