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How to have better conversations with your teen
Tech Parenting Part 1
This is the first in a series of posts on parenting around technology and social media. Most of this will be focused on teens, but some may also apply to younger or older kids (or really, any human in your life). Have a specific tech parenting question? Send it my way!
11 min read
When you look online for information about how to manage your teens’ social media use, you typically find articles in popular press outlets with titles like “9 ways to help your teen use social media” or “10 tips to save your teen from falling into the dark, sinister abyss of TikTok challenges.”
I hate these articles.1 They’re often unrealistic, vague, and patronizing. With my children, we start every morning with a 40-minute vinyasa yoga series, says expert ABC from XYZ. No. No you don’t. Parents should recognize that if their children are using phones, instead of vinyasa yoga, they have failed their basic duties as a caregiver. Stop it! Figuring out how to manage kids’ tech use is really hard, and we’re all doing our best. This should be the starting point.
With this in mind, I’m first going to lay out the basic approach we’ll take to tech parenting here on Techno Sapiens. Then we’ll get into the specifics: how to talk to your teen about tech with minimal screaming, door-slamming, and claims (from either party) that you just don’t get it.
Techno Sapiens Philosophy #1: There’s No “I” in Expert
Training in clinical psychology is a case study in imposter syndrome. This is a persistent feeling of doubt about your abilities and skills, and the conviction that you will soon be discovered as an imposter or fraud. Not unlike parenting, I should add.
When I first began seeing families as a therapist-in-training, I was terrified that my teen patients’ parents would see that I was young, contort their faces, and ask and how long did you say you’ve been doing this?! This did, in fact, happen a few times.
I did two things to remedy my imposter syndrome. First, I removed a nose ring that I’d had since college, to the great delight of my parents and, presumably, my nose. At the time, I hoped this would lend me a more professional demeanor. I don’t think it made a difference.
Second, but more importantly, I embraced a philosophy with my patients’ parents that I believe is crucial to general parenting and tech parenting, specifically. You, parent, are the expert in your child. You know them better than any professional ever could. I am an expert in the treatments and strategies that we know, from research and clinical experience, work for teens. Our goal is to use this shared expertise to help your child.
What this means is that, at the end of the day, no one can tell you exactly what to do with your teen in your specific circumstances. I can give you the information, what we know and don’t know from the research, some tips and ideas, even what I think I might do in the same situation. But you know your teen best.
Techno Sapiens Philosophy #2: Tech Parenting is (mostly just) Parenting
It turns out that tech parenting is, in many ways, just…parenting. Yes, there are many new challenges unique to the digital space. How do we monitor what our kids are doing online? How do we keep up with the weekly onslaught of new apps and social media features? How do we stop our teens from making a mistake online that will follow them the rest of their lives? The challenges are new, and sometimes scary, but to address them, we can rely on much of what we already know about parenting.
Let’s imagine you’re really into baking muffins. Growing up, you watched your grandmother make Corn and Blueberry, and now those are what you usually make. You feel confident with Corn and Blueberry. But now, Big Muffin has gotten everyone hooked on Morning Glory, and you need to address it. Do you throw out everything you know? Ignore your decades of experience with leveling out flour, filling muffin tins, checking with a toothpick to see if they’re done? No. The same principles apply, you just need to practice a few new skills like, say, shredding carrots.
Let the “tech” part of “tech parenting” be your shredded carrots.
This is the approach we will take here on Techno Sapiens. We’ll rely on the basic principles and strategies of effective parenting, but update them to address the unique challenges of the digital world. And we’ll work together, with our shared expertise, to find some strategies that work for your family.
How to have better conversations with your teen
Now, let’s now turn to our first specific area of tech parenting: validation. In the years that I’ve been doing therapy and research with teens, validation is one of the most useful strategies I’ve learned for having calmer, more effective conversations.
First, a basic definition: Validation is communicating to someone that what they are saying, feeling, or doing makes sense.
Let’s imagine your 13-year-old has a friend named Sarah. You kind of hate Sarah. She always seems to be starting drama, lying, getting in trouble, etc. One day, your teen comes to you and shares that she posted a TikTok and Sarah commented some half-joke about how her elbows look weird in it, or something. Your teen is incredibly upset. You want to help her feel better.
