Participating in Your Child’s Life, Including Their Digital Life with Dr. Michael Slone

This blog is brought to you by Dr. Michael Slone of the Center for Developing Minds (www.devminds.com).

Social media users often report enjoyment from sharing experiences and insights with friends online.  However, recent research has taught us that social media use can correlate with, and even cause, mental health problems.  In particular, teens who invest more emotion and time into social media, such as 2 hours per day or 10 hours per week, report being less happy and more anxious; moreover, systematically decreasing social media time has been shown to potentially improve mental wellness.  In my practice and research, I’ve found that some teens are more vulnerable than others to social media dependency and distress.  How do we as parents help our teen?  We attentively participate in our child’s life, including their digital life. 

I began this three-part “Parenting In Today’s Digital Age” blog series with age-old parenting questions, “Where is my child?”, “What is my child doing?”, and “Who is my child with?”  These questions are more complicated with the internet dominating our lives. In the first two parts of this blog series, I promote ways to discuss, teach, set, and monitor appropriate expectations for technology use and online behavior.  In Part 3 of this blog series, I will focus on an equally important aspect of parenting in the digital age, how to “Attentively Participate in Your Child’s Life, Including Their Digital Life.” 

As kids mature, they will naturally value their peers’ input and interests as much, and usually more, than their parents’ opinions.  Often teenagers will question and challenge authority, and experiment with different ways of thinking and behaving.  These developmental steps and experiences can help our children evolve into independent adults with their own identities, who will make their own decisions and impact on the world. As parents, we hope we have guided our children to make informed and healthy decisions, and positively impact the world.  To do so, it starts with being attentive to our children and teenagers. This is not easy when they value their friends’ attention more than ours and prefer interactions that are online and via text.  Maintaining open communication and a healthy relationship with your child or teen can be challenging and stressful, especially in this digital age.

The Search Institute has decades of research dedicated to the supports, opportunities, and relationships young people need across all aspects of their lives—which they refer to as the 40 DEVELOPMENTAL ASSETS.  Adult support encompasses a number of important Assets, including a loving family with parents who are actively involved in their child’s life, and communicate positively with their child “so the young person is willing to seek parent(s) advice and counsel.”  Here are three easy-to-remember techniques that parents can use to positively, lovingly, and attentively participate in their child’s life, including their digital life:

  1. Actively Listen: Leadership expert and author, John Maxwell, uses the acronym LADDER to describe how we can “climb the ladder to better listening:”

L -- Look at the speaker: Put your phone and work away and look at your child, give an affirming nod, encouraging smile, or a look of understanding. Researchers have estimated that more than 90% of human communication is nonverbal.

A – Ask thoughtful questions: Ask open-ended or clarifying questions about what your child is thinking about, feeling, or doing (both in real life and their digital life), and allow for a variety of responses rather than implying there is one “correct” answer.  This helps to not only deepen your communication and relationship, but it also helps young people think deeper about their own feelings and behaviors that they want to self-moderate but often struggle to do so because of poor impulse control and lack of perspective.

D – Don’t interrupt: Patiently pay attention to what feeling your child is conveying

D – Don’t change subjects, or offer instant advice. 

E – Emotions, check them at the door.  Put empathy first. Try to see issues from your child or teen’s point of view rather than immediately as an adult.  Try not to just dismiss your teen’s feelings as “wrong” or judge them negatively or emotionally.

R – Responsive listening: Show them you are attentive by repeating, clarifying, or summarizing what you heard to make sure that is what your child intended to communicate so they feel validated and understood. This will help even if you later don’t agree with your child’s perspective or give in to what they want.

  1. Use The 5-to-1 Magic Ratio: Renowned therapist and relationship researcher, Dr. John Gottman, has scientifically identified the “magic ratio” for keeping relationships healthy and stable—engage in five positive interactions for every negative one.  Positive interactions can be quick, subtle, easy-to-do behaviors like showing affection, appreciation, or interest in another person, sincere compliments, sweet notes, small gifts, or sharing a joke or activity that you both enjoy.  When negative interactions inevitably occur, such as correction, criticism, conflict, or a punishing consequence, be sure to balance it out with 4-5 positive interactions to maintain a strong relationship. 
     
  2. Correct with a Reinforcement Sandwich: People, especially our children and teenagers, are more responsive to corrections when they are “sandwiched” with reinforcement.  For example, compare these two parent-child interactions:

Correction Example#1
Parent: I told you to get off video games ten minutes ago, turn it off!

Child: Five more minutes!

Parent: You always say that and never do it, I’m turning it off now!
Child: No!!!

Correction Example (with a reinforcement sandwich) #2
Parent: Earlier today when I told you to hang up your jacket you did it right away and I was so appreciative.  But ten minutes ago I told you to turn off your video games and come to dinner and you are still playing. When I tell you to come to dinner you need to do what (pause)?

Child: I know, turn off my games and come to dinner right away

Parent: (standing in front of child and video game waiting for a response)

Child: (turns off the video game and comes to dinner)

Parent: Thank you so much, I really appreciate you coming without arguing

The formula for this “Reinforcement Sandwich Correction Strategy” is:

  1. Reinforce (praise) earlier behavior
  2. State inappropriate behavior with a calm voice (“Just now, you…”)
  3. State appropriate behavior with a dangling sentence
  4. Require response/performance
  5. Reinforce (praise) compliance

These three attentive parenting techniques will help you and your child maintain healthier communication and happier interactions.  However, before I conclude this blog, there is one burning question on this topic that I often hear from parents, “Should I monitor my child’s social media?”  When does well-intended social media supervision turn into spying that undermines a trusting parent-child relationship?  I have found that parents are conflicted on this issue.

Spying is hidden, secret, stealthy, and underhanded surveillance.  If your teenager discovered that you were secretly watching them in their bedroom with hidden cameras for years, they would be right to distrust you and your motives.  However, it’s reasonable to ask your children to keep the bedroom door open when they have friends over. After explaining to them that as the adult parent in the home it’s your responsibility to make sure you supervise what minors are doing, this allows you to maintain appropriate parental involvement and awareness.

Similarly, parents should monitor their children’s social media, with their child’s knowledge and ideally a mutual agreement in place (Refer to part 1 of this blog regarding media agreements, and part 2 for teaching your child to be safe and smart online).  Explain to your child that social media use is like driving, in that you believe it requires a certain age and maturity level, and only after proper instruction and supervision.  No matter how responsible or trustworthy your child is, the keys to social media accounts won’t simply be handed to them in one discussion—there are dangers and risks out there and you want to be there initially to ensure they use social media in a safe and healthy manner.  Eventually, you both will agree that your supervision can fade and they are ready to be safe on their own. However, if your teen is secretively or inappropriately using social media, their independent use will be suspended, just as it would be with car driving privileges.  

I hope you have found this three-part blog useful for Parenting In Today’s Digital Age, in particular in Setting Expectations and Limits for Appropriate Technology Use, Teaching Safe and Smart Cyber and Cell Phone Activity and Attentively Participating in Your Children’s Lives, Including Their Digital Lives.  Please feel free to share with other parents, and if you or your child are in need of more assistance, don’t hesitate to contact a therapist for help, such as those at the Center for Developing Minds (www.devminds.com).