Parenting as a “First Responder” by Kate Ramsdell, Interim Dean of Students
Recently I, along with almost a dozen other members of our faculty, attended a talk by Catherine Steiner-Adair based on her new book, The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. While her thrust was our collective, increasing dependence on technology and the resulting effects on family life, I was most captivated by her discussion of adolescent decision-making and the concept of “parent as first responder.”
Steiner-Adair discussed “first responder” behavior in the context of how and when teens use technology – and how little of it their parents can really track. Recent studies have shown an enormous gulf between what kids do online and how much their parents really know. Moreover, kids lie about their tech use, and that poses a real challenge to parenting.
Her advice regarding this dilemma focused not on ways to block adolescent technology use, but instead on how to respond when you discover that your child has violated your family’s agreed upon technology ground rules (see Ben Snyder’s newsletter piece for examples). During discussions of technology and the ways in which it deeply affects them, many of the teenagers with whom Steiner-Adair works in her clinical practice say things like:
“I got in a fight with one of my friends, and she got revenge by texting another friend telling her that she shouldn’t invite me to her sweet 16. I am really, really sad about it. But if I told my mom, she would go crazy and call my friend’s mom right away! Last time this happened, she called my advisor, too. I can’t tell her anything anymore.”
“My dad would be so scary if he found that picture on Facebook of my girlfriend drinking at the concert we went to last weekend. I decided not to drink, because I needed to take care of her, but he’d never believe me. He’d never let me see her again. I’d be grounded for months.”
“My parents are so incredibly clueless, there’s no way they know what I do on my phone at night. I can’t tell them I met a guy I’m seeing on Tinder. He goes to BU, and we meet up on weekends when I tell her I’m going to Lucy’s house.”
She went on to explain in detail what “crazy, scary and clueless” parents do – they don’t respond in ways that will shape their child’s tech use in any meaningful way going forward.
Crazy parents, as Steiner-Adair defined them, amplify drama and take on their child’s emotions, escalating situations that often demand de-escalation. Scary parents react in a way that is rigid, judgmental and too intense. Instead of talking through a friend’s risky behavior, they’ll shut down a relationship immediately, often to the detriment of their own child’s sense of self and to their own relationship with their child. Clueless parents often try to convey that they “get” what their child is doing, but their kids know they don’t, and sometimes find themselves in dangerous situations as a result. All three responses result in an adolescent’s pulling away from his or her parents, even when they could ostensibly protect their child from harm.
Steiner-Adair’s advice to parents was to adopt a “first responder” style response to stressful tech-related moments with teenagers. As she put it, in an emergency, we all want our caretakers – whether they are EMTs, firefighters, or parents – to be approachable, calm, informed and available. She also emphasized that setting limits, and upholding them, was critical to the success of such an approach. Seems easy enough, but I bet we can all think of a relatively recent moment when our kids might have called something we did or said crazy, scary, or clueless.
While these guidelines certainly apply to technology use, what I liked most is that her advice could be used in any potentially stressful parent/child interaction, three of which are imminent for Nobles students: end of semester grades and comments, social decision-making during school breaks and, for seniors, college news. Just remember, even in the heat of the moment, if you can think and react like a first responder, your child will likely return again for advice and comfort in those very real moments of crisis where we all hope we can be most helpful. And, if we can be helpful here at Nobles, please let us know!