So you say something like: Oh, it’s no big deal. You have great elbows! She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Just ignore her! [Your teen responds: No I don’t! You don’t get it!]
Or maybe you want to fix the situation, so you say: Why don’t you text Sarah and tell her that what she said was rude, and ask her to take the comment down? [Your teen responds: Mom, no! I obviously can’t do that! You don’t get it!]
These are natural instincts, to help our children feel better and fix tough situations. Our automatic response to a difficult situation is often to jump straight into this kind of problem solving. But when we do this, we forget to validate first.
Here is what a validating response would look like. We could start with a pause, an interested head nod, and something like: Wow, I’m so sorry that happened. That must have been really hard, especially since Sarah is your friend. I’d be upset if that happened to me, too.
Here, you validated the feeling. You let your teen know that the way they are feeling makes sense, given the situation they’re in and the experiences they’ve had. You labeled an emotion (“upset”) for them, and told them that you get it. Validate first, and problem solving comes later.
There are many reasons to validate others, especially in the midst of difficult conversations. It makes other people feel understood and heard. It dials down intense emotions for both parties, which makes conversations go more smoothly. For teens, validation can be critical for calming—and normalizing—the intense emotions that tend to arise during this developmental period.
Validation is an especially critical skill for tech parenting. When it comes to technology, teens often feel alone in their experiences. Validation shows them that even if their parent doesn’t totally get the ins and outs of TikTok, they do understand the (very normal) emotions that may arise when using it. Tensions run high when we talk to our kids about technology. Think of validation as a volume control button—it tends to dial down the intensity just enough for conversations to move forward.
How to validate
Here are the basic steps to validating your child (or, really, anyone)2:
Use nonverbal cues to show you’re listening. Make eye contact, nod, set aside your phone and other distractions.
Listen to what your child has to say, and try to imagine how they might be feeling. You might not be familiar with the social media specifics (and why are your friends performing a choreographed dance to a song about Jeff Bezos?), but you can likely relate to the feeling (it’s tough to feel left out of the group). Pay attention to your teen’s nonverbal cues, too, like crying, screaming, laughing, turning red.
Name the emotion3, and express that what they are feeling makes sense and/or that you understand it. Here are a few phrases to try:
I can imagine that you’re feeling [emotion] right now. I can imagine that you’re feeling disappointed right now.
It makes sense that you would feel [emotion] given [current circumstances]. It makes sense that you would feel upset about not getting a text back, given that you were putting yourself out there when you texted your friend.
It makes sense that you would feel [emotion] given [past experiences]. It makes sense that you would feel angry that your friend posted that photo of you, given that this is something you two have disagreed about before.
I would feel [emotion] if that happened to me, too. I would feel angry if that happened to me, too.
I totally understand feeling [emotion] in this situation. I totally understand feeling embarrassed in this situation.
Optional: follow up with a question. Often, just reflecting how your teen is feeling will prompt further conversation, but sometimes, it is helpful to check that you guessed the emotion correctly (Is that right?) or to ask a brief follow up question (What else happened?)
Why validation works
Another reason to use validation: there is good evidence that it works. Validation is a key component of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a well-established treatment proven to be highly effective for teens with a range of mental health concerns. Research further suggests that teens whose parents are more validating report better family relationships and greater ability to regulate their emotions.
Experimental studies also demonstrate the power of validation. In a recent study, researchers recruited 60 young adults, randomly assigned them to receive either validating or invalidating responses, and then measured their emotional reactivity (i.e., the intensity of their emotions). Here’s how it went. Participants were asked to perform a series of difficult mental math problems, which—no surprise—creates significant stress. After doing the math problems, the participants were asked how they were feeling. In the “validating” condition, the experimenter would respond to their statements by saying things like “Completing math problems without pencil and paper is frustrating” or “I would feel upset too if I were the one completing the task.” In the “invalidating” condition, the responses were statements like “I don’t understand why you would feel that way” or “There’s no need to get upset.”
