If you are like most parents you are worried about your teen being on their phone too much. There is reason to worry, especially since we know there is a rise in teen anxiety and suicide. And many blame cell phone addiction as the cause for this increase in teenage emotional problems. (Many adults are addicted too, but that’s another story). Turns out, according to this informative article by Tracy Dennis-Tiwary, a professor of psychology at Hunter College, excessive cell phone use may be more a symptom of anxiety and depression than a cause for it. One thing I particularly like about the article is that it supports the parent-child relationship focus of Reflective Parenting. While Dr. Dennis-Tiwary emphasizes the central importance of strong parent-child relationships, her article did not have room for explaining how a parent can do that- which is why I was inspired to write this blog. And by the way if you are looking for a good example of how to be a Reflective Parent you would do well to see the film Eight Grade written and directed by Bo Burnham.
Do cell phones harm teens? There is evidence that too much exposure to social media can cause a teen to feel badly: e.g, envious, and inadequate; rejected and left out; and even to suffer from cyber-bullying. And many parents take heart because Apps are now available that can help reduce cellphone use. But as Dr. Dennis-Tiwary emphasizes, simply reducing cellphone use will not fully solve their teen’s vulnerability to anxiety and depression, because the problem is bigger than too much time on cellphones.
The real reason teens are suffering so much emotional upheaval these days is that their lives are filled with fear and uncertainty. What teens see around them and ahead of them in adult life, is terrorism, street violence, school shootings, excessive competition for good grades and schools, high college debt, and insufficient employment opportunities for good paying jobs, just to name a few.
No wonder so many are worried even hopeless about their lives and their futures. No wonder they want to escape into their phones! The truth is that their parents are also frightened and anxious about the world their teens are facing. So, the natural parent instinct is to jump in to protect and fix. Simple fixes like setting a limit on cellphone use is a tempting idea. However, parents are encouraged to resist simple short term fixes, because they may handicap your child in the long run.
By focusing so much on reducing phone use, parents may be missing the real message their child is trying to communicate. Your child needs you to listen to what is going on underneath all that cellphone use. They need you to step back and see the big picture, which is that the world terrifies them and that their addiction to their cell phones may be in large part their way of burrowing to escape their fears. If the focus remains simply on reduced cellphone use, while the underlying issues are not addressed, it will not only be very hard to pull them away from their cell phones, it may even exacerbate their feelings of emptiness and helplessness.
WHAT WE KNOW IS THAT RELATIONSHIPS MATTER MOST
RELATING TO A TEEN REQUIRES VALIDATION FIRST
The good news is that even your teenager wants a relationship with you. Although it may seem to you as if your teen is pulling away and doesn’t want much to do with you, it turns out your relationship with your teen plays an amazingly valuable role, a kind of safe harbor in the storm.
Reflective Parenting provides all the relationship building tools you will need. Here is what your fearful uncertain child needs from you: √ listening to them, √ empathizing with them, √ validating them, √ supporting them, √ accepting them, √ believing in them, and √ teaching them adaptive coping mechanism for reducing their anxiety and boosting up their sense of hope.
Ideas for teaching teens to cope with uncertainty and fear. Remember the task of adolescence is to develop the skills of independence and solving problems on their own, so they can make a successful transition to adult life. If they are too stressed and frightened it will impede their progress. A relationship with you is the buffer and back-up they need, to reduce some of the anxiety and feelings of helplessness, aloneness and hopelessness.
They need you to support their independence before you offer your wisdom.
- First: Validate their perspective, empathize with their feelings and let them know you believe in them and their ability to figure things out more on their own.
- Then after that, you can offer your ‘parenting wisdom.’ Giving your child the freedom to think for themselves and even to disagree with you, opens the space for them to also take in what you want them to know and learn.
Uncertainty is a big problem and it makes people anxious and self-doubting, sometimes even paralyzed. However, it is made worse when we don’t accept the fundamental uncertainties that life presents.
We know that acceptance of the ambiguities and uncertainties of life serves to reduce stress. The message should be:
- Uncertainty is a reality. We can’t avoid it.
- By not accepting it you reduce your resources for dealing with it.
- It is a good message for you as a parent to learn also.
Some examples of what you can say:
All of these ideas are designed for strengthening the relationship you have with your child…which as I have emphasized serves as an anchor or even a life preserver for your child.
- “I know it all seems terrifying and hopeless and you may think I don’t understand or care, but I do care and I do want to understand.”
- “And if you feel I don’t understand well enough, then I will try harder to understand”
- “I know that the fact that everything feels so uncertain, makes you feel hopeless about the future and even makes you feel kind of paralyzed from making choices about what you want to do.” Then you can offer your, “I know uncertainty sucks, but we all must learn some way to accept it. In fact, the more you accept it, the more energy you will have to deal with it.”
Other possible things to say and do after you empathize and validate are:
- “The fact that you don’t know exactly how your choices will turn out, doesn’t mean you should give up on making choices. It’s good to decide what you want to do and work towards it, even though you can’t totally predict the outcome.”
- Give your teen plenty of room and support for expressing what choices they would make.
- Give them the space to practice solving their problems during their time at home, so they can feel braver about their future away from home.
- Have open ended conversations and be honest about the dangers.
- Give your child the opportunity to express their views on the subject, including what they would do to solve it.
- And listen without judgment or contradicting them.
The point is if you want your child to build up the confidence to confront their fears and uncertainties, you must do the delicate balancing act of both supporting them in their opinions, ideas and their competence, while also offering your own with the angle of ‘I’m just being a parent’ or ‘That’s just my opinion’.
Don’t try to force your child to agree with you. For example, teens are highly sensitive to what others think about them- especially about how they look, what they wear and whether or not they fit in socially. You have to be honest about it and validating. “Yes, I agree with you. People can be very shallow and judgmental. I hate that too!” is one possible thing to say. Then you can follow it up with your ‘parenting wisdom’. You might say, “I believe it’s best not to care so much about how others think. In my experience, looks and clothes end up not mattering that much to how well a person does in life. And those kids who seem so popular now, often turn out to not be so great later on. In fact, acting so superior often hides their true insecurity underneath” Now here is what will enable the ‘medicine to go down, so to speak. You must tread softly, when trying to teach.
It never hurts to end whatever you say with: “But those are just my ideas. I trust you will figure your own good ideas.”