#223 – The Screen and Your Teen

by Mark Gregston

March 8th, 2020

Do you remember the old Star Trek television shows and those futuristic gadgets they used to communicate with each other? It seemed so far-fetched at the time to talk through holograms and TV screens, but today it’s our reality and deeply ingrained in our culture, especially among teenagers. We live in a world with unparalleled means to communicate—Facebook, iPads, smart phones, texting, Twitter, SnapChat, e-mail, YouTube, websites, blogs, RSS feeds, Skype—we can be in constant contact with anyone, anywhere, 24/7! But it also means our faces are glued to glowing screens most of the day.

Less face-time and more screen-time leads to us getting worse at “connecting” with other people. Young people today seem to rely more on text-messaging, instant messaging, micro-blogging, and their own web pages to communicate. I’ve even watched teens sit in the same room and send one another text messages without ever stopping to talk to one another face to face. And I’ve observed the effect on teens who are “dumping” all this information on social media, but really listening to each other less. Author Stephen Marche, in his article “Is Facebook Making Us Lonely?” put it perfectly:

“Over the past three decades, technology has delivered to us a world in which we need not be out of contact for a fraction of a moment. … Yet within this world of instant and absolute communication, unbounded by limits of time or space, we suffer from unprecedented alienation.  We have never been more detached from one another, or lonelier. In a world consumed by ever more novel modes of socializing, we have less and less actual society.  We live in an accelerating contradiction: the more connected we become, the lonelier we are.”

Another issue of real concern is the safety factor. As technologies evolve at a rapid rate, teens are diversifying: dividing their attention among a selection of new and existing apps and sites that let them write, share, chat, and meet new friends. This makes it harder for concerned parents to monitor their teens’ digital interactions; however, parents would be wise to obtain at least a cursory knowledge of the types of the latest social media platforms and apps—particularly the so-called “secret apps” such as Snapchat and Whisper. Whisper, as the name implies, is a social confessional app with “whispers” that are often sexual in nature and include other disturbing topics such as suicide and substance abuse.

While these concerns are real and put the responsibility on parents to exercise extra diligence, I’m not advocating that we all become Luddites. I don’t hate technology. I own a smart phone. I text, I email, and I use Facebook. These are not bad devices.  We don’t need to throw our iPhones into a bonfire and start using carrier pigeons to communicate. The danger, however, becomes when our kids (or ourselves for that matter) become so immersed in the blinking lights and bleeping sounds of our devices that we neglect face-to-face conversation or spending time with other people.  I’ve found an easy formula; more screen time and less people time equals stunted growth for us and our teens.  It’s really that simple.  In this over-stimulated culture of ours, we have got to teach our teens competency in connecting; how to interact and communicate with the world around them in a way that provides them with community and acceptance. In a culture that nurtures self-expression, relying on these screens to communicate creates a terrible habit of conversation that is shallow and one that encourages self-expression stretched to unimaginable limits. If we don’t help our teens unplug a bit, we’ll all lose these three things:  depth of conversation, decorum and strong relationships.

Depth of Conversation

Is talking to your teen like pulling teeth?  Do you have to strain and struggle to get complete sentences out of your son or daughter?  It could be that we’re too used to communicating with screens than we are with real people. You see, the dialogue through a computer or smart phone is either one-way or short and brief.  Facebook is beneficial for talking to long lost friends, chatting with people, or telling your parents what you did for the summer.  But too often, a Facebook page transforms into a one-direction, narcissistic scream for attention.  Look at what I did!  Listen to what I am saying!  Someone pay attention to me! It turns into a world revolving around the teen.

If you feel your child is slipping into this mode of connecting and communicating, pull them away from the screen and get them talking! Model for them the importance of deep conversations.  When they talk to you, drop what you’re doing (if you can), turn to face them, look them in the eye, and verbally acknowledge them.  Show them what it looks like to engage in face-to-face time.  And expect the same thing of them.

I read a story recently about two young boys who had given up trying to engage their dad in conversation.  He was always on the computer or playing a video game. When they would pipe up and say “Hey, dad, can I show you something?” the dad would often not even look up and would often respond with, “Give me five minutes” and go back to looking at his screen.  Those kids are looking for connections and communication and they will go to any lengths to get it. So model deep conversations around your home, and engage your kids in meaningful communication.

