Jul 16, 2018

Dad using smartphone while ignoring daughter at table who is trying to show him something

We’ve all seen “those” parents—the ones that stroll with their children, talking on their smart phone rather than with their little one—and the parents who answer a call or text in the middle of a conversation with their child—or the parents who play repeated games or read “important” news on their devices rather than opting for a good old-fashioned board game or reading together. Not only have we seen “those” parents, we have been those parents.

Distracted parenting is not unique to the digital age. Generations of kids have been raised by “distracted parents”—parents who bring work home, who interrupt the dinner hour to answer the phone, who keep their noses in a book or a newspaper ignoring their child’s recount of the day. The difficulty with social media and interactive technology is that it becomes all-encompassing and habit forming. Whether verbally or non-verbally, distracted parents communicate that the distraction is more important than their child and their needs.

5 Disciplines to Help Dial Back and Reconnect

Many parents have gone from a distracted state to a state of digital dependence. Smart phones and devices become bedfellows, dinner companions, and even serve as conveyers of even the most sensitive of conversations. While parents are frustrated with their children for “constantly being on their devices,” parents might want to take a moment to assess their own obsession and the obsession that perhaps they have modeled for their children. How can parents go from distracted and disconnected to attentive and connected. Here are five parenting tips to help you dial back in.

1.  Create “Digital Free” Boundaries

When I was a child we were not allowed to get up from the table to answer the phone (phones had cords and were on the wall rather than in our pockets.) And we wouldn’t even think of calling someone during mealtime or after a reasonable bed time. These were social boundaries that were supported by most households. Now the smart phone seems to have a place at the table and demands our attention just like a talkative great aunt who constantly interrupts. Families, together, would do well to create “digital free” space and time. Families talk more over dinner without the distraction of devices.

We sleep better without the glow of messages appearing on a screen next to (or in) our bed. We might even notice the lovely surroundings on a walk or on a drive without the temptation to read every text or post. Start with a family discussion as how you can create these boundaries. Perhaps all members charge their phones at night away from the bedroom. Some families might begin with silencing phones during meal times and study times. And hopefully, most parents will work at silencing devices when spending time with their child.

2.  Turn Off the Device or Silence Notifications

In this era of posting, tweeting, texting and “liking”, it is very difficult to stay undistracted and focused. Trust your smart device. It will record a message that you can get to when you devote undistracted time to do so. We’ve all been on the other side of a conversation when we’ve been ignored in deference to another’s notification. It doesn’t feel very good.

3.  Model Healthy Digital Use

You’ve heard it said, “do as I say; don’t do what I do.” It is virtually impossible to support your rules and boundaries with your children when you aren’t upholding those rules in your own life. Start with boundaries that you all can live with. Set goals. Find alternatives to using your smart device to pass the time. Try resisting the urge to look at every notification that comes in right away. And communicate your goals for healthy digital use to others. Download our Family Contract to help you set goals easily.

4.  Communicate with Your Words Rather than with Your Thumbs

As a therapist who works with couples and with families, I often hear people tell me that their loved one texts them more than talks with them—even when they are sitting at the same dinner table. It’s digital parenting and digital marriage. Moms “call” their children to the dinner table by sending them a text. Couples “fight” over text and then wait for the emoji to appear to see if the argument is resolved or not. Reserve texting for logistical information – “I’m running late,” or “Can I go to my friend’s house after school?” – rather than texting emotional conversations that deserve a face to face conversation. Context, tone, language, and nonverbal cues are difficult, if not impossible, to communicate with thumbs.

5.  Take Some Time Off

Some parents (and kids) make the case that staying in touch with their smart phone and social media is the way they stay connected and taking time off their device brings up the fear of missing out (or "FOMO";.) However, many researchers, therapists, and educators are acknowledging that social media actually contributes to depression, anxiety, and a feeling that they just aren’t living up to standards and that they are missing out.

It’s hard to remember that people usually post idealistic images rather than real life events. Taking some time away from social media and devices may actually serve as a way to reconnect with oneself and with one’s family, providing undistracted and focused time. It goes back to creating those digital free boundaries—even for just a little bit. By using a time management tool, you can schedule unplugged time for your entire family.

What might your next walk with your child feel like if you talk with them rather than on your phone? What dinner conversations might pop up if phones were kept silenced and off the table? How would your relationships change if you were committed to connection rather than being a slave to distraction? Perhaps our fear of missing out might need to be in fearing what we will miss if we remain distracted rather than truly connected.

Charlene Underhill Miller, PhD

Dr. Charlene Underhill Miller, a psychotherapist in Southern California, working with parents, couples, and families. She is a frequent and popular speaker to community groups, a professor, a wife, and mother. www.underhillmiller.com