Ask the Expert: Julie Freedman Smith on screens, teens, and other parenting challenges

There has never been a more complicated time to raise a teenager. Texting, social media, video games, and the like have made it increasingly difficult to really know what our kids are thinking and doing. Luckily, parenting expert Julie Freedman Smith was able to join our Ask the Expert webchat on Tuesday to answer your questions about how to encourage healthy screen time and address other parenting issues. Julie is the co-founder of Parenting Power, a group that provides empathetic, non-judgemental support and practical skills to parents. She is a regular contributor and consultant to television and radio programs on parenting. Her advice has been published in national newspapers and popular magazines such as the Globe and Mail and Today’s Parent, and she is the co-author of A Year of Intentional Parenting, which gives busy parents one practical tip per week for improving communication with their kids, smoothing out persistent conflicts and acting intentionally.

Here are the highlights from our webchat with Julie. Please keep in mind all user participation is anonymous and confidential.

Balancing rules with privacy

QUESTION – “How much privacy do you give teenagers as it relates to their phone and computer?”

Julie Freedman Smith – “This answer depends on the teen, his/her behavior/development, and the age. We can think of it as being like, ‘Do I allow a teen to wander into a bar when he has just turned 13 without checking on him?’ The likelihood is that the answer would be no. We can start off introducing our kids to the internet by setting ground rules about when/where and for how long they can be there, and where they can’t go, as well as how they can get help from us if they have a problem. We check in on what they are doing from time to time. As the teen learns more, and proves that they can be trusted, we allow more freedom. When the teen makes a poor choice, they lose some freedom for a bit until they can earn it back. You are still the parent and there is a wide, wide world of internet out there. Take your time teaching what is expected and when your teen is doing well, that’s when you can back off a bit. Privacy is nice, but there is no privacy online.”

Finding an alternative to nagging

QUESTION – “My 13-year-old keeps a very messy room, which is the cause of many arguments between the two of us. How can I get a better result, as my current nagging is obviously not working!”

Julie Freedman Smith – “Way to go for your awareness that nagging isn’t working! Next step: figure out what it needs to look like. Does your child need help getting rid of some stuff and finding a place for everything? Often kids today have WAAYYYYY too much stuff. Once you get it in a good state, take pictures and make a plan for a daily habit to keep it that way. When will it be tidied? 5 minutes every morning? 10 minutes every evening? Involve your child in building the plan, and make it so that the tidying happens before screens. Once it is tidy, your child can get his/her device from you. Work with your child to create a plan. Try it for a couple of weeks. Know the expectations and consequences. If it isn’t working, tweak it. Believe that your child can do it.”

Keeping in touch after kids have moved out

QUESTION – “My kids are away at university. I try and connect with them by phone once a week, but it seems so forced (and I am always the one taking the lead). I make sure not to nag them and I try to ask open-ended questions, but it still feels forced. How can I connect better with them with this form of communication and have it feel more comfortable?”

Julie Freedman Smith – “That is an age-old question. Perhaps rather than taking the lead, ask for your kids’ advice on this. Of course, they are all different. One may love to talk and one might not. Set your expectations (I need to hear from you once a week), and then allow the child to pick the time and method. Asking questions can feel like prying/nagging even though it really isn’t. Ultimately, we need to know that they are safe and healthy, and if you have concerns about these aspects, ask them directly. Otherwise, let them have the freedom to communicate. It may well be that when you don’t ask, they offer more. Also, try different media…texting, email, phone, face-to-face. Good luck! Great that they are so independent!”

Starting early with tech best practices

QUESTION – “My son just turned 14 and got his first smart phone. What are some good ground rules to set right from the beginning?”

Julie Freedman Smith – “I’m so glad that you are starting off this way. Get clear on what you want to do, and then build it with him. Once again, I’m going to refer to Jannelle Burley Hoffman and her book iRules. You can also look at her rules online. Of course, these rules are going to change as your son shows you that he can be trusted and take responsibility. It is important to establish consequences for when he does the opposite as well. This is how we learn. Get clear on when/where your son can use his device, and when/where he cannot. We really encourage families to have no phones at meals, during car rides, and in the bedroom. Be sure that your son knows what else he needs to do so that phones are not getting in the way of sleep, exercise, human interaction, homework, and chores. Good luck, and thanks for being proactive on this.”

Don’t miss our next Ask the Expert session!

If you weren’t able to catch our webchat with Julie Freedman Smith, you can always sign into your LifeSpeak account to read the transcript. And be sure to log in April 12 at noon ET to chat with money expert Bob Gavlak. He’ll be answering questions about personal finance. We will also be hosting a webchat in French on the same topic on April 11 at noon ET with financial planner Jean-François Rousseau. If you don’t have a LifeSpeak account, please have your HR team reach out to us.

What is Ask the Expert?

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Also published on Medium.