Keep her Connected: Parenting Through Modern Tech and the Lonely Teen

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Words by
Meg Meeker, MD

Published on

08.30.2021

My name is Dr. Meg Meeker. I am one of the country’s leading authorities on parenting, teens, and children’s health.

I write today about a chapter in my book, “Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters,” on the necessity of the connection between parents and children, mainly teenagers, as they enter the digital world of faceless communication and impersonal relationships. 

The Secret We Already Know

An engaged parent is a concerned parent. We all want to know the secret to keeping our kids on the right track- away from drugs, gangs, unhealthy drinking, and premature sex. But psychologists, researchers, and physicians only confirm what we already know as parents: we are the key to our children’s excellence and happiness. Parent connectedness: mothers and fathers staying together, and mothers and fathers spending time with their kids. There is no greater priority for the development of our children than this. As children grow, there is no person more important to them than a parent, us-you. 

A valuable memory I can recall when my kids were young: It was 1:30 in the morning. I woke to the sound of my husband going into each bedroom and waking our children. “Come here!” He whispered to each of them, “I have something to show you!” I thought he was crazy. 

I stood at the top of the stairs. One by one, he collected our kids and shuttled them outside to the front stoop. There, on the cement, they parked their tired little bodies for the next hour, staring at the northern lights flashing across the sky. Even in June, the night was chilly enough that I could see puffs of air leaving their tiny nostrils. I wanted to scold my husband for putting the kids at risk for pneumonia, but I stayed quiet.

No one said much during that hour in the dark. We simply watched and shivered as brilliant green and red corrugated sheets streaked through the night. Then we all crept back up the stairs and into our warm beds.

I don’t remember what grades our children were in that year, let alone what they faced during the next school day because it didn’t matter. What matters is that all four of our kids remember their father’s extraordinary enthusiasm to share something marvelous with them. They remember sitting in the cold next to their dad- and that it was wonderful. 

We sustain a connection with our children by the most simple, basic practices. Your child does not need extravagant gifts or expensive family activities to bond with you. And you certainly don’t need to read all the studies and psychology books to know what to do. All your kid needs is for you to spend time with them, engaged in what matters to them, showing them that it also matters to you. 

Think of it this way: your kid is an explorer, a youth adventurer, and you are their base camp. They need a place to stop and settle-to reorient and remember who they are and where they’re going. They need a safe place to rest and re-energize. You are that safe place.

Work, Play, and Plan

Fathers and Mothers have a variety of things to accomplish throughout their day. Whether it’s a mandatory errand or an outing for personal pleasure, take your child with you. Take them on that lunchtime walk, to the bank, to the art gallery; take them hiking or fishing; take them out to dinner. Let your kid spend time with you when you are doing what you like to do. It will help you open up with them. In this environment, they will see you when you are comfortable and enthusiastic. 

Outdoor activities are perfect for this. The great thing about being outdoors is that conversations can flow naturally. Today, so many kids live on the Internet and their smartphones. In this digital age, having real personable connections is more important than ever.

The Lonely Truth

Nothing substitutes for the real-live presence of another person. People convince themselves to the contrary; that they function perfectly fine off of online interaction, but the reality is that ours is a society filled with extraordinarily lonely people starving for genuine relationships. These relationships are nurtured less by what we say and more by what we do-our actions and body language. Children are acutely observant of this. When you are with your kids, be there with your kids. Don’t take them out for dessert and constantly glance at the table next to you or repeatedly pull out your phone. Your kid will notice. They won’t feel the essential sense of engagement from you that they should-they will not feel important to you. Be there. Make your kid feel important.

Another story:

Peter and his daughter Elizabeth loved athletics and the outdoors. When Elizabeth was in fourth grade, she began running track. When Peter came home from work,  he’d take his daughter for a walk in the woods or a jog at the high school track. Elizabeth grew to excel as a runner, and her father was incredibly proud. 

One track meet took place at a track up on a hill. My daughter was competing in the meet as well. At one point, I looked down the hillside. About half a mile away, I spotted a large, gray-haired bicyclist. I finally figured out it was Peter, dressed as if he’d come straight from work: white collared shirt, rolled-up sleeves, tie flapping around his neck, pant legs pinched into his black socks His sweat had soaked his shirt from peddling up the steep hill. He finally made it to the track, parked the bike, and without combing his tousled hair or even freeing his trousers from his socks, he jogged towards the track.

Elizabeth wasn’t running yet. She was sitting cross-legged on a grassy sideline, watching her classmates compete. When she spotted him, she stood up and trotted toward him. He lengthened his stride and quickened his speed. Then he lowered his six-foot-four-inch frame, grabbed her around the waist, and threw her into the air. She squealed as she flew like a rag doll above his head. He caught her, swinger her around, and squeezed her. Then she went back to the track. Her event was up next. 