Decorum

The false security of a computer screen allows many teens to say and post things they would never do out in the real world. They use coarse language, post sexually explicit photos or messages, or taunt and bully other people. Twitter, blogs, Facebook, YouTube—they all offer some level of anonymity and kids can’t see the consequences of their behaviors online like they would in real life.  It’s also changing the way kids resolve conflicts. Instead of meeting someone in person to settle disputes, they are taking to the screens to wage battles. The digital wars that are raised and fought through text messages and websites may not be bloody, but they can still destroy lives.

If your teen says or posts something disrespectful, hurtful, or inappropriate on the web or through their phone, don’t explode.  Ask them, is this an image that you want everyone to see? Will this hurt or help your relationships? Explain the damage that can happen when posting too much information or acting a certain way online.  Dads—don’t let your sons break up with girlfriends on the phone or by text. Make them talk in person.  Moms—if your daughter is fighting with someone, encourage her to meet that person and resolve it verbally. Stripped of the safety of the screen, teens will learn and develop their sense of decorum, respect, and conflict resolution.

Depth of Relationships

We are community-oriented creatures. We crave relationships with other people. And the only way to build a relationship with another person is to spend time and talk with them. Not email.  Not text.  Talk.

But many teens are missing out. According to the Pew Research Center’s Internet and American Life Project, about three-quarters of teens use their phones to text, sending an average of sixty messages a day.  Fewer than 40% of teens use their phone to actually call somebody. So how do we get our kids off the phone and engaging?

Start a once a week “Plugged-in” night. Set up a box near the living room, and every member has to drop their phone off into the box before they come in. Then start a fire, play a game, talk about the day or events in the world. If once a week is too much, consider putting aside the phone and electronics once a month, and show your kids they can function without them. Also, spend time with your kids away from television, computers or phones. Take them out to breakfast, talk and share a meal together. Don’t run to the extreme and ban Facebook, texts, text or Twitter. Instead, give your kids options. Invite their friends to go camping with you. Plan a group date for the movies. Go out for coffee and ask questions. Show your teen that deep relationships aren’t formed by typing on a screen.

We’ve gotten to be good communicators.  We are experts at throwing words out there.  But with all the talking, this generation is missing out on connecting.  Teaching competency in connecting doesn’t mean throwing electronics or technologies out the window.  But it does involve turning off the phone or computer and saying, “Let’s talk.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.  Here you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens App, a great way to listen on your schedule.

 


3 Ways to Connect With Your Teen

Are you connecting with your teenager or growing farther apart every day? Here are three things you can do to communicate and connect on a deeper level.

So, what do you and your teen talk about? My guess is that you discuss such items as academics, work, behaviors, privileges, sports involvement, picking the right friends, choosing the right clothes, performing chores, and obeying the rules of the house.

Now, take a minute and think about what else you talk about. Pretty short list, isn’t it?

Most of what we talk about is what they’re doing or need to do, not about what they’re thinking or what their passions and goals are in life. This imbalance can create the impression that your relationships with your teen is determined by their actions and how they perform, versus your desire to really know them.

The point is this… talking to your teenager does not necessarily mean you’re communicating. In fact, too much talk can cover up what really needs to be said. Sometimes the most important connection with your teen can happen with very few words.  Are you looking for ways to really connect with your teen’s deepest hopes, concerns and fears; or is the mode of communication between the two of you in an endless stream of superficial words, demands, and lecturing? I encourage you to stop the chatter, look for what’s under the surface, and connect with your teen in a more meaningful way.

  1. Communicate By Asking Questions

The power of a parent asking questions is amazing. Everyone knows that when you are asked your opinion, you feel valued. I’m talking about “What do you think?” questions, not “What did you do?” questions.  When asked in a non-condemning and non-prying way, these questions can convey a sense of value and relationship that is unparalleled by any other act of kindness. The movement toward a teen by asking them what they think lets them know you have an interest in them and that you value their opinion.

Talking to your teenager does not necessarily mean you are communicating. In fact, too much talk can cover up what really needs to be said.

So, ask your teen lots of questions. Not ones that make them uncomfortable, but the kind of questions that make them think about things. Find out how they would do something, where they would go, and why they think a certain way. Talk about controversial subjects as you would to a friend or co-worker for whom you have extreme respect. Never belittle their opinions about things. After all, did you know everything when you were a teen?

