My guest for this post is Leslie Baker, LMFT. She practices in Pleasanton, California, and her specialty is Integrative Play Therapy. Leslie graciously accepted my invitation to talk about one of the common presenting issues in her practice: The use of technology and social media within families.
Leslie is this month's guest expert in The Refreshed Therapist Network (RTN). She is teaching on Multi-modal Play Therapy, and how to implement it in ideal and less than ideal settings. Learn more about RTN here.
Leslie, tell us about what you specialize in.
Leslie: I specialize in working with families and youth on social media and technology. The one thing I am most often asked is, "How do we engage parents in this topic, so that they are not feeling so overwhelmed?" Social media and these topics can feel totally overwhelming, and people just don’t want to talk about it. This is true even though their [parents'] youth might be engaging in sexting, or the high-use of technology, such as going to bed with their phones and not turning them off, etc.. I have some tips as a therapist that you can use to engage the parents.
1| Building rapport is key
You want to make sure that you take time to do some real rapport-building. I often listen for my parents and use analogies and metaphors that they may use as they describe their situation.
2| Summarize and validate
You want to not just reflect or summarize what they’re saying, but you really want to develop an understanding first before you offer any solutions. A key here is not only reflective listening, but (I borrowed from the Gottman work, because I’m also a certified Gottman therapist) it’s also making sure that along with your summary you take time to validate. The validation part really supports this piece and helps people feel heard, so you want to combine the two. A lot of us stop at active listening and summarizing.
(For more on summarizing and validating as basic therapeutic skills, see this post.)
3| Focus on the positive
You also really want to focus on the positive. Focusing on the negativity just fuels the angst for parents. There’s a lot of research on how texting each other, such as your son or daughter texting you from upstairs, that’s called micro-connection. Also connecting with your family from across the states or the country can make you feel very connected, so I try to also talk about what is positive about media. While there may be things that are not positive about social media that we want to change, we also need to focus on what is positive, so that it's not all bad. Keep it simple and reinforce any actions that move towards behaviors that are what parents want.
When parents were youths, did their parents have any boundaries regarding the telephone? I can’t think of any parents that didn’t. I encourage parents to have the same boundaries that their parents might have had regarding the telephone.
Ili: So when you do this kind of work with parents, I’m wondering how this system is involved with youths? Are parents coming in as a couple because they’re having parenting struggles, or is it that you’re already engaged with the child in the family system and the parents are coming into therapy for specific parenting consultations in conjunction with the therapy with the child? Can you share a bit about how this topic comes up and how you work with the system around it?
Leslie: It can go either way, but generally, my preference is to have the parents in first. The reason that I do that is because parents have a lot to tell me that I don’t prefer to have disclosed in front of the children. They may have a lot of anxiety and upset. It’s not that I don’t do family therapy, but it depends on the age of the child. I do an initial consultation to see where they’re at and what the goals are for them. And then I will bring in the child with the parents, letting them have shaken off all of that angst and getting an understanding from the parental perspective. Then the child may join us, and what I do there is a more family setting, and I ask each person there their perspective. I also have a number of play therapy interventions that are technology based that are both assessing as well as informative. I have games that I’ve developed that are specific to technology, and other types of interventions that are play therapy based.
Ili: Typically, how does this issue with social media come up? Do the children bring it up, or do the parents bring it up? Are they feeling out of control with the boundaries? How does it usually become a topic in therapy?
Leslie: Both, but generally the children bring it up by saying something such as, “My parents are not happy with me,” or “My mom and dad are totally uncool and they don’t get it. They just don’t understand texting or that this is my life-line, how I connect, that I would be socially isolated.”
A lot of the literature is certainly supporting that for teens. If you go to the American Pediatric Association (APA), they have a number of tips for people and do a great job at giving parents tips on how to manage media with their youth. But parents also come in, and their concerns are if any sexting is going on, if they feel their youth are not sleeping, if their grades have dropped. Those are often parental concerns that bring children [into my practice].
I also have a lot of overuse, where they feel like their children are completely in the media all the time and they’re not connecting with their youth. Some of that can be developmentally appropriate, with late tweens and teens. But, when you’re looking at youth in elementary school, that may be more extreme. Remember that what we know from the research, in general, is that girls tend to gravitate toward visual media, like Pinterest and Instagram, and boys tend to be more gamers.
Ili: It’s interesting to hear you talk about media use and all the different forms of media and not just social media, such as gaming or how much kids are watching YouTube and getting information that way instead of watching television. What is one way that you help parents balance the child’s privacy versus their own need to have structure and boundaries around the use of media?
Leslie: A lot of parents feel that their children have some privacy, though the experts don’t necessarily agree. It really depends on assessing with the family and what their vision is of privacy. With phones and things like that, you always have some access to the youth. When I grew up, there was no issue with privacy. My parents paid for things and anything they paid for, they had "trump" over . Not to say that they listened to phone calls per se, but if you stepped over the boundary, they felt that you lost your privacy, so to speak.
My parents (clients) range from absolute privacy for the youth to no privacy for the youth. There are problems and good things about both; I always shoot for the middle, because all or none can be a problem with anything. The problem with shutting it down completely and having no privacy at all is that you send a message of no trust and ultimately one day, a child is going to have to manage their own media on some level. I take more of an approach of building towards that.
In the beginning, I think you need supervision and boundaries, because all of us as youth did. Physical boundaries help children have a sense of where they begin and where they end. As they age up and have developmental abilities to manage their boundaries, then you give them more freedom. To me, freedom equals responsibility. The more freedom you can manage--you demonstrate that to me by the more responsibility you can bear. If you make a mistake, no problem, but I might raise up your boundary a little bit, but not forever. I’m not going to take away your phone for three months; I might take away your phone for three days and help you reestablish your boundary, and then let you have it again and see how you do.
I work with natural, logical consequences, but when you take something away again forever and ever (or at least the child feels that way), then you don’t give them an opportunity to rebuild trust and rebuild the opportunity to show you tha,t in fact, they have learned and they can manage.
Ili: It seems that it could also contribute to a lack of motivation on the child’s part to even want to comply at all, that it might seem hopeless to them.
As a therapist, I can relate both to parents and children. Maybe that’s just the way it is for us in our roles, but I think a lot of us can relate to the kids that we work with as well as the parental role, especially if we are parents, though we don’t have to be to see the benefit of boundaries.
Leslie: I’m not interested in shaming children. It’s like the idea of an addiction--you can shame or blame people, but that doesn’t make people feel better or make healthier choices for themselves. Did we ever grow from being yelled at and told, "You’re no good, very bad, or awful?" I never did, so to me, you have to look at media the same way. Shaming people is not a growth opportunity.
Thank you, Leslie!
Learn more about Leslie
- What's one question you have about engaging parents with their children on this topic?