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Advice | Our teen keeps checking texts right away. How do we stop him?


Q: Our 16 year old son uses his phone too much. There are no serious adverse effects yet, but we are trying to work with him on responsible use. We’ve had him determine what steps he’s taking now to address the issue, and we’ll be in touch with him on that in a few weeks.

However, there’s a bigger issue we can’t agree on: He finds it socially unacceptable not to text back immediately when a friend texts him. He thinks our counterarguments are out of touch with today’s youth. I’m not sure how to find common ground on this matter. Thoughts?

A: Oh boy. As a mother, parent coach and fellow human being addicted to her phone, I hear you loud and clear. As someone who grew up with a landline phone in her kitchen, I’m breathless at the speed we went from beepers to cordless to cell phones. Your son has not known a life without this kind of technology and communication; he only knows the beeps, beeps and alarms the phone sends when someone has written.

Let’s take a closer look at your concerns. First, your son uses his phone too much. I would ask you to get some data here, even anecdotal. Does he check his phone during meals when he didn’t before? Does he interrupt conversations with you to check texts and respond? Does his schoolwork suffer from an inability to concentrate? You yourself report that there have been no serious adverse effects, so with no data, why would your son be interested in a change? You definitely don’t need things to fall apart before tackling texting and phone use, but you do need to offer more than “overusing his phone.”

Because you haven’t clearly defined the parameters of the problem, getting him to take steps to address the problem would never work. He doesn’t believe there’s a problem, so he’s not going to fix it. However, I commend you for empowering him to find his own solutions.

As for what is socially acceptable when it comes to phone use and texting, this can be a divide where you decide to agree to disagree. Remember: he grew up with the immediacy of lyrics and technology; you did not. The reward center in his brain has been trained (for a very long time) to respond to the sound of a text message, and trying to convince him that it’s socially acceptable not to text back right away won’t land well with him.

You also need to acknowledge his developmental age. He’s in the middle of an intense time of growth and change, and many teens are desperate to be with their friends, be nice, and be important to their friends. Missing texts or not responding throws you “out of the loop” even if that loop is just perceived and not real. Trying to convince a teen that the texts aren’t important or that they don’t need attention is time consuming and, quite frankly, a waste of time (no matter how correct you are).

Let’s stop the need to convince him you’re right. Lay down the judgment and the need to see face to face. Actually, you don’t want him to think like you; you want him to think for himself. To do this in a more effective, respectful way, collect your data first, then listen. Say: “We’ve noticed that in recent weeks you’ve picked up your phone more and more during meals. What’s the matter with that?” You may discover that there are some valid reasons you weren’t aware of, and curiosity and genuine listening almost always get a teenager’s respect.

After you better understand why the texts are so important to him, come up with a plan that will make both of you happy. “James, the phone is important to you, and eye contact and conversation are important to us. What can happen that feels right for all of us?”

Compromise really means that both parties don’t quite get what they want, but it does mean that you’re well within your right to have expectations in your home.

To find worksheets and clear explanations on how to make a more respectful plan together, look up Ross Greene’s work at liveinthebalance.org. Whatever you do, don’t let this power struggle overshadow your relationship with your son. He’ll be an adult soon, so try to have thoughtful conversations instead of judging, try to listen more than talk, and stay patient when his friends feel like his whole world. Stay in his lane. Good luck.

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