If parents don’t ask questions, they could be missing serious hidden situations in the life of their teen.  Wise parents understand that anything can happen today, so they maintain an open line of communication with their teen to prevent things from getting out of hand if it does happen. Foolish parents never give it any thought, so they never ask questions. The most common comment I hear from the parents of hundreds of struggling teens is this: “I never knew this could happen to my child.” Let me assure you from years and years of experience that anything can happen to anyone at any time.

Engaging with your teen through the power of caring inquiry is crucial, but you must also learn to keep your mouth shut long enough to hear your teen’s answer. If you know something is wrong, be sure to inquire past their first “Nothing’s wrong” answer.  And when the real answer comes out, regardless of how bad or shocking it is, don’t respond with anger or disappointment. Just listen. Establishing a line of communication is far more important at this point than scolding or getting your “I told you so” point across.

Sometimes just by asking questions you empower teens to apply the values you have taught them to their own current situation. Your questions might also encourage your teen to ask questions of you. And if she does start asking questions, she might be inviting you to a dark and shameful corner of her world. I always tell parents to ask questions, because I know it works.

  1. Communicate Respect in Times of Conflict

Maintaining an attitude of respect is key. It is basically putting your child first and showing them respect, even as you demand the same of them. This affects your tone and demeanor, since you wouldn’t yell at, belittle, or talk down to someone you respect. Show grace and respect in the way you communicate to your teen and they’ll learn to do the same with you.

In times of conflict, my goal for every difficult and sometimes heated discussion is this: At the end of the argument, I want there to be an opportunity for us to hug one another, even if I didn’t change my mind nor lessened the consequences. That’s the goal. Even if we can’t agree, I still remain in charge, and we can at least agree to disagree because it was all talked out.

Being respectful has nothing to do with how right you are and how wrong they are. It has nothing to do with the discipline you may need to apply to their behavior.  It has everything to do with maintaining the right approach whenever you talk to your teen, and thereby maintaining your relationship. Sometimes when you need to address an issue, I again recommend asking a question. Asking a thoughtful question can help engage their thinking process and the system of beliefs you’ve taught them. You may be surprised to find they come to the right conclusion all on their own when they are shown respect in this way.

III. Communicate by Listening More, Speaking Less

Not talking is one action. Listening is another action. Just because you’re not talking doesn’t mean you’re listening. God gave us two ears and one mouth because He wanted us to listen twice as much as we talk (okay, not really, but it gets the point across). You may hear what your teen is saying, but are you really listening without trying to correct him or get him to answer the correct way?

Most of the time, your teen says things to you or to others not to communicate valuable information, but simply to process life. She doesn’t need a response or a judgment, she doesn’t need an opinion or a solution, and she probably isn’t really asking for anything. She just needs a listening ear. So take time to listen – slowly.

A Sunday school teacher once asked the ten-year-olds in her class, “What’s wrong with grown-ups?” A boy responded, “Grown-ups never really listen because they already know what they’re going to answer.”

If this sounds like you, it may be time to admit that listening is not something you do well. Polishing up your listening skills is never a bad idea. Good listening habits can easily get tossed aside in the business of life. But the way you listen to your child goes a long way in determining his willingness to share his deep concerns with you. And if you ever want him to listen to you, then you had better teach him how to listen by your example. Practice listening to your child. Position yourself at his eye level, and make lots of eye contact. And don’t worry about your answers.

She doesn’t need a response or a judgment, she doesn’t need an opinion or a solution, and she probably isn’t really asking for anything. She just needs a listening ear.

All teens want to do is talk and have someone listen to them. If a teen shares what is on her heart, and that is missed by a parent more concerned about the delivery of the message than the heart of the communication, that teen will eventually quit sharing. If your teen is in the shutdown mode, there is a reason. And the reason may be that you aren’t listening to what’s being said anyway.

Most kids want to say, “My parents listened to me, and they heard me and they valued me.” For your kid to say that, I’d say you are moving toward perfection. If you are willing to just listen, you might touch the heart of your teen and convey a sense of value. Don’t worry about your answer, just focus on listening as your teen shares their heart.

If you’ve been a bad listener, keep working at it, and share your desire to be a better listener.  Find opportunities for your teen to talk, even it seems a bit forced at first.  Eventually, with diligence on your part, your teen will again learn to trust their dreams, thoughts and questions with you.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.orgYou can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program. Download the Parenting Today’s Teens App for Apple or Android, it’s a great way to listen on your schedule.