Without any words, Peter connected with Elizabeth. He deepened their relationship. The running didn’t make their relationship stronger-it was the time they spent together. The most vivid connection was when Peter, delighted by Elizabeth’s presence, threw her into the air. He didn’t ask how she was doing at the meet. He didn’t mind looking ridiculous in his bike-riding getup. He immediately and silently communicated that he thought she was wonderful. That was it. That was the connection. 

In whatever way that works best for you and your kids, make that connection. Spend time together having fun. Make the small moments meaningful.

The Teen Behind the Tech

Connection and technology. You would think these two go hand-in-hand. Not so. It is the excessive technology use that inhibits that special connection with our kids.

Understandably, parents want their children to have cell phones so they can always be in touch. We want them to have email so they can talk to us when they’re away at college. Most American households now have a computer for every student or worker in the house. We rely so much on the Internet. Many kids have a television in their bedrooms. Older kids not only have a television, but a laptop, cell phone, and sound system as well. Kids’ bedrooms have become cozy electronic havens enticing them to play, relax, or “connect” with their online friends for hours at a time. 

Kids spend more time immersed with electronics than ever before; this is the way life is. But it carries some psychological risks. Even though kids use electronics to connect, they are always alone when using a computer or a smartphone. They’re not face-to-face with anyone. Electronic relationships might be authentic, but they are profoundly limited and potentially dangerous. 

Consider your daughter’s phone. If she is an average fourteen-year-old, she starts texting her friends the moment she leaves school. They chat about peculiar and often nonsensical matters. Instead of seeing her friend, her mind retrieves images of her that might accompany her speech. If her girlfriend laughs (“LOL”), she conjures up that image. If they argue, she imagines the scowl in her friend’s eyes. She feels as though they were together, but they are not.

Then she comes home and starts instant messaging. A few more friends hop online and they chat. She speaks, but no one hears her voice. There are no verbal inflections, and it’s nearly impossible for her to visualize her friends. She is communicating, but only through misspelled words and mystifying abbreviations. Words, of course, are powerful. They can stir emotion and they can accompany emotion, but only if they are communicated well- and communicating well doesn’t happen with teenagers using messenger.  

Now she logs off and bounds to her room to relax or do homework. She put on her headphones to listen to her music. The sound floods her ears. She no longer communicates with anyone at all. 

If your daughter is an average girl, she will spend between six and eight hours a day with electronic tools of some sort. Parents often don’t mind, because if their children are playing with electronics, it frees mom and dad and allows them to spend time away from the kids and finish paying bills, make phone calls, or even just read the newspaper. So while electronics might help you get things done, they also dramatically decrease the time you spend with your children. That alone hurts your relationship with your daughter.

In the meantime, your child is making connections that aren’t real flesh-and-blood relationships. Email is less authentic than Messenger, Messenger is less authentic than a smartphone, and smartphones are less authentic than talking face-to-face.

The majority of American teens use social media. Communicating with friends over social media can be fun, cute, and entertaining, but it’s also far removed from real human contact. After a while, you might notice your kid having difficulty talking with you in a car, room, or restaurant, because being face-to-face is powerful and frightening, and your kid is too used to the anonymity of electronics. Real-life becomes overstimulating to their senses: voices become loud; touch is foreign; eyes pierce and crush her hopes; you are a distant and frightening figure. 

Don’t let this happen. There’s no need to banish electronics, but make sure that time online is balanced with time with you. Phone calls and text messages aren’t good enough. You need to spend time together. This is critical to your child’s healthy emotional, intellectual, and physical development. 

You are competing with messages, music, and online relationships. Steal your kid away from the screen as often as you can. Remember, at the end of it all, you are a better communicator than your child’s smartphone. The smartphone can’t comfort your child when they are ill. It can’t walk your daughter down the aisle on her wedding day. You, the parent, will. 

So keep your children grounded in reality. Be truthful, open, and engaged with them. Don’t let technology come between you. Can you sustain a meaningful connection with your kids? Absolutely. Keep it simple. Make it a part of your everyday life. Have them participate at home, take them out for a fun time, but whatever you do, focus on them. Be present with your kids, listen to them, and don’t let work and its preoccupations distract you from your children. At the end of the day, our kids are more important than anything else. Never will we ever regret spending too much time with our children. And more importantly, your kids will cherish their relationship with you and aspire for the same bond with their children. 

Meg Meeker, MD

Pediatrician and Founder at MeekerParenting

Meg Meeker, MD has spent more than thirty years writing, teaching, speaking and working as a practicing pediatrician. Her life’s work has been about equipping parents and children with the tools necessary for health and happiness. After writing six books and speaking to thousands of families of all shapes and sizes, her goal has never changed—to help strong parents build strong children for a brighter future.

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