It’s an all-too common sight. A family is gathered together in a public place, but instead of talking and laughing, the group is strangely silent. The reason is apparent: Every member of the family – from the youngest child to both parents – is glancing downward, scrolling through a cell phone.
While communication issues between parents and kids are nothing new, experts say the realities and distractions of the modern world present a whole new array of challenges for parents to remain connected to their children’s lives. To help parents bridge the communication divide, the PACT Prevention Coalition of St. Johns County recently sponsored a lunchtime seminar at The Players Senior Center titled, “The Relationship Miracle: Communicating with Today’s Youth.” Presented by Licensed Mental Health Counselor Patty Mohler, the one-hour session offered real-life examples of the importance of communicating with kids along with tips for fostering better communication.
“Today’s youth are caught up in a cyber-centered world, and establishing healthy relationships and authentic communication with them presents unique challenges,” PACT Prevention Director Bridget Heenan said. “We were so pleased to be able to bring this program to the Ponte Vedra Beach area.”
Mohler, who works with families to address a variety of issues, stressed the importance of communicating with youth, particularly during the teen years. She pointed to the recently published memoirs of Sue Klebold, the mother of Columbine shooter Dylan Klebold, as illustrative of the tragic consequences that can result when parents are disconnected from the realities of their children’s lives.
“(Klebold) admits she had no idea what her son was going through,” said Mohler, noting that parents are often afraid of prying or violating their children’s privacy. “She said, ‘His journal was right there on his bed. If I’d only opened it, everything he was planning was all there.’”
So what can parents do to ensure they are aware of what’s going on in their children’s lives? Mohler offered luncheon attendees the following tips:
Establish open communication your children when they’re young so the channel is open when they hit the teen years. “When parents come to me with a 14- or 15-year-old and say, ‘What do we do?,’” Mohler said, “there’s a good chance we’re going to have to work harder to right the ship and possibly change their parenting style.”
Today’s families are so over scheduled that many have abandoned the traditional rituals that cemented family bonds for generations’ past. One of the biggest casualties is the family dinner: Studies show that fewer than 17 percent of today’s families regularly share a meal together.
“I had a 13-year-old patient with an eating disorder who had never eaten a meal at home with her family,” Mohler said. “If you never eat with your child, it’s going to be really hard to pick up on the fact they have an eating disorder.”
Family meals are prime opportunities to communicate with kids and learn what is going on in their lives. “Be curious,” she said. “If you just ask, ‘How was your day?’ you’ll get, ‘Okay.’ Ask questions like, ‘What went really well for you today?’ or “Tell me about the funniest thing that happened this week.’”
The time spent sharing a meal and communicating today will translate into positive outcomes down the road, Mohler said.
“Studies have shown that kids who share meals with their parents have fewer eating disorders, healthier diets and fewer substance abuse issues.”
Board games offer another opportunity to connect and communicate with kids. “Kids really love playing games with their parents,” she said. “They may tell you they don’t, because they don’t think it’s cool to admit it, but they really do.”
Use ‘I’ Language
Teach kids what feelings are and how to express them. Avoid starting sentences with “You,” however, which can put kids on the defensive.
“If your child objects to bedtime at 9:30, stomps his foot and says, ‘That’s unfair!’ say, ‘I see you’re angry and upset about bedtime’ or ‘I hear you’re frustrated.’ It doesn’t change their bedtime, but it teaches kids to express their feelings appropriately and it makes a huge difference in terms of how they react and communicate later on.”
Today’s parents underestimate the negative impact technology has on children’s developing brains, Mohler said.
“Video addiction is a big problem today,” she said. “Children are highly affected by the violence they see in video games. Their brains are being rewired by the amount of violence they’re seeing, and they become desensitized to it.”
So much so, she noted, that in the past 20 years, the level of empathy exhibited by children has dropped 40 percent.
To address this, Mohler recommended that parents set a no-technology policy during family meals. She also suggested taking TVs out of the bedroom and setting a technology curfew.
“Some of my clients will turn off the wifi and take their kids’ cellphones away at bedtime to prevent them from being up until 2 or 3 in the morning.”
Model Good Communication
“How you and your husband communicate with one another will affect how your kids treat others then they start to date,” said Mohler, who urged parents to present a united front when it came to disciplining children.
“Children learn how to manipulate at a very young age,” she said. “If Mom is the strict parent and Dad is the easy parent, they’re going to bring everything to Dad. So it’s important that parents be on the same page.”
Conventional wisdom says that children need more parental attention when they are young and a more hands-off approach as they enter middle and high school. That belief needs to be reversed, Mohler said.
“We have 1,000 people making cupcakes for the elementary school bake sale, but when the kids get older the parents seem to become less involved,” she said. “Commit to being more involved in the middle and high school years. Know who your kids are hanging around with. Pick up the phone.”