Our teenager continues to immediately check the texts. How can we stop it?

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Q: Our 16 year old son has been using his phone too much. There haven’t been any serious adverse consequences yet, but we’re trying to work with him on responsible use. We’ve allowed him to figure out what steps he’s taking now to address the issue, and we’ll follow up with him in a few weeks on that.

There’s a bigger issue, though, that we can’t agree on: he thinks it’s socially unacceptable not to respond immediately when a friend texts him. He thinks our counter arguments are out of touch with today’s youth. I don’t know how to find common ground on this issue. Thoughts?

A: Oh man. As a mother, parenting coach, and human being addicted to her phone, I hear you loud and clear. As someone who grew up with a corded phone in their kitchen, how quickly we’ve gone from pagers to cordless phones to cellphones takes my breath away. Your son has not known life without this kind of technology and communication; he only knew the jingles, beeps and alarms the phone sends when someone has written.

Let’s take a closer look at your concerns. First, your son uses his phone too much. I would ask you to obtain data here, even anecdotal ones. Does he check his phone during meals when he didn’t before? Does he interrupt conversations with you to check texts and reply? Does his school work suffer from an inability to concentrate? You yourself report that there were no serious adverse consequences, so without data, why would your son be interested in changing? You absolutely don’t need things to break down before you get into texting and phone use, but you do need to offer more than “overusing his phone.”

Because you didn’t clearly define the parameters of the problem, getting him to take action to fix the problem was never going to work. He’s not buying that there’s a problem, so he’s not going to fix it. However, I commend you for giving him the power to find his own solutions.

As for what is socially acceptable when it comes to using the phone and texting, it can be a divide where you decide to agree to disagree. Remember: He grew up with the immediacy of texts and technology; you didn’t. The reward center in his brain has been trained (for a very long time) to respond to the sound of text, and trying to persuade him that it’s socially acceptable not to respond immediately isn’t going to sit well with him.

You should also recognize its developmental age. He’s in the midst of an intense period of growth and change, and many teenagers are desperate to be with, be like, and be important to their friends. Missing or unresponsive texts throw you “out of the loop”, even if that loop is only perceived and not real. Trying to persuade a teenager that texts aren’t important or don’t need attention takes time and, frankly, wasted time (even if you’re right).

Let’s stop the need to persuade him of your correctness. Drop judgment and the need to see eye to eye. In fact, you don’t want him to think like you; you want him to think for himself. To do this more effectively, more respectfully, first collect your data, then listen. Say: “We have noticed that over the past few weeks you have been picking up your phone more and more during meals. What’s up with that? You may find that there are valid reasons you didn’t know about, and curiosity and genuine listening almost always earn a teenager’s respect.

After you get a better understanding of why texting is so important to him, co-create a plan that will make you both happy. “James, the phone is important to you, and eye contact and conversation are important to us. What can happen that makes us all feel good?”

Compromise, really, means that both parties don’t quite get what they want, but it does mean that you’re totally within your rights to have expectations in your home.

To find worksheets and clear explanations on how to co-create a more respectful plan, check out Ross Greene’s work on livesinthebalance.org. Whatever you do, don’t let this power struggle overshadow your relationship with your son. He’ll be an adult soon, so try to have thoughtful conversations instead of judgements, try to listen more than talk, and be patient when his friends feel like everyone else. Stay in its orbit. Good luck.

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