Confronting and Forgiving Your Teen

I often talk about the trap that parents fall into when they “over parent” their teen. Of course, holding back from rescuing your teen from the consequences of their poor choices is easier said than done. After all, what parent wants to see their children in pain? But what about when your teen is causing you pain? What do you do when your teen not only rejects what you’ve taught them—throwing your biblical values in your face—but worse, they do it in a disrespectful way? Your heart is broken, your authority—trashed.

First, let me say at the outset that disrespect—in any form—should never be tolerated. Hopefully, by the time your child has reached the tween years you’ll have modeled a culture of honor and respect. Unfortunately, there are plenty of other ways, beyond simple disrespect, that a teen can cause his parents grief.

Each parent’s sensitivity level differs. What may hurt one parent deeply may be “It’s no big deal… she’ll grow out of it” to another parent. The kinds of things that can be hurtful range from something simple like a tween suddenly being embarrassed by her mother’s very existence (common), to getting a call about your son cutting a couple of classes (very common) to a far more serious issue like a teen “sexting” with a boyfriend or girlfriend—especially one that the parent didn’t even know existed (unfortunately, increasingly common).

One thing’s for certain. When it comes to knowing what pushes parents’ buttons, a teen’s words or actions can be like a guided missile. This is especially true if a teen has a deeper, unresolved heart issue that they haven’t been allowed to express in a healthy way. By “allowed” I mean if the style of parenting has either been one of “laying down the law” or in the other direction, been overly permissive. In the former case, there is no intimacy or safe place for the child to fail. In the latter case, dishonoring behavior is present because no teen respects a parent who only wants to be liked and accepted by them.

So, what do you do when your teen’s behavior causes you pain? As an example, let’s say your son and a few of his friends “paint balled” a neighbor’s car—followed by keying the driver’s door. Worse, it was that neighbor –the one that you’ve complained to the police about after one too many loud unsupervised teen parties. “I wish those trouble-makers would just move!” your children have heard you say. One day, in a fit of anger, you even told the mother off — telling her that her children were out of control and that that she needed to take a parenting class.

There are two ways you can script the inevitable encounter with your teen over this incident:

Script #1 THE “I’M HURT, AND YOU’RE GONNA FEEL MY WRATH!” APPROACH

Dad (yelling): Listen, Mister, that’s not the way your mother and I raised you … you’ve really embarrassed us!”

Son (flippantly, with an eye roll): Yeah, yeah I get it… I’m sorry.

Dad (angrily): You call than an apology? Let’s try that again.

Son (defensively) Okay, okay! I said I’m sorry… can I go now? Man, you’re always riding my back.

Dad: What’s the heck is wrong with you? You know better than to talk to me like that!

Mom: Son, you know we love you, but I’m really disappointed in you. Obviously judging by your behavior lately, you never listen in church. You certainly didn’t listen to last Sunday’s teaching about honoring your mother and father. Pleeease, tell me … why are you doing this to me … to us?

Dad: You know, I’ve had it with you! You can’t just live in this house and expect do to whatever you feel like doing. That’s it… you’re grounded for three months. And you’re paying for the damage to the car… that will teach you not to do that again!

            To a greater or lesser degree this scenario plays out in American living rooms across the country every day. Yelling may or may not be involved. But guilt-inducing shame and blame is regularly mixed with righteous indignation. There are so many things wrong with this parent-teen “dialog.”

First, attempts to force an apology out of a teen rarely work. The best you’re going to get is a half-hearted apology of appeasement—as in “I’ll say what you want to hear to get you off my back.” And by the way, you need to ask yourself why you’re demanding an apology in the first place. If you’re trying to teach your teen the effect of inappropriate actions you’re going about it the wrong way. “Say-your-sorry-and-say-it-now” demands from a parent are really just a self-absorbed tactic to restore a relationship with a teen to what the parent wants. That makes it manipulative and therefore ineffective.

Second, nix the relationship-killing phrases like “you always” or “you never.” This makes your teen feel shamed about the past and hopeless about their future.

