Laura Choate Ed.D., LPC

Girls, Women, and Wellness

Connecting With Your Children in a Disconnected Culture

How to connect with our kids instead of our devices

Posted Aug 19, 2015

ClearFrost/Flickr
Source: ClearFrost/Flickr

Our primary task in parenting is to love and connect with our children. This is vital to everything else and is the most important gift you can give to your child. Loving our sons and daughters comes naturally for most of us. In our fast-paced culture with multiple demands on our time, however, connecting with our children becomes more of a challenge. While parents are more kid-focused than ever, it seems ironic that today’s children say they feel disconnected from their parents and wish their parents would spend more time really listening to them[i]. It is also ironic that in a culture in which we are constantly connected via technology, families have become ever more disconnected.

How has this disconnection crept into our cultural fabric? While there are many reasons for this, a primary factor is the way in which many parents engage with technology. If our smartphones keep us connected to the outside world 24-7, are we ever really “off duty”? Are we ever fully present with people In Real Life (IRL) if we are constantly interrupted by “pings” from our phone that indicate a text or social media post? If I check my work e-mail on my phone while I am supposedly spending time with my kids, am I really present with them? Or is my mind floating between worrying about a work situation and occasionally tuning in to what my kids are saying? (Okay, it is apparent I have been guilty of this one, and there are certainly times in which it is necessary; see Rachel Simmons’ blog on this topic[ii]).

As Catherine Steiner-Adair notes:

Parents are checking out of family time, disappearing themselves and offering that behavior as a model for their children. …parents are virtually missing in action, routinely either engaged in cell phone conversation or texting or basking in glow of computer screen with work or online past-times.[iii]

In today’s busy world, even when we are spending time together, each person might be quite alone in his or her separate virtual worlds. In turn, younger children have grown jealous of their parents’ devices. One child quoted in Steiner-Adair's book said, “My mom is almost always on the iPad at dinner. She always “just checking’ (age 7). The problem is that once we start checking our devices, we become unavailable. Children need for us to be present, not just physically but also emotionally. It matters that 92% of people in a recent national survey said that they had felt ignored because a household member spends too much time on his or her mobile device. That means it has become normative to feel ignored in our own homes[iv].  To adults this might be annoying. To children, however, the message is: everything matters more than you. That caller. That texter. That update. The “outsider” intruding through the screen is seemingly more important than what we are doing together or what you are telling me. That physically-there-but-not-really-present mindset creates an invisible barrier between us and our kids.

Some ideas to keep in mind:

  • Invest in Face-to-Face Time. If we want to remain connected with our children, we have to be willing to unplug and be there for face to face conversations at the times of day our children are most likely to want to talk: during transition times such as in the morning, driving to and from school, when she first comes home from school, during family dinners, and when she goes to bed.[v] It is not easy, but it is possible to carve out technology-free zones during the day.
  • Keep pressing forward with family rituals and outings. Even if your child rejects 90% of the invitations you offer for spending time together, then at least be grateful for the 10% of acceptances you do receive![vi] Keep planning, keep offering, and don’t give up on building connections.
  • Listen, listen, listen. When your child does want to talk, treat this request with respect. Turn off your devices, make eye contact and give your child your full attention, and listen without interrupting. Reflect your child’s feelings, ask open questions, and encourage problem solving rather than giving pat answers or quick advice. These face-to-face, active listening skills will help your child open up and will encourage actual connection between you and your child. 

Clearly I am not advocating that we should throw away our devices. Instead, the key is to become more intentional about the need to take necessary breaks from our devices as we work to more fully connect with our children.  

Notes. 

[i] Steiner-Adair, C. (2013). The big disconnect: Protecting childhood and family relationships in the digital age. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.; Taffel, R. (2005). Childhood unbound: The powerful new parent approach that gives our 21st century kids the authority, love, and listening they need to thrive. New York, NY: The Free Press.

[ii] Rachel Simmons (2015) Not without my smartphone: the case for somewhat distracted parenting. http://www.rachelsimmons.com/2015/08/not-without-my-smartphone-the-case-...

[iii] Steiner-Adair, C. (2013). The big disconnect: Protecting childhood and family relationships in the digital age. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.

[iv] The 2013 Digital Future Report (2013). USC Annenberg School Center for the Digital Future. Retrieved from http://www.digitalcenter.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/2013-Report.pdf

[v] Straus, M.B. (2006). Adolescent girls in crisis. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Co.

[vi] Allen, J. & Allen, C. W. (2009 ) Escaping the Endless Adolescence. New York: Ballentine Books. 

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