LRS parents recently participated in a thoughtful one-hour discussion with psychologist Dr. Larry Rosenberg. Topics were selected from questions about technology, bullying, and resilience. Dr. Rosenberg began by acknowledging that while technology undeniably keeps people in touch, it likewise keeps people apart, vastly differing from in-person communication, as it lacks the interpersonal cues often necessary to infer meaning.
Although the timesaving super-feature of technology, in its many forms, is a compelling benefit, the fact is, that people now find themselves busier, as they strive to fill time saved. Tasks now completed in half the time makes for efficiency, but can trigger significant fallout. People anticipate immediate resolutions without a reasonable sense of process. Dr. Rosenberg proposes that parents consider this in terms of impulse control, the ability for children to wait for what they seek. For example, an eighteen-month can not be expected to be patient. Yet there should be an expectation that gratification need not be immediate for a ten-year-old. Technology, to a degree, interferes with this developmental achievement, as outcomes are increasingly expected to appear instantly. The power of this phenomenon has forever changed the pace of life, as we know it. Furthermore, the world of “big” data, although highly effective for analysis, precludes a reliance on personal judgment and interpersonal contact. Think of a physician typing and staring at his or her computer screen while interviewing you about your symptoms, where the recording and reviewing of data seems to take preference over the doctor-patient relationship.
When the topic of screens was raised, Dr. Rosenberg reminded parents to ask themselves the question: What activity is the screen taking their child away from? A secondary question of whether “constructive” screen time differs from “educational” screen time was also discussed. The answer, according to Dr. Rosenberg, is both yes and no. The need for “downtime” cannot be disputed. The decision to allow children to watch a silly movie for the sake of entertainment and relaxation value is perfectly fine; and even enhanced when watching it together as a family. In the same way parents make choices about how they spend their own free time, they can commit to a balanced schedule with regard to their children’s time. In the end, encouraging children to go outside to play is most often the best choice, but our culture of child rearing and the nature of suburban life has moved us away from this. Some children have an easier time entertaining themselves than others. This does not mean though, that families should not model and support unstructured play, out of doors, for all children whenever possible.
To answer specific questions about video games, Dr. Rosenberg began with the assertion that video games are both enjoyable and entertaining, albeit highly habit-forming. Parents would do well to limit the time their kids spend playing video games, and take great care in their choices of the types of games their children play, e.g., violent video-war games are vastly different from video-soccer. Dr. Rosenberg acknowledges that as children age, video games often grow in importance as a bridge within their social culture. Once again, as with most decisions, balance is the key.
The pervasiveness of smartphones is another way that children’s behavior has been directed by technology. Historically, although phones have always been critical to teens, today’s cell phone culture finds children using phones as their primary method of communication. Rather than a voice call however, texting and social media have become the vehicles of choice for self-expression. According to Dr. Rosenberg, texting, as a means of contact is a flawed tool because it lacks “eyeball data,” present in face to face experiences. A text typically lacks tone and inflection and is easily open to misinterpretation. Additionally, what children and adults choose to text, they might not choose to say in person if given the opportunity; the anonymity provided by the internet is a mixed bag.
On the topic of bullying, Dr. Rosenberg asserts that people are less tolerant of behaviors, which are now labeled as bullying. The words “trauma” and “bullying” have been redefined, but this is not necessarily a good thing. How do parents approach children who are truly being bullied? Dr. Rosenberg suggests asking the child what he/she would like to do about the situation? He urges parents to help the child locate the words to name their emotions and validate the reason they may be feeling that way. (“I can see that you are sad because…”). Try to help the child see alternative points of view. Suggest that the child speak to his or her teacher; if that is not acceptable to the child, the parent should speak to the child’s teacher. Much of this is dependent on the age of the children in question. Remember that words hurt, but physical force is never acceptable with regard to bullying behavior. Help your child build resilience by explaining to them that sometimes things don’t work out the way we hope, even when we have tried very hard. Help them find other friends, if the situation with the child in question does not improve. Dr. Rosenberg urges parents to “model resilience without being unemotional. How parents react to their children’s behavior contributes to how children learn to cope.” Children learn more from what we do than what we say, so how we manage our emotions during stressful moments becomes particularly important. We can reassure kids that “stuff” happens. “The building of resilience and self-esteem correlates most with children knowing and experiencing that their parents enjoy them. Times like these are golden.”
The move towards mindfulness and the value of being present in the life of the child is a natural conclusion to this discussion, and something that is enormously critical to healthy parenting. Avoiding the distraction of phones when together with children and committing one’s undivided attention whenever possible is extremely worthwhile. With this in mind, it is also beneficial to consider that although children need to communicate with both parents, the truth is that they may have very different relationships with each, which may require carving out distinctive paths to communication and relationships for each parent.
Dr. Rosenberg acknowledges that “parenthood is exhausting, demanding of energy, time, attention and emotions. It is not just because our children require so much. It is also because their happiness and our relationship with them is of such great importance to us. Those golden moments with our kids are distinct from anything else we experience. They are precious.”
Larry M. Rosenberg, Ph.D. is a psychologist in independent practice in Stamford, CT. Dr. Rosenberg is the immediate past Clinical Director of the Child Guidance Center of Southern Connecticut, a position he held for 27 years, and served for more than 10 years as the Co-Chair of the Education and Training Committee for Connecticut Association of Mental Health Clinics for Children. He is the current President of the Section of Child and Adolescent Psychoanalysis of the Psychoanalytic Division of the American Psychological Association, and sits on the Board of the Section for Applied Psychoanalysis of the APA. Dr. Rosenberg is a co-editor of the Child Section of the 2nd Edition of the Psychodynamic Diagnostic Manual.