Parents of Teenagers, Stuck Taking Out the Emotional Trash is an insightful NY Times article on how teens often pass on troubling or overwhelming emotions to their parents:
Psychologists have long observed that teenagers sometimes manage uncomfortable feelings by passing them off to their parents. Remember how your toddler wordlessly handed you her wrappers and empty juice boxes, and you reflexively accepted them, even when both of you stood right next to a wastebasket? In the adolescent equivalent, the trash is emotional, not actual, but the effect is the same: Our teenagers sometimes lighten their loads by passing their problems to us.
What was most striking to me, though, was how cell phones can make this process easier for the teen to rely on:
The ease with which teenagers can now dispatch a disquieting text message has, without a doubt, contributed to the surge of helicopter parenting. I’m certain that I had “I-want-my-mom” pangs several times a day in high school and college. But acting on that impulse was usually inconvenient, if not impossible, so my friends and I managed with our nearby supports, solutions or distractions. Cellphones can easily become trash chutes.
Teens learning to handle strong emotions and problems on their own is hugely important. And each time they successfully handle one problem they become more confident that they can handle the next one. The famous Maria Montessori quote "Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed" equally applies to teenagers (though it may take a little probing to figure out if they really think they can handle a situation).
The advice from the article on how to handle these distress signal text messages is excellent:
We need to be alert to how, and how quickly, we respond to troubling texts and calls, especially those coming from a teenager who hasn’t developed other strategies for managing daily dilemmas. “Bummer about the failed test. Got a game plan? Luv, Dad” is a perfectly reasonable response to a worrisome text from a teenager.
The suggested response pushes the responsibility right back onto the teen. Not just for handling the problem, but for deciding how to handle the problem. The challenge is that responding this way takes patience and discipline from the parent and gives the teen some glimmer of hope that they can get help from a parent. Without a cell phone there might not be the hope of help, forcing them to move straight to solving the problem.
Some friends of mine had an incident that illustrates the potential value of being disconnected. They have a middle-school son who takes public transportation to and from school. One day, after taking the Washington DC Metro to his stop, he discovered that he had forgotten bus fare. At this point he did not have a cell phone (or money) so he had no way to contact his parents. He was stuck a few miles from home without a ride. He was in no danger at a busy suburban metro stop (otherwise, of course his parents would not have let him ride the metro to school). But he was stuck. Eventually he just walked home. His parents say that, while he wasn't very happy about it at the time, he now looks back on this incident with some pride at having handled the situation.
Of course, this story also illustrates the tough part of this approach for the parents. He was out on his own and didn't come home from school on time. They weren't able to reach out and find out if he was okay and whether he needed help. They say that they were stressed, but had faith in his ability to handle things. The reliance on cell phones to feel safe and connected definitely goes both ways!
Being completely disconnected is not the typical trade-off these days. But there are many ways of teaching kids to take out their own emotional trash (but as far as I can tell there is no hope that they will take out the physical trash without prompting).