“Get OFF Your Phone!” 3 Tips to Connect with Your Teen

By Kathleen McKee, MS, MSW (in progress)

With the holiday season upon us, many families yearn for time to be together and connect, but they feel deep frustration and sadness instead. With cell phone & technology use distracting both children and parents, many families feel more isolated and disconnected than ever.

In an analysis of parent-teen relationships and how phone use by either affects them, Davis, Dinhopl and Hiniker (2018) found that many parents (40%) and teens (36%) felt they used their own phones too much. They also reported that they felt  like they couldn’t control their use of their phones but used them unconsciously and out of habit. Many felt “they had a problem” or an addiction to their phones. 

Many parents and teens recognized their phone use was causing relational disruption between them, but being on their phones after a long day at school or  work was what they really wanted to relax and unwind. Also, many parents had the excuse that they were working from home on their phones, so they were communicating with clients or work-mates. In this study, interestingly, teens felt guiltier than parents about being on their phones instead of being with family members. Many teens felt like they were competing with the phone to get their parent’s attention, and younger teens in particular said they felt unimportant and hurt with so much phone usage by parents. Finally, each group thought it was the other person’s phone usage that that led to a lack of quality family time!

So what is going on here? 

According to a Pew survey, 95% of teens have access to a smartphone, and 46% say they are online “almost constantly” (Vogels, et al., 2022). These smartphones to which we are attached have the effect of releasing dopamine in our brains so we feel aroused, happy and motivated. And we can even build up tolerance so it takes more time online to get the pleasurable reward! 

Many of us are on our smartphones looking at messages, TikTok, or Instagram to relieve stress, anxiety, depression, or loneliness, but, ironically, it is isolating us from interpersonal connections. What your deeper psyche is probably needing is meaningful connections with other people that can see you and receive who you are. So while phones and getting likes and comments on posts and videos give us an artificial high, we can nurture relationships differently to give ourselves more natural, deeply satisfying highs that come from genuine connection.

So what can you do as a parent to increase genuine connection and decrease phone use? Try these 3 tips:

1.  Create an intention to stay off of your phone. For certain periods of the day, commit to being phone-free and fully available to your children in meaningful ways. Face them and maintain eye contact. Be genuinely interested. Ask how they are doing and reflect what it is you hear them say. Ask about their friends or their recent activities. After reflecting, ask an open-ended question (ones that require more than yes or no) to learn more about it and their experience there. “It sounds like you were pretty tired after practice but had fun going to Melanie’s house afterwards?” 

These invitations to share more will hopefully yield more connection and a desire by your child to interact with you more. When we enter the teen’s world without feedback, judgment or advice, they can feel safe and accepted which is what they need to explore their blooming identity and forge through more complicated relationships. And anytime they express feelings to you including frustration, anger, disappointment, etc, reflect it first before you automatically respond or problem-solve. Children and teens need to be heard and understood by their caregivers, and simple empathic reflection can give them a natural dopamine hit that they need in their relationships with others. 

2.  Be mindful of your own phone use and how that is modeling behavior for your children. Sometimes we need to practice “being,” not doing. We are actually running the risk of damaging our brain’s wiring, and children’s brains do not develop well without healthy attuning relationships with caregivers. Our brains are wired for steady face-to-face, back-and forth conversation.

I suggest trying a mindfulness practice (adapted from Abblett, 2016) which has scientifically-established health and well-being benefits. It can help keep you more connected to yourself and hopefully, your family. Try it here:

  1. Sit comfortably and close your eyes with your phone in your hand. 
  2. Take a deep breath through your nose, and very slowly release it through your mouth, like blowing out birthday candle. Do that one or two more times.
  3. Breathe normally and notice the sensations of the act of breathing and notice sensations in your body.
  4. Notice if you have any compulsions to get on your phone and check your apps or messages.
  5. Label any thoughts as a want, frustration, restlessness, fatigue, or a sense of doubt, etc. and come back to being aware of how your breath feels and body sensations. 
  6. See if you can keep your awareness lightly connected to the sensation of the breath.
  7. Be aware of any desire to use your phone. Be aware of thoughts and bodily sensations? Notice the pull and see if you are willing to just ride the impulse without following it. 
  8. Focus on the breath, put the phone aside, and investigate your feelings and sensations now. What do you notice? 
  9. Give yourself grace and patience… allow yourself to be curious and open. Give yourself gratitude for giving yourself kind attention. 

3. If you have a daughter between 9 and 15 years old, join our 8-week online course “Cultivating Mindfulness with your Daughter” starting January 9. You and your daughter will learn coping skills for stress, anxiety, communication skills and mindfulness practice together. Learn more details here.

Remember that natural highs come from interpersonal connection through true listening and honest expression. When we help our children feel heard, understood and fully accepted, even with their unpredictable moods, there will be more trust and connection. When we are off our phones more, there is more opportunity for the connection moments.

Sources

Abblett, M. (2016, March 14). Addicted to Your Phone? Try this Practice—Phone in Hand. Mindful.org. https://www.mindful.org/addicted-to-your-phone-try-this-practice-phone-in-hand/ 

Davis, K., Dinhopl, A., & Hiniker, A. (2019). “Everything’s the Phone”: Understanding the Phone’s Supercharged Role in Parent-Teen Relationships. Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. https://doi.org/10.1145/3290605.3300457   Vogels, E. A., Gelles-

Watnick, R.  & Massarat, N. (2022, August 10). Teens, Social Media, and Technology 2022. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2022/08/10/teens-social-media-and-technology-2022/

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