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Why you need a better (less exhausting) strategy for managing your teen's technology habits

In our work, as parent coaches, managing teen technology habits wins the prize for the least popular responsibility, not to mention the most exhausting.

The rationale for not coming up with a plan regarding healthy use usually sounds something like, “well, my child is almost 18, they are going to need to learn to manage technology on their own at some point…” And, more recently, “we’re in a pandemic, what else are they supposed to do right now?”.

These statements are usually said with a lot of resignation, as if the window of influence has already shut on their budding young adult, even if that budding young adult is, well, parent-funded.

If your teen is like 95% of the families we help, they are adamant about asserting their “independence”, usually defined by slammed doors and proclamations that they need to be free to do what they want, but for all practical purposes, they are still pretty dependent on parents in most areas of day-to-day living. Therefore, you still have some influence.

Why should you keep an eye on your teen’s tech habits?

*In a world where Netflix considers itself to be a sport with its only competitor being “sleep”, where tech execs limit their own children’s phone usage, where recent studies have shown that cognitive capacity declines by just the mere presence of a phone and with heavy phone usage now identified as a culprit of adult-onset of ADHD symptoms, we give you some thoughts to consider and strategies to try on:

1) Approach technology from a wise-minded parenting voice:

The wise mind approach encourages parents to know the intention behind their approach while looking at the short/long term, the practical, and the emotional.

For some families who are new to putting limits in place that guide their kids toward responsibility rather than entitlement, this can be exhausting. But if you choose to not have a say in technology due to your own exhaustion, make sure that you pay close attention to the potential negative effects of technology on your child (lack of sleep, increased anxiety, increased isolation, decreased willingness to be parented) so that you can later choose to exert more influence in this area, if needed.

2) Match privilege with responsibility.

If you are using the “they are almost 18 and will have to learn to manage soon enough…” approach, in what areas of privilege and responsibility are you using the same philosophy?

For example, does your child pay their car insurance or buy their own gas for the privilege of using or having a car? Are they learning how to save and budget (even if you plan to cover their college living expenses)?

You can counter the “almost 18” privileges with the “almost 18” responsibilities if this is an important approach for you.

3) Support LIFE, not LIFESTYLE.

When it comes to the parent funding of a young adult, even if they are in school full time, it can be useful to take the financial approach of supporting life, not lifestyle.

Recent clients’ of ours shared the story of their young adult son in his sophomore year of college calling home to get lunch money. “I have paid through the school for you to eat on campus”, says the mom. “But there is a long line and I don’t want to wait.”, counters the college sophomore. Mom says no to the additional funds, so he calls dad. Dad ends up sending him $100 for lunch.

On our call, we focused on the messages that are sent through that seemingly “harmless” action. By sending the funds, the dad taught the son to not have to tolerate waiting in line. This young adult’s tolerance to even mild distress is something that had been an obstacle in the past, and in this way, the dad was continuing to pad him from simple resilience building.

In raising our teens and young adults, we want to support life, not lifestyle. Lifestyle is the $100 lunch or the $50 shiny object they must have. Supporting life is covering the basics, like on-campus meals.

Of course, the price point really isn’t the issue. Parents can decide on whatever amount of allowance they think is healthy for their child. We just ask parents to look at the messages they are sending and to approach their parenting decisions from a wise minded place. 

4) Help train critical thinkers

Our parent-funded young adults want us to trust them, to trust their decision-making abilities. They try to convince us they have worked sooooooo hard to earn xyz privilege. So train your kids to be critical thinkers. When the parent-funded young adults, or even older adolescents, want something here is what we suggest you require of them:

  1. They first need to: share with you the pros and cons of the issue
  2. Step into your shoes to share a few pros and cons from your perspective
  3. Listen to your perspective and hear anything they might have missed in their version (note to parent, be cautious not to repeat what they have already said and fall into the pattern of the dreaded lecture).
  4. Allow you, the parents, 24-48 hours to think about it, slowing the process down for everyone. In that 24-48 hour period, you assess the risk. If it is low to moderate, maybe you decide to support your child’s choice. If it is moderate to high then let them know why you don’t support their choice at this time.

This asks your child to critically think, which takes mental flexibility to counter their rigid focus on what they want. This process asks them to step into someone else’s shoes, which is challenging for many of these kids; and pushes delayed gratification, which is an extremely helpful skill and practically non-existent in the lives of many in this generation.

If your child cannot do this all in one sitting, that is ok. Give them a few chances to recalibrate and try again. If they refuse, then they are not ready to allow for the collaboration in decision making they are seeking.

Now, this is a tool, not a rule…

Don’t overuse it because it will get old for everyone. Feel free to come up with guiding questions or an approach that fits your communication style. Keep in mind, that as a parent, you always have the right to just say no without going through this process if the risk is just too high.

And, of course, when the exhaustion is just too much to put approaches like these into place, which happens for us all, the next best step is simply to role model. Look at your own habits with some curiosity and see if there are changes that you might want to make too.

*these facts taken from: Smartphone facts and scholarly articles on tech addiction, 2019-2020

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Solutions Parenting Support, LLC is a nationally recognized parent support and transition program assisting parents and families with straightforward and compassionate skills based support prior to, during and after wilderness therapy and/or residential treatment. Solutions is a dynamic team of parent coaches who have had extensive careers as therapists in wilderness therapy or residential treatment before turning their talents towards coaching parents around the globe. The team is family system focused and are licensed professional therapists and/or social workers each with 15-30 years of experience working in wilderness therapy programs, varying levels of residential treatment programming, and transitional support.

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