Timely advice for coping with the screenager in our lives
At a time when teenagers are confined to home, Richard Hogan’s new book has useful tips for parents
Richard Hogan, author of Parenting the Screenager pictured at home with his wife Erica and children Hannah (9) Lizzy (6) and Sophie (3). Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill
In this time of social distancing most parents of teenagers are spending a lot more time in closer proximity to their offspring. How’s it going for you?
As in any relationship, new stresses and changes in routine can solidify it – or exacerbate cracks that are already there. If the suspension of life-as-we-know-it is increasing tensions between you and your teenagers, the advice in a new book entitled “Parenting the Screenager” is worth contemplating.
Family psychotherapist Richard Hogan wants parents “to think about the teenager in your home in a different way”. You may need to change the way you co-exist with your adolescent son or daughter, rather than struggling to uphold the status quo that might have worked in the past.
He has written a “practical guide for parents of the modern child”, living in a digital world that is so different from when we were growing up.
“I wanted parents to get an insider perspective – what is going on for their child.” He hopes it will help families “manage the parent-child relationship through the storm of adolescence”.
It’s clear where his sympathies lie – with the tweens and teenagers, whose mantra of “my parents don’t understand me” is probably truer than ever for this generation. If we don’t understand the digital world they are inhabiting, he believes that it will then be harder than ever to comprehend adolescent behaviour.
He feels even more for this generation right now. They were already dealing with the long-term doomsday of climate change and now they have this short-term unprecedented crisis unfolding around them.
“It is such an uncertain time for them and their minds are so young to be able to interpret all of this, which is why parents need to help them and be clear and concise about it and not over-dramatise it.”
Hogan felt compelled to write this book after his years of working with teenagers, both clinically as director of the Therapy Institute in Dublin and in schools, having been a teacher in the Catholic University School (CUS) on Lesson Street for 14 years. It was also motivated by issues parents raise in feedback to his weekly Learning Points column in the Irish Examiner”.
He uses case studies from his clinic to show the impact of an adolescent’s “ecology” ie family unit on their behaviour. The common theme he observes among families seeking help with young teenagers is the that the parents see them as recalcitrant and reticent; not talking and railing against authority. Parents are unable to open up lines of communication.
“They would see the reticence as some major issue going on,” he tells The Irish Times. “When I talk to the teenagers, they say parents don’t really understand the world we are in.”
Instead of parents feeling a sense of loss in these teenage years – where has that once-delightful child gone? – they should see it as time of being together differently, he suggests. What’s more, it is important to remember that adolescents may also experience a sense of loss as the scales fall from their eyes as regards us parents. We’re no longer the all-knowing heroes of their early childhood.
“You are not the Colossus you used to be; you make mistakes and you are not cool anymore,” he points out. “There is a loss in that dynamic. The pillars are no longer what they were.”
In Garmin speak, there’s “recalculating” of the relationship to be done on both sides as teenagers head for adulthood.
During this process, we need to be “at their side, not on their side”, he stresses. “I think that’s a crucial thing; when you are by their side you are in a supportive position; you are listening to them in a calm way. When you are on their side, say if they are talking about a bullying situation in school, you become anxious, you become hyper and in conflict with the school.
“You are not actually supporting them and you are not a safe place for them to come to.” As soon as they see you tend to overreact, they will stop coming to you. “When you are by their side you are their safe space.”
Try to help them solve the issues for themselves and never get into a negative interaction with the school, says Hogan, who has seen how that can happen so quickly.
“Parents exacerbate the issue by alienating themselves with the school. When the joint system of home and school work together it is very powerful.”
To take a stance over anything that suggests to the teenager that you’re both in this against the school together, “is a very dangerous position”. He’s not disputing a parent’s right to fight with a school – just not in front of the teenager.
Technology has dramatically changed all our lives in recent years and in this easy-to-read, concise book, Hogan works through the most challenging issues when parenting a screenager.
Right now, admittedly, is the worst possible time to be trying to tackle the root cause of many of screenagers’ problems – too much time on screens. Confined to barracks, they are more dependent than ever on their devices for communication with peers, entertainment – and links to educational resources of course.
If research in the past has found that teenagers are spending, on average, nine hours a day on their devices, just think what that has soared to over the last 12 days. While any pre-coronavirus, screen time limits in your household may seem positively quaint now, it is more important than ever to reflect on our approaches to what screenagers have to cope with.
This is not a normal situation, so we can’t parent it the way we should when the pandemic is over. Here are a few of the topics on which Horgan offers advice:
Parents often describe feeling like an interloper in their child’s life.
“We must not allow ourselves to be placed on the periphery of our children’s life,” he writes.
Tips for building communication include:
Identify the times they are more likely to open up
Make it clear you are always available for a chat
If they do come to you with something, make sure you don’t overreact
Stay involved with their life. Keep up with who are their friends and make them welcome in your home.
“You have to be involved in your children’s life – the research is there, when you’re not, the chances for risky behaviour are increased dramatically.”
“As soon as your child has a smartphone, they are only ever a few clicks from hardcore sexual imagery,” he reminds us. Children as young as eight have been brought into his clinic because they were found viewing extreme pornography.
“Can you imagine what that does to a young mind – particularly where there is a seed of vulnerability?”
In the book he quotes the American serial killer Ted Bundy who, before his execution for raping and killing more than 30 women, said, “those of us who are influenced by pornographic violence are not inherently evil; we are your sons, husbands and brothers and pornography can reach out and snatch a child out of any house no matter how diligent the parents are”.
