Cell Phones Are Ruining Our Family

Cell Phones Are Ruining Our Family

Cell phones are now a fundamental part of life for parents and teens, so how can a parent compete with the powerful draw of the cell phone?  

If you have a question you’d like me to address on this podcast, don’t be shy, we’ll all benefit from your question so come on over to my website, neildbrown.com and enter it there today. And while you’re there, download a free copy of my Parental Burnout Recovery Guide.

Today we’re hearing from Gina of Richmond, VA

And Gina writes:

I have 2 daughters 16 and 14 both are doing reasonably well, yet our home life is chaotic and too often unpleasant. Cell phones are making it difficult to impossible to get anyone’s attention and getting things moving forward is burdensome. 

I’m not happy about the amount of time my 16 year old is on her phone, but she’s more or less pleasant when asked to do things and with a little reminding, gets things done. She’s also active in sports so there’s some balance in her life. Our 14 year old is another story. As an infant and a child, she’s always had a hard time with transitions and getting her off her phone is near impossible.When asked it’s “one minute”. Ten minutes later when I go to take the phone, she runs away and it would be a physical fight if I tried to take it. We end up in an emotional negotiation letting her keep her phone if she promises to do this or that. Often we simply avoid it and let her stay on with few limits.She played soccer as a child because we simply signed her up, but she was not particularly good at it and isn’t competitive and so now she doesn’t pursue any sport or really anything. It doesn’t make things any easier that both my husband and I have demanding jobs and we feel compelled to respond to emails, texts and even calls sometimes on evenings and weekends. 

How are families handling this? Phones are here to stay, so what are parents to do?

Gina, let me give you the general wisdom about cell phone use in families and then let’s look at what’s going on in your family and uncover the hidden message your daughter is sending you.

Teens and their Cell phone Use

The general rule is that kids should not get their own cell phone until the 8th grade.  Then, if they are ready to be responsible with one, their phone comes with clear guidelines about how and when their cell phone can be used.  It’s much like a teenager getting a driving license; it comes with both legal and parental limits and guidelines.

Guidelines come with clear information about appropriate language, how to deal with bullying of yourself or others, what to share, what not to, risks, places to avoid, etc.

Phone use must not interfere with other activities such as being active, in-person socializing, managing responsibilities, being essentially cooperative, etc.

Phones should not come to bed with teens and if they need an alarm or want music in their room after the phone is away, there are other devices to manage that.

There should be a specific away place for phones not in use; for instance in a charging station in the kitchen.  That way away isn’t in their pocket tempting them to check it, away means out of their possession.    

It’s common for families with teenagers to come into my office and the teenager is interacting with their phone rather than engaging with the session.  A parent then says put the phone away, and the kid says something like, I just had to tell Sally that I’d meet her later.  Parent says, “Put it away” and the kid puts it half under their leg and a few minutes later is checking it.  Parent says, give me the phone, and the kid says, “No, I’m not going to look at it anymore”, and a struggle ensues.  Sound familiar?  If it’s in their possession, it will be extremely difficult to not engage with it. 

Gina, there are a few things in your question, that stand out for me.  But the general tone is that you are a family that has reasonably high standards; that you and your husband are successful professionals, that your girls are doing reasonably well, but that things are chaotic; that things are expected to go well on their own without routines, accountability, and most importantly, clear ways and times to be a connected family.  The result is that you end up dealing with problems rather than setting up successes.

While your 14-year-old is old enough to be starting to have a cell phone, it sounds like she’s had one for a while and has already gotten into some bad habits, including overusing the phone and not having balance in her life.

Uncovering the Hidden Message Behind the Negative Behavior

So Gina, here’s what I’m thinking about with your feisty 14-year-old daughter.  Her behavior is telling you something.  What’s her message? What is she communicating to you?  I think she’s saying, “I’m lonely.  Everyone in the family has something going on that’s important and I’m not important.  My parents have work, my sister has her sports and friends, and all I have is my phone and my friends and it’s really unsatisfying.  I don’t feel part of anything so I keep trying with my phone, and it’s never satisfying, but I keep trying because it’s all I’ve got.”

