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Our teen keeps immediately checking texts. How do we stop him?

(María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post; iStock)
4 min

Q: Our 16-year-old son has been overusing his phone. There have been no severe adverse consequences yet, but we are trying to collaborate with him on responsible usage. We allowed him to determine the steps he is now taking to address the issue, and we will follow up with him in a couple of weeks about that.

There’s a bigger issue, though, that we can’t seem to come to an agreement on: He thinks it is socially unacceptable to not text back immediately when a friend texts him. He thinks our arguments to the contrary are out of touch with today’s youth. I am not sure how to find common ground on this issue. Thoughts?

A: Oh boy. As a mother, parent coach and fellow human addicted to her phone, I hear you loud and clear. As someone who grew up with a corded phone in her kitchen, the rapidity from which we went from beepers to cordless to cellphones leaves me breathless. Your son hasn’t known life without this kind of technology and communication; he has only known the dings, beeps and alarms that the phone sends when someone has written.

Let’s take a deeper look at your concerns. First, your son is overusing his phone. I would ask you to get some data here, even anecdotal. Is he checking his phone during meals when he didn’t before? Is he interrupting conversations with you to check texts and respond? Is his schoolwork suffering because of an inability to focus? You report yourself that there have been no severe adverse consequences, so without data, why would your son be interested in changing? You absolutely don’t need things to fall apart before addressing texting and phone usage, but you do need to offer more than “overusing his phone.”

Because you didn’t set the parameters of the problem clearly, having him take steps to address the issue was never going to work out. He doesn’t buy that there is a problem, so he is not going to fix it. I do commend you, however, for giving him the power to find his own solutions.

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As for what is socially acceptable when it comes to phone usage and texting, this may be a divide where you decide to agree to disagree. Remember: He grew up with the immediacy of texts 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, and trying to persuade him that it is socially acceptable to not text back immediately is not going to land well with him.

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

Let’s stop the need to persuade him of your rightness. Put down the judgment and the need to see eye-to-eye. In fact, you don’t want him to think like you; you want him to think for himself. To go about this in a more effective, more respectful way, first collect your data, then listen. Say: “We have noticed that, in the past couple of weeks, you have been picking up your phone more and more at meals. What’s going on with that?” You may find that there are some valid reasons you didn’t know about, and curiosity and true listening almost always gain the respect of a teen.

After you better understand why the texts are so important to him, co-create a plan that makes 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 good for all of us?”

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Compromise, truly, means that both parties don’t totally get what they want, but it does mean that you are well within your rights to have expectations in your home.

To find worksheets and clear explanations of how to co-create a more respectful plan, look up Ross Greene’s work at Whatever you do, don’t let this power struggle overshadow your relationship with your son. He will soon be an adult, so attempt to have thoughtful conversations rather than judgments, try to listen more than speak, and stay patient when his friends feel like his whole world. Stay in his orbit. Good luck.