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Parenting (and shaming) teens in the age of social media


I was 16, and I was supposed to be at choir practice. Instead I crept up to the front door of a little house down the mountain from where I lived — a place I was expressly forbidden to go. I had taken my hand-me-down 1990 Plymouth Sundance and parked it right in the driveway, such was the invincibility of a teenager’s lie.

When my mother showed up an hour later, the guy I was seeing ran and hid behind the couch, leaving me to deal with the fallout alone. And fallout there was. Hand-wringing, shaking, thin-lipped chastising. My mother was furious. And more devastatingly, she was disappointed. She packed me up and sent me home. Driving and phone privileges revoked, and my time with the brand-new, dial-up Internet in our family den was supervised. No more AOL Instant Messenger for me.

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I was hurt, angry, and full of self-pity. My mom didn’t understand. I staged a mini-protest, wearing black, even to church, and sulkily refused to talk for a few days.

But I got over it. And she got over it. And we moved on. And through it all, I never once doubted my mother’s love for me, her protection of me, or my trust in her to be there for me. She was just being a mom, after all. Just doing her job.

But it may have been easier for her than it is for many parents today. She didn’t have social media to contend with, the constant barrage of strangers into everyone’s daily lives, the temptation to use her teaching moments as public display. She didn’t have me putting my life on blast for the whole world to see, meaning my mistakes — and hers — were our own.

Parenting teenagers in the age of social media may be the hardest feat modern parents have to accomplish. Our teens are ruled by impulsivity and daring, a combination which does not combine well with public forums that create a permanent record of every decision.

Not only do parents have to be wary of their children’s social media usage, they also have to deny the urge to retaliate using the networks. There can be no tit-for-tat here. If a parent feels shame or embarrassment because a teenager has posted something publicly, it’s easy to feel the pull to sink to that same level — to embarrass or humiliate the teen in turn. After all, they should know better, and this will teach them how it feels on the other side.

As with any parenting debate, there are two decidedly different camps when it comes to this form of deterrence. One side thinks it’s absolutely justified and the best way to help children understand the gravity of their actions. Videos where a mom shoots her kids’ electronics, or, more recently, where a mother beats and berates her daughter for posting photos of her boyfriend in a towel, are full of comments high-fiving the parent. Spare the rod and spoil the child. Spare the video coverage and miss an opportunity to put them in their place.

People on the other side of this divide, of course, think it’s reprehensible and teaches children nothing other than parents cannot be trusted.

Social workers and psychologists agree with the latter. Teenage brains are motivated by pleasure-seeking, impulsivity, aggression and reward, said Lisa Ferentz, a clinical social worker and founder of The Institute for Advanced Psychotherapy Training and Education. Their brains don’t know how to delay gratification. Because of this, humiliating teenagers for wrongdoing doesn’t solve the root of the problem, which is developmental, not spiteful.

“What we know is that nobody is ever motivated through shame or humiliation, and all it does is further alienate a teenager from her parents,” Ferentz said. “Adolescence is a time when peer acceptance and approval is critical. If a parent does something that will shame or ostracize a teenager in front of her peers, that’s a breach of trust.”

Parents react like this for a few different reasons, often in combination, according to Ferentz. Many times, she said, when teens post inappropriate pictures or comments online, that triggers the parents, and if they respond in the moment, they react almost like a child themselves, from a place of deep emotion. My children are only eight years old, and I already know the helpless feeling of being pulled back into the mindset of a child when they get stubborn with me. It only gets worse as they get older.

“In situations like this, parents have to stay grounded and present in an adult frame of mind,” Ferentz said. “Sometimes in the immediacy of the moment, you allow yourself to react, instead of act, and you leave your adult reasoning behind.”

It is exactly this reasoning that teenagers need most, she said. They need guidelines and boundaries that come from a place of logic and calm.

“Teenagers don’t fully understand cause and effect. They don’t think through what consequences the posting is going to have down the road,” Ferentz said. “You have to sit with your kids and say ‘let’s look at all the possibilities of what happens if you post certain things online.”

By doing that, Ferentz noted, you can turn these situations into teaching moments. I know that while it took me probably the better part of two years to forgive my mother for ruining my “relationship,” she never wavered in her calmness, in her view of the future. It wasn’t about punishing me; it was about keeping me safe. I hope I can do the same as my girls grow up.

Because there is a deep fear behind the anger most parents feel when their teenager goes around their rules and behind their backs. They want to protect their child from everything that could harm them, even themselves. That fear prompts more emotional immediate responses, but parents must bite those responses back if they want to have a healthy relationship with their children. Instead, they must focus on an entirely different form of fear, Ferentz said. The fear of their child not liking them.

She advocates placing firm rules around social media and being completely transparent about them. When your teens set up social media accounts, she said parents should have access to their passwords, and they should check in on the pages once in awhile. The teenagers should know this is going to happen.

“Remember, this is not a violation of privacy,” Ferentz said. “Teenagers need this guidance. Parents must be willing to be involved enough. It’s not about being your kids’ friend. You might lose their friendship, but that’s different from losing their trust.”

Ferentz said it’s also important to have the punishment fit the crime. If it is too excessive, it will push the kids away and the point will be lost. Deterrents should be used as ways to mold the future as well as ways to condemn the current behavior. Developmentally, teenagers take risks, and it’s up to the parents to ensure they remain safe.

“Parents need to not give up on their risk-taking kids,” she advised. “They need to work through these scenarios with their children, and ask them, ‘what choices could you have made instead?’ Help them to move forward, don’t keep them back.”

In the end, open, honest communication with your teens is the key to helping them stay safe and affording them the knowledge that they can trust and depend on you. And if my kids succumb to risky behaviors, I will do my best to protect them — from both themselves and the Internet.

Darlena Cunha is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to On Parenting. She blogs at Parentwin and can be reached on Twitter @parentwin.

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