When my kids were little, they talked to me. Sure I got the standard, “Fine” when I asked, “How was school?” or “Nothing,” when I asked what they did, but as we did activities together or as I snuggled them at night, they’d tell me things. Things they did and things they wanted, silly things and meaningful things.
As they’ve become teenagers, those conversations have started to dry up a little. As I see less of them, I notice my desire to reconnect at the end of the school day. I work from home and sometimes I spend hours alone, so when they walk in the door, I’m ready to talk. And they plop themselves down on the couch and pull out their phones. They watch videos, play games and scroll through their Snapchats and Instagram posts. You know what I mean? I wanna scream, “Put down your phone and talk to me!”
I admit, for a while, I took it personally. It took me a lot of days of sitting with them on their phones getting grunts and shrugs for a response before I stepped back to see what was happening.
I had the idea to put myself in their shoes.
Have you ever walked in the door to have questions pelted at you: What’s for dinner? I need my baseball uniform for tomorrow. Why didn’t you wash my favorite shirt? Have you seen my earbuds? Can you sign this form?
I’m guessing you don’t like it any more than I do—or than our kids do.
I got curious about why they wanted to be on their phones when they got home, I realized they weren’t really trying to tune me out. They just needed to decompress and check in with their friends on social media. They had just spent their day listening to teachers, working on classwork and socializing (let’s not forget how much social pressure there is at school). As much as – in that moment – I wanted to reconnect, they needed something different.
So, I started to practice giving my kids a little space after school. I’m not always good at it, but I try to remember to be there without badgering them with questions or nagging them to get off the phone. When I remember to do this, I notice that sometimes they start looking for me. Not always, but more than they did before. They’re more likely to connect when they are ready.
I stick around, trying to zip my lips and just be a good listener (admittedly very hard for me not to chime in with my opinions). Being a potted plant parent seems to be pretty effective. Generally, our tweens and teens want us around, even if they don’t act like it. They want us to be there when they need us. And at the same time they have a strong need for autonomy and independence, so they want us to “get out” when they want some space. This is normal (albeit painful for us).
The questions for us, as parents, are—can we be with them without judging? without badgering? without questioning? Just being there is one super important step to staying connected.
- Be attuned to what they need. In my example, my kids needed more space when they got home from school. Your kid may need to talk about certain things without looking at you. Maybe it’s more comfortable to say some things while looking at their phone or helping you clean up the kitchen after dinner. Maybe they need to talk at bedtime, even if it’s late for you (prime time for teens is more like 10 or 11pm). Be there when they want to engage.
- Be sensitive to what they’re doing. Have you ever snapped at your kids because you were in the middle of doing something and they asked you a question or wanted something from you right away? Maybe you thought, “Can’t you see I’m doing something?” Our kids are often doing something too—working on a tough level in a video game, engrossed in Legos, caught up in a book or a daydream. It may not seem important to us, but when they’re into doing something and we barge in with demands to pick up socks or come to dinner or talk about the day, they get frustrated too.
- Don’t judge or devalue what they do. You may think the YouTube videos they’re watching are stupid. You may hate the video games they play. You may not see the value in Snapchat—especially since they were just at school with all their friends. But when you judge and devalue what’s important to them, you close off connection. This shows up in our tone and what we say about what they’re doing. It also shows up in interruptions. If we keep asking them questions or telling them to do things, it says, “What you are doing right now isn’t important.” And if what they’re doing is important to them, they feel like you don’t care.
- Be there without talking. This one is soooo hard for me. Is it a female thing or just me? I keep reminding myself that being “with” someone doesn’t have to include talking, touching or making eye contact. We can be near them but doing our own thing and that still matters. Sometimes, intentionally do nothing—it’s the most clear way to show them that you’re available if they need to talk (it’s not unusual for kids to think their parents are always busy or see them on their phones and perceive that as “they don’t have time for me”).
- Don’t take it personally. Remember that the need to individuate is biological—it’s natural at this age. Our kids feel a need to push us away even when they want to be close. This is hard for us and confusing for them. We can help by not taking it personally when they need space or don’t want to talk at any given moment. When you find yourself taking it personally, walk away and talk to another adult rather than acting out with your kids.
We can (and need to) maintain connection with our kids throughout their tween and teen years. We really need to recognize that technology is important to them and stop demonizing it and allowing it to come between us. How about we get more curious about what interests them even when we don’t understand or like it? And let’s not forget that our kids may want to connect at different times or in different ways than we want to. Our job is to not get annoyed that it isn’t happening on our terms—and to be there for them when they’re ready.
What’s YOUR experience with your teens on their devices? Do you have some other suggestions to share? Please share below!