Third, don’t make it all about you—its not about you being right, you being disappointed or you feeling like a failure as a parent. Focusing on yourself makes the conflict about you when the attention should instead be on the change that needs to happen in your teen. That being said, there is a place to talk about how your teen’s actions may have impacted others —including you. Just don’t make it guilt inducing.

Fourth, it goes without saying that anger never accomplishes anything. Even if you have a right to be angry, you need, as teens are fond of saying, to just “chill.” Remember, your goal is always to build relationship, not tear it down. Even if you’re not getting what you want from your teen in these kinds of situations, don’t resort to anger.

Fifth, there’s another reason why your teen may be acting out. Simply put, they see their parents as hypocrites. Every time a parent says one thing and does another, they lose credibility in their teen’s eyes. We saw this in the above scenario when Mom kept badmouthing the neighbors in front of her teen. You only have to ask yourself: What’s worse—a teen vandalizing their neighbor’s car, or the adult parent cursing those same neighbors?

I’m not saying a parent has to be perfect to gain their child’s respect. None of us are. What I am saying is that you need to make it your aim to have a contrite heart coupled with a healthy dose of humility—yes even towards your children. Trust me, this will do more to instill the idea of honor and respect in them than a thousand Sunday sermons.

Back to our little teen drama. Here’s a more constructive way this scene could have played out.

THE “ACTIONS HAVE CONSEQUENCES BUT I BELIEVE IN YOU” APPROACH.

Dad: What’s going on … what happened to you yesterday?

Son: I don’t know.

Dad: Hmm. Do you remember when you were 11 and we were at that senior citizens home—volunteering with your youth group?

Son: Uh, yeah.

Dad: Do you remember what the volunteer coordinator said?

Son: No.

Dad: She said that you were the most helpful and compassionate of all the kids there—that you did really well with the elderly clients. And while I was so proud to hear it, I wasn’t surprised. Do you know why?

Son: No

Dad: Because you’ve always been that way. You’re caring, smart and so capable. I’m not mad at you. To be honest, I’m scared. I’m scared that you’re losing your connection to how incredible you are. I don’t want any voice to be stronger in you than God’s and your own belief in yourself. He’s so proud of you, like I am.

Son: Sooooo… what do you want me to do? Like, I don’t know what to do about it…

Dad: Well, there is a mess to clean up.

Son: Yeah.

Dad: I’m confident that you’ll come up with a good solution as to how to clean it up.

Son: Huh?

Dad: Yep. You get to make messes in this family. I’m okay with that. What doesn’t work is the mess not being cleaned up… and learned from.

Son: Sooo….

Dad: Would you like my input as to how—and with whom—the mess needs to be cleaned up?

Son: Yeah..

Dad: Ok. Let’s start with your mom and I. This impacts us because… 

Feels a lot better, doesn’t it? In this scenario, you deliver your words in a calm tone of voice. You’re upset, but you don’t loose your cool. You want your teen to learn from what they did— not just so they won’t do it again, but also so that they can learn the nature and character of God through the whole experience. After all, the Lord may not always be pleased with our “do” but He’s always pleased with our “who!” Note also that you’re firm, but also affirming. You speak the truth in love —not in frustration, disgust or using berating or sarcastic language. You don’t preach because that’s not what your teen needs from you. They know what they did was wrong, so you don’t need to exact your pound of flesh from them. God doesn’t do that with you! Finally, you give them time to let the weight of that sink in. And always ask questions—especially selfempowering ones.

Finally, if you only remember one thing, remember this: “Forgiveness is more about you offering forgiveness to your children than them asking forgiveness from you.” Taking this approach demonstrates God’s model of radical, unconditional love that He has for each us—a love that’s embodied so beautifully in 1 John 4:10: “This is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Gregston is an author, speaker, radio host, and the founder and director of Heartlight, a residential counseling center for struggling teens located in Longview, Texas.  He has been married to his wife, Jan, for 40 years, has two kids, and four grandkids.  He lives in Longview, Texas, with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, two llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy.

His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with more than 2,800 teens has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents. You can find out more about Heartlight at HeartlightMinistries.org.  You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.

Mark is also the host of the radio program Parenting Today’s Teen; heard on over 1,600 radio outlets nationwide. Visit ParentingTodaysTeens.org where you’ll find more parenting resources and find a station near you that carries the daily 60-second features or the 30-minute weekend program.   Here you can download the Parenting Today’s Teens App, a great way to listen on your schedule.