Gina, I’m glad you’ve written to me now because if she’s transitioning to high school next year, things could go downhill for her fast with her lack of personal interests and healthy personal investment.  But if you act now and make a big shift in your family, things can turn around and your daughter can thrive.  Here’s what I recommend and it’s a version of Making The Big Shift that I write about in my book, Ending the Parent-Teen Control Battle.  Have a family meeting and let’s keep the heat off of your 14-year-old.  You can own the problem this way.  First of all, call a meeting and be clear that none of you are to have a device with you.

And I’ll be you in this role-played talk:

“I have something important to say and I’d like everyone to listen and not interrupt until I’m done.  I miss you all.  I miss my family.  When we started a family, I thought of all the love we’d share, the fun we’d have, and how being together would be satisfying because of the love and deep connection we’d all have.  That way, even the small things we did would be enjoyable whether it’s folding clothes while we watch TV, or helping with homework, or taking our dog for a walk.  When you girls were younger, we definitely had more of that and it was harder than I thought because Dad and I would be tired from work and you were both tired from after school care, but we were all happy to be together.  As you girls have moved into your teen years we’ve lost a lot of that.  Now it seems we’re all off on our own.  Doing things around the house feels like a burden to anyone doing it.  When I make a meal, I have to fight to get everyone together to eat it and enjoy it and then fight to get help for cleanup.  You girls are off on your phones texting with friends, doing social media, Dad and I are returning emails and even texting about work stuff until the evening is over.

So like I said, I miss you all, I miss my family, and I miss having love and fun in the small things. 

So that’s what’s going on with me and I’d like for us to make some changes in our routines and in our attitudes.  What do you all think?”

Then let everyone else talk about their thoughts and feelings.  Don’t expect everyone to jump up and say, “Right on Mom, let’s go for it!”  The girls will sense restrictions in the air, but that’s okay. 

What you are going to insist on is that there are specific phone-free times every day and during those times, phones are at the docking station and that has to include your phone and your husband’s. 

Then you get to the fun part where there needs to be more planning in the family; plans for when we clean the house together, menu plan, shop, cook and clean up the kitchen together, game night together, art afternoon together when we all do an art activity either together such as working on a quilt, or a more solo thing such as drawing or painting but we do it in the same vicinity. 

And of course, there needs to be a physical activity that we do as well whether it’s a hike, a bike ride, shoot baskets, play badminton, it doesn’t matter.  The girls can have friends participate in any of this as well.  This smorgasbord of activity includes the fundamentals of health.  I could go on about the value of getting into nature and using menu planning and cooking to building expertise in nutrition but the bigger point here Gina is that now you’ve created an engaged family from a disengaged family and emotional wellness is going up.  Now with your 14-year-old, you can help her choose activities that work with her interests and strengths.  Help her think of activities in the areas of music, art, and physical activity.  It’s best if kids have something in each of these areas and their involvement in these activities creates opportunities for positive social engagement as well.

It’s best if kids engage in music, art, and physical activities and their involvement in these activities create opportunities for positive social engagement as well.Click To Tweet

In Conclusion

So parents, therapists and everyone working with children and teens, when we see problem behaviors, let’s ask ourselves, what’s the message the youth is sending?  What are they trying to tell us?  If we can respond to their need rather than punish their behavior, we’ll all grow and benefit from the solution.

When we see problem behaviors, let’s ask ourselves, what’s the message the youth is sending? What are they trying to tell us? If we can respond to their need rather than punish their behavior, we’ll all grow and benefit from the solution.Click To Tweet

Thanks for tuning in today everyone and thanks to Gina for her important question leading to our deeper discussion.

And I really mean it when I say, please, take care of yourselves; you need it, you deserve it, you’re worth it.  Bye for now.


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