The Intelligent Divorce

And further unorthodox advice on relationships, marriage and parenting

Texting, Texting 123 Part Three

A Parent’s Guide to Teen Texting III

Big thanks to Donna Moss, MA, LCSW-R for this guest blog on teen texting and parent angst.

To learn more visit: www.donnacmoss.com.

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This is the final piece of a three part series on raising healthy adolescents in an age of texting and endless distraction. We conclude the series with a look at teens from a parent's point of view.

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It’s a two-way street.

My teenage clients complain of their parents’ micro-managing simply because they can. I used to go out in the street after school, ride my bike to the candy store, usually steal a Charleston Chew, and then come home and play tennis in the street until my working Mom called “dinner” or, the sun went down.

We had no cell phones of course. We were safe. We didn’t hear about child molesters, abductions or predators. Doesn’t mean there weren’t any; we just didn’t watch or have access to that kind of news. It sure felt like a more innocent time.

Dependence on Parents:

Did you know that many kids text their parents all day while at school? It can range from anything from: (parent to child) where are you? What are you doing? Who are you with? Did you do your homework? Did you eat lunch? Are you okay? To, (child to parent): can you bring my lunch, can you bring my homework, can you bring my sneakers, Alex was mean to me at lunch.

In the first case, what do you think that does to a teen’s ability to gain independence and learn consequences and deadlines? In the second case, it gives a broad advantage to the kids with stay at home moms and dads. And, is this kind of “helicoptering” really good for a child?

If a teen is struggling with self-esteem, texting your Mom or Dad all day is not going to build confidence, much as the parents may try to justify it (Johnny needs that extra push from me, and only me).

Good Parenting = Healthy Distance: With all the non stop drama, we adults are often drawn into our children's lives - sometimes too much. If parents have poor boundaries, texting only makes it worse. They literally can’t stop themselves from communicating ad-nauseum throughout the day. Some schools I know about got so fed up they changed their policy to allow electronics at school as long as they are used only for school work. Try monitoring that.

  • Sammi was a 14 y.o. girl with straight A’s but was referred to therapy for self-injury or “cutting.” As the behavior subsided through therapy and DBT, she learned to self-regulate her intolerable emotions. Enter Mom, a 40-something stay-at-home-mom with clinical depression and anxiety, who now started texting her throughout the school day asking if she was cutting. The kid became so enraged at her Mom that she had another meltdown. In therapy the Mom broke down and said it was she who felt out of control with her untreated depression and anxiety and she agreed to get help. This freed up her child to have a normal school day.

Identity, Social Media & Texting:

Adolescence is the time for identity formation. We know this from Erikson’s work on development. While texting, Facebook and the like are compelling, they are often about relation to another person – or many people. For some these interactions push them to learn more about themselves and the world. But, for most, texting and social media is a weak substitute for developing a creative edge or a sense of wonder. If the average teen is connected continuously, how is she to get in touch with her core that’s creative, curious, playful or driven?

  • Adolescence is a time of identity formation.
  • You have to spend some time with yourself to get to discover anything about yourself.

Boredom, Sleep and Motivation:

The number one initiative killer and depression inducer is boredom. If I have two kids in therapy from the same background, school, issues etc. guess which one will do better.

You got it; the one who has a passion for something - Anything.

I have often told them I don’t care what it is and I mean it. Bowling, star-gazing, programming, poetry, go-cart-racing, you name it. But when I ask a teen what her interests are and she stares blankly, (even more blankly than normal) and says nothing, then I know we are in trouble.

The other major factor in teens’ productivity is sleep issues.

Here’s what I have heard in my assessments over and over again: come home from school, take a nap; eat dinner, watch TV, text/IM/computer, homework until 1-2am. Alarm goes off 6am because parents actually have to go to work to support you. Can’t get up. Late for school (again), get a late pass, miss homework assignments. And this is a student who’s perfectly capable of doing the work.

What’s next? They complain of feeling depressed and anxious much of the time, out of control, OCD, anorexic. And, how do they typically self-soothe this kind of pressure?

You’re right again, more texting and going to bed late, plus energy drinks.

We’ve just described a vicious cycle of self-induced mental fatigue. With some kids, they start adding in coffee around 9th grade – yet another factor in increased anxiety.

Therapy Works:

Sleep and Boredom are wonderful topics for therapy because they are so EASILY REMEDIED! Psycho-education should be included in these sessions for in many cases, teens just don’t know about sleep hygiene, food, diet, exercise, medication, meditation, sex education and the power of choice.

That’s right. Do not assume they know.

I once had a patient named Jenny who was an attractive 16 year old who slept around but still called her Mother “Mommy,” sucked her thumb, and didn’t know about STDs. This demonstrates the teen/adult conundrum. They look like adults but they’re not!

Look, most teens don’t really want to listen to parents. This was common for us as kids and is common today. Adolescents can’t admit to themselves, that they are dependent on their folks. So, they write us off, but will listen to another teen or sometimes, to a therapist. It still helps to talk to your kids about issues like sleep and diet, but be aware if the start to roll their eyes. It does take a village.

Showing Texts in Therapy:

Often, people will bring a text or an email to talk about in therapy. I find nothing wrong with this, however, if the patient can summarize in his/her own words, its worlds more useful.

Instead of, let me show you what my crazy boyfriend said last night, I ask, can you tell me? This allows the patient to PROCESS what they already know and acquire skills to hear for themselves what’s missing from the text language. Typically after reading something verbatim from text I will ask the teen what he/she thinks it’s all about and they will say, I thought it meant this but now I’m not sure. There’s no context.

Hours might have gone by between texts, with no explanation whatsoever what went on, if anything, in the interim. As the receiver, silence can be deadly. Lost without cues or explanations, kids will go to extremes of assumptions and can lose a day of school work to this vast field of worry, rumination and attention deficit.

How can you teach the mindfulness of “letting it go” if you’re stuck with an unanswered question all day? Worse, kids with depression combined with poor impulse control will do something irrevocably stupid like lash out at parents, teachers or other kids if given the chance to dwell all day.

  • Abby came to therapy with 6 pages of printed texts between herself and her boyfriend. I put on my reading glasses and began. Not only could I make no sense of it, it was incoherent and choppy to say the least. I asked her to explain. Brian had broken up with her and she was bereft. She tried and tried to reverse the break-up by text but this further provoked his rage. When she next saw him, she said, “Why did you reject me in such a dumb way?” He said, “I never broke up before.” So you see, without the experience, how can they get the experience? In therapy we practiced how to express feelings openly and honestly and Abby began to feel relieved.

Take Home Message:

It’s distracting and undermining for a kid to be in constant contact, and parents should have other strategies for keeping tabs. All of us made it through with a morning and evening check-in from our parents – not an all-day check-in. Again and again the immediacy of text undermines autonomy and “normal development” for adolescents. Further, obvious self-care advice can go a long way. Cut out naps, coffee and late night TV. Your child may just feel refreshed.

It’s not that computers are the enemy; hardly. But relationships based solely online will pay a hefty price, if not an irrevocable one. While it’s nearly impossible to restrict your teen, perhaps an experiment limiting them might be in order.

You may be surprised how much work gets done.

And, how much happier he or she will be.

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Guest Blogger: Donna Moss, MA, LCSW-R is a skilled adolescent therapist in the New York area who has written articles for the Internet and on many topics in mental health.

To learn more visit: www.donnacmoss.com.

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Mark Banschick, M.D., is a psychiatrist and author of The Intelligent Divorce book series.

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