Parenting Teens in a Digital World

By Tracey Dowdy

Some truths are universal: bread will always fall buttered-side down; cars break down minutes after the warranty expires; and the scent of detergent on a clean shirt will inspire your baby to vomit down your back.

Others, like parenting teenagers is a nightmare, while seeming common knowledge, don’t have to be true. That’s not to suggest it’s easy – very little about parenting is – but it doesn’t have to be the eye-rolling, door-slamming drama it’s often portrayed as. Each generation thinks parenting is harder than it was for their parents’ before them, and arguably they’re right; parenting in the digital age is a completely different animal and brings a unique set of challenges.

Nicole Callander is a counselor and therapist whose practice primarily focuses on teens and young adults. Over the years, she’s come up with several strategies to help families navigate the sometimes stormy waters of the teen years and not only survive but actually enjoy the journey.

The first and foremost thing is to stay on top of technology. The good news is, you’re already on the right path as you’re reading this via The Online Mom! As Ferris Bueller famously said, “Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.” Replace “life” with “digital world,” and you can pretty much sum up how fast technology changes. Teens are generally the first adopters of new technology and the rest of us race to catch up. If we’re using it – hello Facebook – teens have already moved on to the next big thing. Callander says it’s not necessary for you to be active on every social media platform your kids are using but it is important for you to be aware.

Smartphones and tablets have made social media ubiquitous but that doesn’t change the fact that the use of devices is a privilege, not a right. When kids are young and starting out online, it’s important to have access to their passwords and to be able to monitor their activity. As they mature and prove their level of maturity and independence, we can back off and allow greater freedom. Remember, monitoring isn’t all about spying or interfering – keeping up with what’s trending is also a way to connect over shared interests. Find out what apps they’re using and ask them to teach you. Think about it – it’s less invasive to connect via SoundCloud than Snapchat but it’s still a way to connect.

Keep the lines of conversation open and get to know their friends. Callendar says to think back to when you were a teen – your peers were your best friends and your worst enemies. Pay attention to who they’re hanging out with and invite them to your home if possible. Callendar isn’t suggesting you hang out with them in the basement but share a meal, have a conversation and get to know them. Pay attention to which friends aren’t around anymore and who is new to the circle. Again, this isn’t an “I spy with my little eye” approach to parenting but, because peers are such a big influence, it’s important to know who is helping shape your child’s worldview.

Speaking of shaping your child’s worldview, don’t be afraid to push for family time. Not many kids would choose a Friday night with family over time with friends, so be creative in looking for opportunities to spend time together. Younger children generally look up to and model the behavior of older siblings and, if nothing else, your little ones teach the older kids patience.

Finally, give them room to fail. Teens are notorious for short-term thinking and they’re going to make mistakes – you did too. If they’ve crossed a boundary on social media or otherwise disregarded the limits you’ve set on technology use, have a conversation and follow through with the consequences.  And don’t be afraid to admit if you’ve reacted poorly or come down too hard. Modeling appropriate behavior is a critical element of parenting and it’s healthy for your kids to see you own up to your mistakes.

Tracey Dowdy is a freelance writer based just outside Washington DC. After years working for non-profits and charities, she now freelances, edits and researches on subjects ranging from family and education to history and trends in technology. Follow Tracey on Twitter.

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