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Keeping Teens Too Busy to Argue

Face it. Wrangling a teenager and micromanaging technology is not what most parents signed up for when they held their sweet baby for the first time.

But here you are, after one more ugly battle of the wills which ended with you removing access to all electronic devices, and your teenager is surly and shutting down even more. How can you break this cycle?

Good news, there is a better way! While sometimes it is necessary, taking away all screens from a teenager usually makes things unbearable for everyone – especially you. Then, soon after screen privileges are returned, the unwanted behaviors often return, too, and the cycle of rebellion – removal – surliness – aloofness – reinstatement repeats.

Taking away screens is a popular punishment for almost any infraction because it’s the one thing that gets a reaction from our kids. But, it has become more and more difficult to enforce. Most schoolwork now requires use of a computer. An over-abundance of socialization takes place via technology. Removing all screens from a teen usually makes life extremely difficult for parents who then must micromanage every move the child makes, because, of course, teens are wily creatures and know how to harness the Internet from just about anywhere. Another glitch in this system of punishment is that access to hidden devices is rampant. Many kids just go to their underground pipeline of secondary devices, blissfully smug at outsmarting their parents once again. I recently heard of a child who used the family coffee pot to hotspot a smuggled in cell phone. Sheesh!

So, what if you do something different next time? To understand alternate options let’s have a refresher in basic behaviorism. In general, behavior management is comprised of reinforcers and consequences. A reinforcer increases a wanted behavior. Consequences are designed to decrease an unwanted behavior. Reinforcers and consequences can be either positive or negative. Positive means you add something to encourage behavior change, negative means you take something away. We’ve all heard about the power of positive reinforcers – you add something like praise or a sticker every time a child does something you want then it encourages them to do it again. It works really well for young children. But teens often require consequences. The problem is that parents often employ negative consequences – taking away something to reduce an unwanted behavior – and because teens are wired to rebel, these negative consequence result in the negative cycle of punishment described above.

Here’s a radical idea: don’t remove devices or officially reduce screentime. Instead, add other activities or chores which keep the child busy and make it difficult to use screens. In my video series, Conative Parenting: The Basics, I teach a step-by-step plan for how to make this happen. Not only is this plan helpful for behavior management, it is what I recommend for creating a balanced lifestyle in the first place.

The steps are simple. If your teen engages in a behavior you don’t want or allow, and you want to levy a consequence, try adding something instead of taking away. Perhaps they need to do an hour of yard work. Or maybe they need to volunteer for several shifts at the food pantry. Or spend time teaching their younger sibling how to ride a bike. Require they turn in their phone during the activity and agree to return it when the job is satisfactorily done. I like to do the same during homework time – turn in the phone until it is complete. Better yet, also do homework in a location where you can walk by from time to time to make sure they are on track.

Will your teen be happy about this? Oh no! Of course not. They are wired to be irritated with whatever you do. So don’t worry about it. Your job as a parent is to help them grow into responsible adults, not to make them happy. Adding responsibility and requiring technology be set aside while they do the assigned tasks is teaching a valuable and necessary habit for success in life. So why not give it a try? You’ve got this!


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