Much closer to home was the revelation last year that Gardaí found internet searches for “child porn” and “animal porn” on the phone of one of the two boys convicted of murdering Ana Kriégel. He also had thousands of porn images on his phone, some of which depicted sexual violence.
Boys are most likely to be viewing porn but “girls get normalised into the behaviour because the boys are being normalised into it”, says Hogan.
“The images dehumanise women and the research is very clear – it’s not just opinion – that it disturbs minds and warps intimacy.”
He sees the fall-out across the board: girls who get forced into sending compromising images over their devices because guys think it’s normal and, down the line, to adult relationships, “where they don’t know the difference between explicit online pornography and intimacy”.
Parents’ vigilance is crucial in minimising children’s contact with such images, with measures such as filters on devices. The browser history on phones can be checked at night, if you are imposing the “no-technology-in-the-bedroom” boundary that he recommends.
But he doesn’t think the onus can be all on parents and believes the State should do more. The owners of porn sites should be fined, he suggests, if those sites can be accessed without having to put in an email address and verify age.
Meanwhile, building your child’s self-esteem is, he adds, “an important part of preventing your child from constantly looking for approval, which is often at the root of this issue”.
“Gaming disorder” was recognised in 2018 by the World Health Organisation as a new mental health condition. And the American Psychiatric Association found that “gaming prompts a neurological response that influences feelings of pleasure and reward, and the result, in the extreme, is manifested as addictive behaviour”.
“It’s immersive and it’s dangerous,” says Hogan, because players “are being targeted by very clever game designers”.
Parents often don’t understand the social aspect of online gaming and how being a good gamer can give teenagers a great reputation in the classroom, motivating them to play more to improve further – which can cause a drop in hygiene standards, in real-life activities and an increase in school refusal.
At first parents tend to have the illusion that they are upstairs “safe”. And, frankly, it might suit parents to have a child occupied with quiet gaming, allowing them to have down time themselves. But then they’re annoyed when the child does not want to stop.
In his clinical experience, parents don’t seek help until a child’s gaming has reached an intolerable level, reminiscent of addiction. He looks at the pattern and policy in the family home around the use of technology and usually introduces parents to the concept of “self-deception” – that they have contributed to this.
“A comfortable dynamic has developed between the game and the parenting. They have outsourced their parenting.”
He always asks, if their son wasn’t gaming, what would he be doing? “And the answer generally is ‘I don’t really know’ – that’s the issue.”
He sees it as a significant factor in the “huge new crisis” of school refusal. Either the student’s gaming has left him sleep deprived and unable to get up in the morning, or he simply doesn’t want to leave his game at home.
In addition to keeping all gaming devices out of the bedroom and setting limits on the time they can spend playing them, he recommends letting teenagers occasionally choose an outing for the whole family to do.
Meanwhile, at this time, “we have to be realistic, they will be gaming more”, he concedes. “But we can’t let them off on it all day long – we have to be sensible about it.”
Students in third, fifth and sixth years, in particular, should be in a study routine in the morning and not allowed to game until later in the day.
“They can’t move from games into study because their brains will be too hyped.”
One of the most prevalent issues he encounters in the therapeutic setting is teenage anxiety. This can be fuelled by technology – and now living through a pandemic is a challenge to all those with mental health issues. Young people look to adults for guidance in a crisis so if “we are overly worried and overdo this ‘doomsday shopping’,” it just going to heighten their fears.
“How we manage this now is a great lesson for our kids about resilience – that we don’t overact to stressful situations.”
As mammals, we like to be around each other, yet technology has been dividing us in recent years, with less real connection between people.
“That is one of the issues definitely with anxiety – teenagers feeling that sense of separation.”
Yet for the time being, while we have no choice in our physical separation, we will have to make the best of online connection.
Parents need to teach children that anxiety is inevitable for all of us but it comes and it goes – it is not a permanent state.
“The difference between a child who can manage their anxiety and a child who cannot is having this understanding.”
It is not a matter of “beating” anxiety but coping with it. Avoidance of the stressful situation is not the answer because they will never learn that the anxiety would have dissipated eventually if they had persevered.
To parents who wonder why they have such an anxious child, they may need to look around them.
“In my experience a child’s anxiety has more to do with the system or ecology they are navigating than anything inherently pathological inside them.”
While electronic and digital media enables a particular form of bullying, it is an age-old problem. Don’t react emotionally and “you must not ban your child from their devices”, he stresses. Otherwise they will never come to you again. Listen and avoid lecturing but tell them what you would do in such a situation.
“The most dangerous aspect of this type of bullying is that it can make a child feel completely alone, embarrassed and trapped. By providing them with supportive parenting you will become that safe space they need to vent.”
Which brings us back to the supreme importance of parent-teen communication – with more opportunities than ever to practise it right now.
As a parent of three daughters, aged almost three, six and nine, Hogan has yet to have hands-on experience of parenting a fully-fledged screenager. But already he is trying to prepare his daughters for going out into the world.
“You have to be tough now; you have to have a thick skin and deconstruct those feckin’ images that they are bombarded with about size.”
On the basis of him saying to Hannah, Lizzy and Sophie at the beginning of the book that “nothing I have read in a book or theory I have studied in university ever taught me how to be a good father like you three girls”, we can look forwards, perhaps, to an updated edition some years down the line.
Parenting the Screenager by Richard Hogan is published by Orpen Press (€17).