When my children were younger, I was dying for them not to need me so much. I was terribly concerned about them having friends and playdates, and being connected to their peers. Now that they are 11, 15, and 18, I want them back! But it’s harder now.
Let’s face it, parents: we’ve got competition. Technology allows our children to connect to their peers and others like never before.
There are positives to this enhanced connectivity. It saves me time and headaches when I can simply text my daughter a message about a changed pick-up time. It’s nice that I can tell her I love her when she’s at school. We can share a calendar online. But as we all know, there are negatives, too; especially during adolescence, when children naturally turn toward their peers for validation.
I’m grateful that so many of my kids’ friends are kind, honest, and caring. They do the right thing most of the time. But my kids are connected to many peers these days. Some they know well, and some they don’t; some are grounded by compassion and common sense, and some aren’t.
All of them are adolescents, which by definition means that their brains are not fully developed, and that they tend toward impulsivity, novelty-seeking, and hyperrational thinking. (Daniel Siegel, Brainstorm). Even great adolescents make stupid mistakes, as I can attest after intervening, on more than one occasion, in my own kids’ choice of words, photos, and group names on social media.
Psychological research demonstrates over and over that children need our loving guidance in order to become thriving adults. But children must be open to our guidance. We want so much for our children to be respectful, responsible, and resilient, but we can’t force our influence upon them–at least, not for long. The natural response to force is counter-force, in the form of resentment, rebellion, or revenge. For children who tend to be pleasers, the response to force may be acquiescence in the short term, but eventually, they may struggle with self-esteem and self-advocacy.
As Mike Riera, Ph.D.–teen psychologist, and former head of my kids’ school–once said (I’m quoting from memory here):
“When children are younger, we act as managers of their lives. Most of them allow us to play this role without much pushback. But some time around middle school, they will promptly fire us as managers. And if we’re lucky–if we’ve invested in a loving, trusting relationship up to this point–they’ll hire us back as coaches.” (Read more about the difference between a disciplinarian and a coach here.)
A strong, connected relationship is the main reason that children will come home by curfew, follow through with household chores, or tell us when they’ve made a big mistake that they can’t fix on their own. When children feel unconditionally loved, respected, and connected to us, they’re more likely to hire us back as coaches and be open to our influence. As the teen years approach, you’ll want that influence, I promise.
Here are some simple suggestions, inspired mostly by Gordon Neufeld, author of Hold On to Your Kids.
Start with a warm greeting.
After school or at the end of the day, drop everything (including your smartphone) when your child walks in the door. If you’re the one who’s walking in the door, make a point to go to where your child is (even if they themselves are distracted with technology), and tell them how happy you are to see them.
Show interest in your child’s interests.
I won’t lie: I can’t stand video games and I resist social media (unsuccessfully). But my kids love them both. When I can put aside my distaste and join in the fun for a while, I get instant credibility. We can talk shop. I’m a tiny bit cool. And I’ll admit it…I actually have fun, too!
Invite your kids’ friends to your house or other outings.
Offer to host a BBQ, movie marathon, game night, or playdate, so you can connect with your kids’ friends. Say yes when they invite you to play a game or watch a show with them. Bake cookies together. Be present…but not suffocating. Invite your kids’ friends’ families over, too, to encourage mixing at all age levels.
Have regular outings, date nights or “Special Time.”
My friend enjoys an annual hike with her Dad that began when she was 10. She’s almost 45 today. Needless to say, she and her Dad are very close.
Special Time is even simpler: it’s just regular, predictable, one-on-one time you spend with your child–just the two of you, having fun, with no distractions. Leave your phone in a drawer! It can be 5-10 minutes daily, or 30 minutes every few days. The key is to make it happen on a regular basis. With teenagers, this could be a foot massage, a card game, or even walking the dog together. More on Special Time here.
Create technology boundaries WITH your child.
Use this interactive Family Media Plan, recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics, as a place to start. When children are young, set family rules and stick with them. If your child is older or you’re trying to undo bad habits, create the boundaries together, so that everyone feels heard. Some boundaries I really believe in are no electronics in bedrooms and no devices at mealtimes.
There are times when your relationship with your child is in a slump and more serious repair is warranted.
When this is the case, remember that your children need you, even if they seem not to. Have confidence in this fact, and trust that somewhere in their hearts, they know it, too.
Then, shift your focus away from unwanted behaviors and toward your relationship. This can be a herculean task, especially because at this point, the relationship may be defined by threats, nagging, cajoling, blackmail, and worse. Stop all criticism and judgment. Come to terms with the fact that you have very little influence over your child’s behavior in this state. Put the focus on being the kind of person your child might actually like to be with.
“Ultimately, a relationship is not something we can determine, only invite and entice.” — Gordon Neufeld
Plan family outings, weekends, or vacations with just the family or just the two of you. Tweens and teens tend to be lousy planners; use this to your advantage. If you’ve planned ahead with them and booked an event, they can’t fill that time with peers.
Consider taking some time off work or other household responsibilities to take your child on a 1:1 vacation. I’ll always remember the laughter my teenage daughter and I shared during a weekend in Santa Cruz last year watching silly YouTube videos, drawing cartoons, and doing the laser maze at the Boardwalk. Put out the invitation and see what happens. You may get a “no” this time, but try again. Just knowing that your child is more important than a few days of work says a lot.
Summing it up:
- Technology in the form of computer games, smartphones/devices, and social media has the potential to push our children away from parents and toward their peers.
- A close, connected parent-child relationship is key to keeping your child emotionally healthy and open to your influence in the long run.
- There are simple things you can do to maintain connection in a peer-dominated world, including a warm greeting; getting into your child’s world; and inviting your child, their friends, and their friends’ families into yours.
- If your relationship is in a slump, shift your focus away from behavior and toward relationship. Be present, and plan activities that create both distance from peers and closeness to you.
What simple strategies do you use to stay connected in a peer-dominated world? Please share your ideas in the comment section below!
Learn more great parenting tips and tools from Marcilie at her upcoming FREE TELECLASS: 6 Obstacles to Peaceful, Positive Parenting (and how to get around them) coming Fall 2018. Register here.
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