Digital kids – help!!
I did something I’ve never done before the other day, I went to a parenting workshop. Normally I’d be too scared to risk exposing my below-par parenting skills outside of the home, but this one, run by The Parenting Partnership, drew me in because it was about how to parent in the digital age. With three kids all in the throes of adolescence, I’ve now completely lost control of the little authority I once had to tell them what to do. So they do what they want, which for my sons is playing Fortnite on their phones ALL THE TIME and for my daughter is endlessly scrolling through Instagram collecting new phobias.
So when I heard about Heather Rutherford and Andrea (aka Panda) Worrall’s Connected Parenting in the Digital Age workshop, I high-tailed it over there for some much-needed advice. And far from feeling named and shamed about my shortcomings, I came away realising I’m not the only one struggling, hurrah! I also bonded with lots of other mums, not least Heather and Panda themselves, who between them have four kids. By the end of the three hours the two of them had become my Trinny and Susannah of the parenting world – managing to make me feel good about myself while also gently pointing out where I might be going wrong and giving me the tools to do better. I heartily recommend going along to their sessions, but in the meantime here are their five key steps to help you prevent your kids from turning into digital monsters.
1. UNDERSTAND THEIR BRAINS
It isn’t until the age of 25 that a human being’s brain is fully formed. Yes, 25! So while the pre-frontal cortex is still developing important stuff like empathy, morality, insight, intuition, fear modulation and emotional regulation, teens and tweens will be reacting to life via their limbic system – that melting pot of emotions where the fight or flight instinct resides and dopamine and cortisol get pumped out. So when they get a like on an Instagram post, they get a hit of yummy dopamine, which, guess what, wants them coming back for more. Conversely, if they see on Snapchat that a group of their friends are all at a pizza place and they weren’t invited, bang, they’re flooded with the stress hormone cortisol. Add to this the fact that screens lower melatonin – which then disturbs sleep, which can then lead to feelings of depression and low self-esteem, something teens have anyway, and my you’ve got tangled web. Are you feeling sorry for them yet? Poor things, they can’t always help the way they act, so as parents we have to be their rational brain and help them become digital resistant.
2. HONE YOUR PARENTING STYLE
So now we know they’ve got all that going on in their brain, how to get through to them? Well, a bit like Goldilocks, we need to find the way to connect that is just right. If you’re too authoritarian – my way or the high way – they’ll just rebel. If you’re too permissive and act like their best friend, they won’t learn any boundaries and will be susceptible to any new technological trap that comes their way. The porridge/chair/bed that is just right is an authoritative style where you set boundaries but you also respect their opinions. Children are hard-wired to want to connect with their parents, so if we can facilitate that we’re going to help make them feel good about themselves and enter adulthood with strong self-esteem.
3. LEARN HOW TO CONNECT
Two words: descriptive praise. If you can crack this, you’re winning. So what is it? Well, unlike evaluative praise, which can be judgemental, throwaway, achievement-orientated or generalised – “Aren’t you clever?” “You’re being so good!” “Well done for winning the match!” – descriptive praise isn’t just about praising outcomes, it’s all about the small steps, the effort, the attitude, even the absence of negative behaviour. For example, “I noticed you didn’t go on your phone as soon as you got back from school today and did a bit of homework instead. That was really great,” or ,“It must be really hard not to have an X Box like all your friends do and I’m really impressed you’ve stopped asking me for one every day.” Keeping praise specific and focused on the effort and journey means it’s credible and it also shows you’ve taken an interest. This really resonates with children and they’ll be motivated to please you further. They’re also more likely to listen to you, talk to you and connect with you – that holy trinity of parenting!
4. BE A GOOD EMOTION COACH
It’s really important to convey to children that all their emotions are acceptable. Anger, sadness, jealousy, resentment – if they’re feeling a strong emotion, that’s fine, it’s just the consequent behaviour that may sometimes leave something to be desired. As a parent you can help them understand that when they’re upset it’s about having a problem not being a problem. If you can do that you’ll help build their self-esteem and critical thinking, facilitate their ability to solve their own problems, help them manage their feelings and establish a strong connection with them. It’s good to work out what makes your child tick too. An introverted child, for example, might need some quiet time when they’ve exploded at you because you’ve got in the way of their gaming habit, while an extrovert might need putting in the garden with a ball.
5. BE CREDIBLE
Do you know about Finstas, fake Instagram accounts? Are you aware that there are chat rooms in Fifa? To be able to talk to your children about their digital habits, you need to understand what apps, games, channels they most use and why they appeal (*these sites are really helpful). We’ve probably all experienced how easy it is to binge watch Netflix, so can empathise with our kids about how hard it can be to turn off the TV. This means when we talk to them about knowing when to stop we come across as credible as we’ve had to resist temptation ourselves. Similarly, if you can work out what it is about Fortnite, their favourite YouTuber or Snapchat that so appeals, you can talk knowledgably to them about how they can put boundaries in place to keep them digitally healthy and resilient. And by understanding and involving them in the process of setting boundaries, you are far more likely to get them to comply – and maybe even admit they feel better for it! Trial keeping phones out of bedrooms overnight and see if your kids report that their sleep improves. And, don’t forget to follow the rules yourself if you really want to be credible. Ouch, now that is going to be difficult!
The Parenting Partnership offers courses, workshops and one-to-one consultations that help parents bring up confident, cooperative and resilient children. The Old Rectory, Saintbury, Broadway, Worcs WR12 7PX. Tel: 07867 535755, 07778 302502. Email: info@the parentingpartnership.com. theparentingpartnership.com