What did they find? Participants who received the invalidating responses showed greater increases in negative affect (feeling upset, nervous, ashamed, etc.), as well as greater increases in heart rate and other physiological measures of stress, compared to those who received validating responses. In other words, when we are upset, a validating response reduces the intensity of our emotions.
What gets in the way of validating?
At this point, we’ve covered how to validate and why it works. Now, let’s discuss one of the major issues that gets in the way of using it: we mistake validation for agreement. We worry that by validating feelings, we are condoning behavior. But the truth is that we can do both—we can validate feelings and we can express when a behavior is not okay.
To illustrate, let’s go back to our example of Sarah, the elbow-bashing commenter. Now imagine that your child is Sarah. Your child is the one who posted the mean comment on her friend’s TikTok. You found out about it because her friend’s mom called you and shared what happened. Your child, Sarah, tells you that she was just trying to be funny, it was just a joke, and clearly other people thought it was funny because her comment got a ton of likes. What do you say?
You want her to be empathetic, to recognize how her actions hurt others, so you jump in and say: Don’t you understand how that might have hurt your friend’s feelings? You can’t just say things like that because they are funny. [Your teen rolls her eyes: It’s not my fault she’s so sensitive! It was a joke! You don’t get it!]
Or you want to make sure this kind of thing never happens again, so you put a consequence in place: You clearly cannot handle the privilege of having TikTok right now, so you are not allowed on TikTok for the rest of the week. [Your teen: You don’t GET IT! Runs up to her room and slams the door.]
Building empathy and setting appropriate consequences are crucial, and you will do these things soon. But when your teen cuts off the conversation and runs to her room, it’s not accomplishing much of anything. Instead, we could start with: It can be really fun and feel great when other people like our comments. It makes sense that you’d be surprised if you thought it was just a joke, and your friend interpreted it differently.
Here, we are validating the feelings (great, surprised), but not the behavior. It’s still not okay to make fun of a friend, and you’ll get to that soon. Just because we help teens recognize that how they are feeling makes sense, doesn’t mean we agree with the behavior they engaged in. After you validate those feelings, perhaps your teen will be more likely to listen. And that’s when you start the work of discussing empathy and determining appropriate consequences.
Validation is an essential tech parenting skill. It makes conversations about tech go more smoothly. It shows your child that you can understand how they’re feeling. And it’s the foundation for successfully implementing other tech parenting strategies.
In future weeks, we’ll talk about some of these other strategies, including how to set appropriate limits, problem-solve challenging situations, and monitor what’s happening online. So grab your muffin tin and start shredding those carrots: we’re going to do this together.
I have written and contributed to a countless number of these types of articles. They are hard to avoid. As the kids would say (I think), don’t @ me.
I can assure you from personal experience that once you learn about validation, you start seeing it everywhere. A few weeks ago, I was at the DMV. As frequently happens at the DMV, a man on the other side of the room was on the verge of a very real—and very relatable—meltdown. The cause was, predictably: he had brought a stack of identification papers, he’d waited in line for almost two hours, and now the DMV clerk was telling him that he still couldn’t get the registration/license/renewal he needed. The man was starting to raise his voice—I can’t believe this! The DMV clerk jumped in. Okay, there’s no need to get upset. Uh oh. You need to calm down. I can also assure you that no person has ever calmed down in response to these two statements. The man was eventually escorted out by security. I have to wonder if a statement like: Sir, I totally understand feeling frustrated right now—you’ve been waiting a long time and you just want to get your license renewed would have resulted in a different response. Nothing can save the absolute dumpster fire that is the DMV, but maybe a little validation could help.
Here is a handy list of emotion words to get us started. We are all surprisingly bad at labeling emotions. When you ask someone how they were feeling in a given situation, people often respond with something that is very much not an emotion. This comes up a lot in therapy. For example, “What emotion do you think you were feeling when your toddler stripped off their clothes and began running down the hallway, screaming, and throwing fistfuls of spaghetti sauce at the new wallpaper?” “Well, I was like, I can’t believe I’m going to have to replace that wallpaper.” This is a very understandable thought to have in this situation, but it’s not an emotion. The emotion is more likely something like “frustrated,” “shocked,” or perhaps, depending on the price of the wallpaper, “enraged.”