Written by Mark Gregston
We live in a disconnected world. I realize that a statement like this may sound unbelievable in our era of technological know-how. After all, with Instagram, iPads, smart phones, texting, Twitter, e-mail, websites, blogs, and Skype, communication seems to have moved into a whole new realm of possibilities! Facebook users upload 250 million pictures each day. YouTube boasts more than 80 billion videos on their site. On average, over 6.1 trillion texts are sent each year. We have a myriad of ways to talk and share life with other people, and we can be in constant contact with anyone, anywhere, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week! That’s a whole lot of connecting!
You would think that with all these avenues to talk and engage we’d have strong communication skills and the ability to develop deep, personal relationships. But sadly, it’s the exact opposite. In her latest book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, clinical psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair writes,
The tech effect has transformed every facet of our lives—from work to home to vacation time away—emerging, dot by dot, to reveal a new and unsettling family picture. While parents and children are enjoying swift and constant access to everything and everyone on the Internet, they are simultaneously struggling to maintain a meaningful personal connection with each other in their own homes.
To illustrate her point, Catherine interviews one stressed-out mom trying to manage in the new digital age.
“When you have very busy lives, your relationships become completely utilitarian and nagging,” says Helene, reflecting on life with her husband and two teenage children. She rattles off the to-do list of deadlines and scheduling that dominates their conversations: homework, camp application deadlines, games, sports, concerts, practice, the family social calendar. “It’s like we’re this little business, and we just interact, so if you want to have any kind of connection otherwise, you send the YouTube video, send the text … we never talk directly, we never look each other in the eye anymore.”
Obviously, no parents want to see their family “interacting,” without connecting. But in a fast-paced, digital age, meaningful connections are difficult to create; they do not simply “happen.” We must be intentional and commit to fostering deep relationships. We must be proactive, rather than passive, in our attempts to create and develop bonds with members of our family.
More teens today are struggling with anxiety, stress, and self-image problems than ever before. I believe some of the main culprits in this surge are the shallow social media interactions that are passed off as meaningful connections. Human life was created to flourish in the context of deep relationships. Kids are drawn to Facebook, and Twitter, Instagram, text messaging, and all the rest because they are craving for connection. This is a good craving! There is God-given value in connecting with other people. But social media is a poor substitute for truly satisfying connections. It’s like binging on junk food; the more you eat, the hungrier you become!
I encourage Mom and Dad to intentionally carve out space on the calendar to spend time with each child. By planning moments those special moments, you are letting your son and daughter know, “You are worth my time. I want to be with you. I desire a meaningful relationship with you.” In the family economy, time equals value. Your teens may roll their eyes and call it lame, but they’ll also benefit from the time you spend with them and enjoy it more than they are likely to admit. Put a weekly date on the calendar to go get coffee with your daughter, watch a movie with your son, or sit outside in the backyard and sip ice tea with them. You don’t have to spend money, just time.
I’ve found that the best way to build better connections with your teen is to find an activity you can participate in together. Conversation seems to flow naturally when you’re having fun together. This is especially true for boys, who seem to process life better when their hands are busy.
Our Heartlight counselors sometimes shoot pool, go for a walk, or play video games with kids during their counseling sessions, and that is often when the kids really open up. The application for your home is plain enough. If hunting is your child’s interest, go hunting. If riding horses is considered fun, then go horseback riding together. You may not learn how to skateboard, but you can build a ramp and run the video camera while your child does his or her thing. The point is, if you participate in an activity with your teens that they really enjoy, you’ll find more opportunities to communicate with them.
One of the most powerful tools in a parent’s toolbox is a good question. With the right question, you can gain entrance into your kids’ world and have a greater opportunity to speak into their lives. It’s the same way with adults. When someone asks our opinion, we feel valued. When someone shows interest in our passions and interests, we feel appreciated. Our favorite subject is often ourselves! Ask even a reserved teenager a good question, and you’ll probably find yourself waist deep in a stream of conversation.
So what counts as a good question? You can go ahead and forget about queries like “How was your day?” or “What were you thinking?” If a question can be answered in a single word, then it won’t build a very strong connection. And if your question is laced with sarcasm, judgment or meant to embarrass, chances are your teen won’t even acknowledge it. Good questions convey a sense of value. They are a way to move toward your teen by asking what they think and how they feel, and giving them the freedom answer honestly.
Some examples of good questions include:
- What would be one thing I could do for you to make your life better?
- We’re all known for something. What would you like to be known for?
- Do you think the music (or movies, TV shows) you watch or listen to influences you, or is just an expression of what you feel, or what you’re in the mood for?
- What would make school better for you?
- What’s a lesson about life you’ve learned this week?
- When you hear someone talk about a “real man” who comes to mind?
- If you could change one thing about your appearance, what would you choose?
When was the last time your teenage son or daughter asked your opinion? Does your child listen to you and discuss life’s significant issues and difficulties? In other words, do you have meaningful, two-way dialogues, or does most of your communication tend to be one way? Good communication, initiated by good questions, is essential to establishing a healthy and loving connection with your teen.
Don’t misunderstand this point; this is not a promotion for complacency in connecting. What I am recommending is a “Do Nothing” night. It’s one night a week, or a month, where there are no cell phones, no laptops, no homework, no chores, and no television. As a family you “do nothing” together! Of course, spice it up by cooking a great meal that your teen will love. Then start a fire, play a game, talk about the day and share a meal together. Don’t run to the extreme and ban technology or social media every night of the week. This is just an occasional event where you remind the family that deep connections are not formed by typing on a screen. Make this night something that the whole family can enjoy, and by all means, don’t announce that talking and connecting is the evening’s agenda. Just leave the space open and available and see what happens next.
Look, I own a smart phone. I text, I email, and I use Facebook. Living in the digital age has its share of advantages. We don’t need to light a bonfire and start throwing our technology into the flames. The danger arises when our kids (or ourselves for that matter) become so immersed in the blinking lights and bleeping sounds of our devices that we neglect to spend time conversing with people face-to-face. I’ve discovered a simple formula: more screen time and less people time equals stunted growth both for us and for our teens. It’s really that simple. In our disconnected culture, we have to be intentional about connecting with our kids. We need to show them how to interact and communicate with the world around them in a way that provides them with a sense of value, community and acceptance. By providing genuine connections for your children, you are giving them a precious gift they will carry with them for the rest of their lives.
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 4 grandkids. He lives in Longview, Texas with the Heartlight staff, 60 high school kids, 25 horses, his dog, Stitch, 2 llamas, and a prized donkey named Toy. His past involvement as a youth pastor, Young Life area director, and living with over 2,700 teens, has prepared Mark to share his insights and wisdom about parenting pre-teens and adolescents.
You can find out more about Heartlight at www.HeartlightMinistries.org. You can also call Heartlight directly at (903) 668-2173.
For more information and helpful resources for moms and dads, check out our Parenting Today’s Teens website at www.ParentingTodaysTeens.org. It’s filled with ideas and tools to help you become a more effective parent. Here you will also find a station near you where you can listen to the Parenting Today’s Teens radio broadcast, or download the podcast of the most recent programs.