Connectivity has taken on new meanings in our age of digital tools. We need to be hooked up to the web, linked in with colleagues, and interfacing with other computers. We're uploading and downloading and storing information in a Cloud! It's a whole new world of connectivity.
Being connected through our technology may make sense, but the human heart will always long for the deeper connection of person-to-person. Everywhere I go I meet parents and grandparents, aunts, uncles, older siblings, teachers, church volunteers, and pastors who want to connect more often and more deeply with their children and grandchildren.
Screens are mesmerizing! It's hard to pull our eyes off them to register what's going on around us to make eye contact with the living, breathing people near at hand.
A 7-year-old girl talks about wanting her parents' attention: "A lot of time when my parents are home and on their computers, I feel like I'm not here, because they pretend like I'm not there … they're like not even talking to me, they just are ignoring me. I feel like, ughhh, sad (sigh)."
Parents and young people can make adjustments in personal behaviors and family patterns that will promote a higher probability of connecting meaningfully. That deep connection will enable us to pass on our values and Christian worldview, talk openly about God and our faith journey, bring up character concerns, and talk about the value of teachers, wisdom, and authority.
Children of all ages tell me they want and need to connect with their parents. They want to know and feel that parents care about them, their friends, and their activities. Having easygoing and meaningful conversations is an important way to do this. It takes skill and will—ability and strong desire.
Although technology can make connecting challenging, it's also true that online interactions can strengthen offline conversations. This is especially true if our relationships are already healthy. Connecting with our teens through social media, texting, FaceTime, and email positively affects teens' view of themselves and our face-to-face interactions.
In today's digital world we can't take for granted that our kids will learn actual conversation skills. It's going to take some intentional parenting to pass along the art of conversation. As you make an effort to improve conversation between you and your young people, here are some good guiding truths.
Interrogations are not the same as conversations. Sometimes teens tell me they can almost feel handcuffs tightening as they sit at the table and questions quickly follow one after another. They describe their parents' suspicious looks as being like a bright light focused on their eyes. They swear they're actually sweating as the heat and pace of the questions intensify. With great frustration, they proclaim, "Dr. Kathy, they treat me like I'm a suspect in a crime all the time!!"
Would your teens describe your interaction with them like this—more like the third degree than amicable discussion? Please note that I didn't ask if you'd describe your conversation this way, but if your teens would. It's their perception that matters. Interrogations won't help us connect, and getting grilled is one reason teens avoid interacting with their parents. There may be a time and a place for "not letting them off the hook," but most of us probably overuse this technique.
How do you get your teen's attention? Do you usually start with questions? Starting with a question can make your kid's interrogation radar come up.
Questions are totally appropriate and necessary, but we can ask them so they don't feel like drive-by- shootings or obligations to check off a list. If we want more in-depth, honest answers, our questions and the way we ask them need to be fresh and genuine. How do our teens decide if that's the case? When we're really listening! When we connect and respond to their answers, when we try to feel what they're feeling, when we try to share in their experiences, when we want to genuinely understand, and when our offers to help them are appropriate.
Our questions can't be accusations hiding behind question marks. If you have a habit of continually bringing up past failures or offenses, kids may fear interacting with you because of what might be about to come up again. After an offense, teens do need to rebuild trust with their parents, but when something has been forgiven it needs to be relegated to the past and not constantly revisited. Let's make sure to model healthy forgiveness and reconciliation.
If you've never developed a good conversational pattern with your teens, or if it's degenerated in recent months, this rhythm may not be easy to establish. But don't give up. Try, try again. Our teens are too important not to!
Consider the time and place. When we were growing up, our dinner table was where my brother, Dave, and I knew we'd get to connect with each other and with our parents. Dave and I answered questions about our day. We knew our parents asked not just to check up on us, but because they cared. We knew because our parents were actively involved in our lives and didn't need to ask. They wanted to ask. These conversations were a natural part of living as a family.
In their book Growing Up Social, Gary Chapman and Arlene Pellicane write about protecting that family time over a meal: "Don't use the dinner table to preach or discuss stressful topics. Do that away from the table. At its best, dinner is about sharing stories, solving problems, no pressure, no meanness, no putdowns, no sarcasm—and no tech distractions."
Talking in the car can work well because teens know we can't make much or any eye contact with them. This makes it easier to share challenging news. Teens will tell me, "Dr. Kathy, when I know I'm going to disappoint my parents, I don't want to see the hurt in their eyes. So the car is great. It's a great place to talk because I can't run away either, but that's okay if they've listened to me."
Bedtime is another time and place teens prefer to talk. Even though we want our kids to get enough sleep and there's work we could do, some nights it pays to linger longer if they're in a talking mood. Just respond with, "And?" Or even say softly, "Tell me more."
We don't have to ask questions to get more information. Sometimes we just need to give them the space to talk without inserting our voice or our thoughts. Questions formed from restatements of relevant information they shared can indicate that we've listened, but our teens can quickly perceive when a free conversation they wanted to have turns into a judgmental interrogation we want to have.
Connect to meet deep needs. Through listening and talking, we and our teens can be more secure in each other and in ourselves. We can discuss character qualities and provide information to increase kids' confidence. Simply pursuing them because we want to connect through conversations increases our teens' security and confidence. Don't expect to hear "thank you." The exact opposite might occur at first. Pursue anyway.
Our identity can become more complete, accurate, and positive as we share. Our teens want to be known and they want to talk about themselves with someone who understands them or who wants to. We must be these significant, influential people. What a privilege!
Conversation will remind us that we belong to each other, and we'll understand better why we're connected. We'll discover our teens really do want to connect even if they haven't expressed it well lately. During conversations we can discover or remember common interests, hobbies, and family traits, while we bond over them.
Connecting through conversations also allows us to have faith-based discussions. A vibrant relationship with Christ is more than something that sustains us during challenges. That's why ongoing conversations are important. We want our teens to adopt and live out a Christian worldview that puts God at the center of the universe. Rather than making self-centered decisions, we want them to filter everything through what they know about God. Trusting Christ isn't just about being in heaven the day we die. It's about living for and with Him. Conversations help us teach and model this agenda for living.
We can emphasize the truths we've learned ourselves during conversations. Talking about how to apply what God is teaching us practically can be an extremely relevant conversation (and even enjoyable!). This can strengthen teens' relationship with God and their ability to use the truths they know throughout the day. We can also use the teachable moments and when the time is right, we can discuss sermons, current events, school assignments, and other issues they're thinking about.
The goal? Deep, meaningful, safe conversations.
Today technology and the internet are part of home life, with all the good and bad that brings. The voices, noises, screens, and distractions of our culture can sometimes feel like a tsunami threatening the security of our homes and children. However, we can defend our families against the lies. We can be proactive and engaged in leading our teens with intention. Equipped with truth, we will expose the lies and battle for the hearts and minds of teens. What could be a better use for our time, effort, and energy? We can and we will connect with our kids in this wireless world.
Taken from Screens and Teens, © 2015 by Kathy Koch, PhD. Used with permission of Moody Publishers.
1. Would you like to know how to master technology, so it won't master you? Read "Five Ideas to Keep Technology From Replacing Relationships."
2. Listen as Kathy Koch, the founder and president of Celebrate Kids, talks with FamilyLife Today® listeners about how to connect with their kids in a wireless world.
3. Purchase a copy of Kathy Koch's book Screens and Teens. If you are married, read it with your spouse.