This was first published on ksl.com
My teens (twins, 16 years old) only want to text us. They don’t seem to be open or willing to have conversations with us anymore. I keep insisting on family dinners with no devices but the kids are angry the whole time. What are we doing wrong? We have younger children also and we are afraid of losing our connection and influence with them too. How do we create better relationships with our kids and make sure they will talk to us, not just their friends?
We believe almost every parent on the planet is having this same problem right now. This new world of technology, social media, and texting can be a challenge for us all. Despite our fears and our desire for the world to be different, we must learn how to work within this new framework, if we want to connect with our children.
Despite our fears and our desire for the world to be different, we must learn how to work within this new framework, if we want to connect with our children.
By no means does this mean you drop your standards or your efforts to communicate like in the old days, but you must be smart and proactive and adapt to meet them where they are. It helps to understand the importance and the influence of technology on our teenagers.
There are many opinions on how detrimental it is for our teens to use technology for communication, however, it is the new communication process, whether we like it or not. If we exclude them from this by limiting, banning, or taking away technology altogether, it quickly creates social problems for them. If they are not communicating on social media, by text and on a phone, they are not included socially. It’s here that we see isolation, bullying, and feelings of despondency and depression come into play, as they are not connected to their peers.
We must allow them to engage in it with healthy limitations, which you can set with them and their input. These healthy limitations are best respected when they are also modeled by you. How attached are you to your phone when you are at home? Do you use your phone at meal times and after 9 p.m.? These are things to discuss as a family, and create limits based on moral reasoning instead of punishment.
Here are some ways you can improve your connection with your teenagers despite technology. This is the answer to your question, how do we continue to build trust, close relationships and instill values with our children, within their technology framework.
1. You must earn their trust and a place in their life; it’s not guaranteed just because you’re their parent.
The sad truth is if you want to be the person (and the place) they come to in times of stress, change, and trouble, you must earn it. Being their parent is not a guarantee that you will be their safe place, that they will trust you, or even include you in their life. Now, without needing to include you, or become vulnerable and risk judgment or punishment, they can turn to Google, social media and friends for help and answers when they need them.
This is a vastly different world from when we were teenagers, as we only saw our friends at school or at activities. Now, kids have constant connection through their smartphone, which is constantly attached to their thumbs and back pockets. This makes it even harder for parents to compete for their time, attention and for a position as their problem solver and confidant. Knowing your child is highly likely to reach for their smartphone for answers, instead of coming to you, is a scary place, but you can earn your position in their life through the following steps.
2. You must be a safe place for them.
If you really want to be the person your child turns to in times of trouble, you must on some level compete with technology for their time and attention, and you must be a safe place. This means you must be non-judgmental and use all your self-control to be present and listen instead of giving feedback or a lecture.
Technology offers answers fast and without judgment or disappointment in them. So you can’t risk being critical, making them feel dumb or embarrassed about their opinions and ideas. Being a teenager is awkward enough, so they need your love and support with a big dose of respect for where they are and what they think. This can be hard for parents who are parenting in fear of failure and loss, and want desperately for their children to listen, make changes or not make mistakes.
This doesn’t mean you have to agree with them all the time or even at all, but you must respect their right to have their feelings, ideas and emotions. This doesn’t mean you become their friend and drop parenting though. Instead, it means becoming an exceptional listener and making conversations all about them and not about you. You must validate and honor their right to feel as they do, even if you think they are completely wrong. You must do this because, at the end of the day, they do have a right to feel exactly as they do, so you must validate this right and show support for them.
Years ago, I begged my rebellious teen not to lie to me and to please just tell me the truth about his activities. His answer was, “Mom, then I need you to be able to handle the truth with love and respect, can you do that?” It was a tall order, but I set my fears aside and made it all about showing up for him.
If you can’t handle the truth and do it with love and compassion, your child won’t see you as a safe place and won’t come to you. Non-judgmental listening is the only way to create a place of safety and give you any chance of having influence at critical moments in their life.
3. Be mindful of your expectations.
We all have desires for our children. However, many of us become attached to outcomes and have high expectations. It’s good to have some expectations for your children, like wanting them to be good people with integrity and have good self-esteem. But are all your expectations realistic? Do they set your children up to succeed or to fail?
Many teenagers we coach tell us that their parents' expectations make them feel like they are failing all the time, and they honestly feel they are doomed to never be good enough. This is the exact emotion that pulls children away from you, that shuts down connection and dialogue. Often they withdraw from us and only communicate via text message (as it feels much safer).
As you set your expectations, be sure it’s not about specifics, don’t attach yourself to their exact grades, whether they win or lose at sports, or how they will perform. The healthiest and best way to set expectations is based on their efforts. This means them delivering their best effort and also finding joy and fulfillment in the process. This sets our children up to become fulfilled, self-motivated people and see that effort is worth the reward.
We also recommend a 5 to 1 rule. Deliver five messages of positive feedback and encouragement for every one conversation about improvement or correction. This is easier said than done, especially when parents are in fear and want their children to change. Focus on celebrating who they are and what they are doing well. This also creates a safe place, where they don't fear disappointing you.
4. Text your teens
If text is a communication method they are comfortable with, then use it without trying to push them into conversations they aren’t ready and open to having. Use the same 5 to 1 rule with texts (this means five positive, encouraging, fun texts for every reminder to be safe or a "Don’t forget your chores" kind of message).
Become savvy using emojis and be quick to respond to all their texts too. Remember, they live in an instant gratification world, so at some level, we must match that. Don’t wait hours to respond, do it ASAP.
Ask them to show you how to text with predictive text and how to use emojis properly. This shows interest in their world. Never underestimate the power of a positive text — “Hey, it’s mom. Just want you to know how proud I am of you and can’t wait to grab a movie with you this weekend." or "Good luck on the math test today. You’re going to be great! I believe in you and know how capable you are.”
Send them funny messages and make them laugh too.
This parenting game with technology is a new one for us all, but showing interest and enthusiasm to get on their level and even allowing them to laugh at your incompetence, is great for building a connection.
Remember to parent from love instead of fear, trust your children and watch your need to control them. Begin to adjust your perspective to one of respect, and speak to them as you would a peer or an equal, instead of talking down to them as a child.
They are still your children, but they badly want your respect and to be treated like an adult. The more you respect them at this level, the more respect you will get back. Choose to love them where they are and use technology to connect with them, and you will always have an important place in their world.
You can do this!
Kimberly Giles and Nicole Cunningham are the owners of claritypointcoaching.com and 12shapes.com. Come hear them speak at the Uplift Families Conference in October - at Thanksgiving point. http://www.upliftfamilies.org/
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Kimberly Giles is the president and founder of Claritypoint Life Coaching and 12 SHAPES INC. She is an author and professional speaker. She was named one of the top 20 advice gurus in the country by Good Morning America in 2010. She appears regularly on local and national TV and Radio.