Screen time often interferes with family life, but one digital medium can actually help parents communicate with their children: the text message.
Texting can give parents and teens a way to express themselves and make life at home more peaceful, though it is too one-dimensional for involved conversations.
Amy Kossoff Smith says texting helps her get the attention of her three teenage sons, ages 13, 16 and 18. When she or her husband Mitch call them to dinner from downstairs, they have two choices: “We can yell at the top of our lungs three to four times. Or we can pull our phones out and text them,” says Ms. Smith, owner of Write Ideas Inc., a Rockville, Md., public-relations and marketing firm. “When we get into their zone, we usually get a much quicker response.”
Like many parents, she finds it convenient to text from room to room within the house. Teens are already talking to their friends via text, making it easy for parents to communicate the same way.
Ms. Smith texts her sons with reminders that she’s leaving on an errand in five minutes or that it is time to get ready for bed, sprinkling her messages with emoji hearts or thumbs-up signs. Her 13-year-old son, Noah, often texts her asking permission to go out with friends, says Ms. Smith, who also owns a website for mothers, MomTiniLounge.com. Noah says it is sometimes quicker to get his mother’s decisions by text.
Ms. Smith draws the line at mealtimes: She bans cellphones at the table. The 8.6 % of teens who text frequently during family meals tend to have poorer family communication overall, according to a 2013 study of 1,858 parents published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
Texting shouldn’t be allowed to reduce face-to-face conversations or enable teens to avoid difficult issues, says Catherine Steiner-Adair, a clinical psychologist, school consultant and author of “The Big Disconnect,” a book on technology and family relationships. “Painful, awkward, tough conversations between parent and child are where children learn so much about the relational dynamics that are a part of adulthood,” she says.
Still, texts can help teens gain the self-control they need to express themselves. When they have bad news to disclose, teens often do it by text, Dr. Steiner-Adair says. “Children of all ages tell me there are times when they’ve started a really difficult conversation in text, because that was the only way they could find the courage.”
Emojis add nuances of emotion that teens may have trouble expressing. When Amy Cueva’s 11-year-old son, Diego, accidentally dropped and cracked his phone, he lined up 10 weeping, stressed-out and anguished emoji faces in a text to his mother, apologizing and asking: “Can we get it fixed?” Ms. Cueva texted back: “Sorry to hear that Sweetie. Of course we can. You can pay for half,” and closed with a wry, winking emoji.
Ms. Cueva says texting enables her to communicate more with her 16-year-old daughter. Maya tends to give one-word answers when they talk face-to-face, but expounds freely via texts, says Ms. Cueva, co-founder of a Boston design agency.
In one recent exchange, Ms. Cueva scolded Maya for breaking curfew, and Maya fired back, “I wanted to hang out with my friends. Is that wrong?” Maya says she sometimes takes the freedom of texting too far and thinks later, “Oh no, I shouldn’t have said that.” She also apologizes via text, typing, “Good night Mom. I love you. I’m sorry if I hurt your feelings” in a recent exchange.
At times, spontaneous texts can test parents’ restraint. Texting “makes teenagers more bold in things they say—in really important things, but also in really sassy things,” Dr. Steiner-Adair says. Parents should avoid firing back, express empathy for the teen’s feelings and reply, “Let’s talk about this,” she says.
Kira Perdue’s 13-year-old daughter, Zoe, sometimes sends her mother long texts when they’re sitting in the same room—usually after Ms. Perdue has disciplined Zoe for talking back or other misbehavior. Zoe will react with such protests as, “You’ve got to let me make my own mistakes, you’ve got to let me learn, it’s my life,” Ms. Perdue says. “I’ll hear my phone ping, and I’ll say, ‘Did you just send me a hate text?’ ” says Ms. Perdue, a public-relations executive in Charleston, S.C.
Zoe says she texts to vent her frustrations and explain her point of view. “When you’re face-to-face, there’s lots of tension, and it’s intimidating and uncomfortable. With texting, you feel like you can pretty much say anything.” Her mom sees the texts as helpful. “I’d rather she express herself and get it off her chest.” She doesn’t read angry texts until later, and follows up with Zoe face-to-face if necessary.
Eden Durbin says texting helps her understand her 14-year-old daughter, Sara, better. “We may have one part of an argument while we’re in the room together, and she will then finish it once she’s gone to her room,” says Ms. Durbin, of Kensington, Md.
Sara says being able to rewrite her messages before sending them gives her a sense of control. “It’s easier to write your words than to say them out loud. That really helps my mom’s and my relationship,” Sara says. When Sara tried recently to explain to her mother how she felt about a rift with a friend, Ms. Durbin listened, then walked away thinking Sara was OK with it. Only after Sara went to her room and texted her mother was she able to say how hurt and sad she felt.
The playful nature of texting makes it a good channel for parental warmth and encouragement, says Robbye Fox, a parent educator with Parent Encouragement Program, a Kensington, Md., parent-training nonprofit. A quick text expressing love, praising good behavior or recalling a shared joke or memory can ease tension for teens and “hit a little endorphin trigger” for parents who enjoy expressing their affection, she says.
Some traditional features of family life are lost, of course, when parents no longer call out, “Dinner’s ready!” or “I’m home!” or “Let’s get this show on the road!”
Plus it is important not to miss out on what a teen’s body language and expressions can communicate. A parent who takes the trouble to walk to a teenager’s room and knock on the door is “showing a desire to connect that takes effort. You’re saying, ‘I’m here in person, I’m showing I care about you,’ ” Dr. Steiner-Adair says. “These are important mini-moments when we take the social and emotional temperature of our kids.”
For teens who are fighting with parents, texting may be the only way they can communicate. Parents should be mindful, however, that the messages are stored by cellphone providers and can be forwarded by friends or read by anyone who finds the phone, such as a teacher who takes it away, says Joel Reidenberg, a professor at the Fordham University School of Law, New York, and an expert on student technology and privacy.
“If you’re texting with your child about your child’s girlfriend or boyfriend who you don’t like, that can become very public,” he says. Psychologists say parents should read teens’ texts periodically to look for inappropriate or risky messages and remind them that their texts can be seen and read by others.