How many of us have observed a parent walking with his or her child, focused entirely on the cell phone he or she is carrying? How many of us have noticed that the children sometimes are trying desperately to engage their parents? This important dance of communication uses both words and actions to show that each is tuned into the other, but is it happening when parents are focused on their phones? How many of us have been guilty of ignoring opportunities to engage with our children in order to engage with our devices?
Which has your attention: your phone or your child?
It turns out that devotion to one’s device and the resulting emotional disengagement from our children, if done frequently enough, can have very serious consequences.
One of the most important tasks of early childhood is to form safe and secure attachment to primary caregivers. This attachment occurs over the first several years of a child’s life and has lifelong consequences in determining how that child, who one day becomes an adult, is able to engage in healthy, secure relationships with others.
The child’s interpretation makes the difference
Parents and caregivers are encouraged to remember it is not so much that they believe they are providing environments of high physical and emotional safety, but rather the interpretation by children that makes all the difference.
Parents and caregivers might be surprised to discover their children question how safe they are in relationship with their parents. They might believe that parents love spending time with their technology more than they do with their children. This can form a subtle kind of toxic stress because children believe they are less important to their parents when they see parents appear to be so devoted to cell phones and other electronic devices.
According to an article from NPR entitled “For the Children’s Sake, Put Down That Smartphone,” Psychologist Catherine Steiner-Adair wrote a book about parenting, called The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age. She sees lots of parents, teens and younger kids in her clinical practice in Massachusetts. The father’s reaction to his three silly boys might be expected, she says, because “when you’re texting or answering email, the part of your brain that is engaged is the ’to do’ part, where there’s also a sense of urgency to get the task accomplished, a sense of time pressure. So we’re much more irritable when interrupted.”
And when parents focus on their digital world first — ahead of their children — there can be deep emotional consequences for the child, Steiner-Adair says. “We are behaving in ways that certainly tell children they don’t matter, they’re not interesting to us, they’re not as compelling as anybody, anything, any ping that may interrupt our time with them,” she says.
It is so tempting to believe that children don’t need us to be fully focused on them
After all, we are only a few inches or feet away from them! It can be so easy to become deeply engaged in the information and emails coming through on our technology. Like Pavlov’s dogs, we can be conditioned to feel pulled to instantly respond when our phone signals an incoming message where we turn away from interactions with our children in order to find out who is reaching out to us from cyberspace.
Children see that we are disengaged, they feel less important than the device being held in our hand. They can either act out in order to get our attention, or dissociate and withdraw because they do not feel important.
Making a concerted effort to postpone interactions on devices in favor of fully engaging with children can have an enormous impact on the emotional and relational health of our children. Take a deep breath and realize that message can wait and your children need you to make full eye contact, smile, respond to their signals and do the dance of communication that is so vital for their emotional, relational and neurobiological health!
Another interesting article can be found at:https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-power-prime/201303/is-technology-creating-family-divide “Is Technology Creating a Family Divide?” By Dr. Jim Taylor.
Invitation to reflect:
- Have you found yourself becoming more attentive towards your devices than with your children? How aware are you of the impact this might be having on them emotionally and relationally?
- What will it take for you to decide to postpone device-interactions in favor of child to parent interactions? How clear are you of the importance of a decision like this?
Diane Wagenhals, Director of Institute for Professional Education and Development, Lakeside Educational Network