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Look Who’s Talking: An Interview With Catherine Steiner-Adair

We chat with Visiting Innovator Catherine Steiner-Adair — clinical psychologist, clinical instructor at Harvard Medical School, and author of The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family in the Digital Age.
What are some ways in which technology decreases family connections?

Steiner-Adair: We are raising the first generation of kids who prefer texting to talking. Texting is incredibly efficient. You can make plans in seconds, or your child can tell you if practice ended early. The downside to texting is that they are not having the same experiences of learning how to be vulnerable, to listen, to be there for each other, to talk. Texting prevents hearing tone of voice and seeing body language, which decreases empathy and can increase anxiety. The worst time to text is when you are mad or sad. Texting escalates drama. We are not as reflective neurologically when we text, and we lose our filter and respond too fast. We don’t slow down and ask, “What do you mean?” as we might when we talk to someone.

So, what do we do?

Steiner-Adair: I have seven “Technology To-Do’s” for parents.

  1. First thing in the morning, turn toward yourself and the people you love before you turn to technology. Start the day acknowledging the people you love most.
  2. Wake up 30 minutes before your kids and do all of your email and “checking” before they get up.
  3. Set a no device rule in the car. On the drives to and from home and school children need to stare out the window, let their brains rest, figure out how to deal with what might be worrying them about the day. They need to be able to turn to you with their anxieties and thoughts.
  4. Allow your kids to connect to themselves and others. During these daily transitions, kids and their brains need to rest, they need to daydream, they need to connect to themselves, and talk to you. It is important that kids learn how to wait and be patient.
  5. Resist texting with your kids during the day. Kids get anxious when they see your texts during the day just as we get anxious when we see theirs. Give them the space to become self-reliant. It’s okay to say, “Let’s touch base at the end of the day.” It’s okay not to be there 24/7.
  6. Pick up your kids from school or walk in the door unplugged and keep the family technology-free for at least one hour. Show them that they are your first priority.
  7. Vacations are technology-free. Neurologically our brains respond to the pings of phones with a sense of urgency. Each time we “just check” or phone or email, we are “checking out” from our family.

Technology can be scary. What can parents do to make sure their kids talk to them when problems arise?

Steiner-Adair: As part of my research, I asked teenagers, “What can parents do to make you more comfortable going to them if you’re in trouble?” I didn’t get much response until I flipped the question and asked, “What do parents do that makes you NOT feel comfortable going to them if you’re in trouble?” They described three characteristics: scary, crazy, clueless.

  • Scary parents react too intensely or overreact. Scary parents say things like, “Now you’re never going to get into college.” They make kids feel like they ARE their mistakes.
  • Crazy parents feel their kids are upset, so they get just as upset. Crazy parents who get too involved in the problem amplify the drama.
  • Clueless parents check out and assume kids aren’t going to get in trouble. They don’t understand technology and don’t feel that they need to. Often kids with clueless parents are envious of parents who “care.”

The opposites of these characteristics are approachable, calm, and interested. If your kids come to you with a problem…take a deep breath and ask how you can support them. The key to dealing with technology is to stay engaged and connected in the non-digital world. It’s never too late to put down the iPad and come to the dinner table.

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