Why Texting Your Kids Could Be Making Them More Anxious
Updated: Oct 31, 2019
Dr Danielle Einstein explains how text messaging our kids, instead of letting them overcome fears on their own, can increase anxiety and reduce resilience.
One of the biggest challenges I see parents dealing with today is a lack of resilience in their kids. This happens because parents anticipate challenges their children may face and then worry about their child’s ability to cope with these obstacles.
For example, parents might be concerned their child will be too anxious to compete in a school swimming race, too scared to talk to friends in the playground or unable to present a speech at school. In order to shield kids from these difficulties, many parents will intervene to ‘rescue’ their kids, instead of letting them overcome hurdles on their own. Students can start to rely on messages from their parents, rather than reach inwards to build resilience.
The willingness to intervene stems from community beliefs that parents and schools should be extremely concerned about the presence of “anxiety” within students. Low levels of anxiety are a normal part of everyday functioning and at times these intensify. In fact we need some anxiety to focus our attention and motivate us to handle tricky tasks. When anxiety increases, we need to learn how to manage the feelings and thoughts it brings up, and still go through with a set task.
We are robbing our kids of the opportunity to develop the independence and courage to overcome intimidating situations on their own.
Technology has the ability to compromise the building of resilience, when parents use their phones to provide too much reassurance. Mobile phones allow us to be in constant contact with our children. On the face of it, this seems good — our kids can always get in touch if they are in trouble and we know how to reach them. However, the danger of children being in constant contact is the temptation to over-rely on the caregiver for support and reassurance, in order to avoid enduring discomfort or uncertainty on their own.
When faced with a challenge or decision, if our kids’ first reaction is to text us and we respond immediately with support, we are robbing them of the opportunity to develop the independence and courage to overcome intimidating situations on their own.
Let me explain with an analogy about my 3-year old dog, Flash:
My gorgeous dog is SO well behaved. Since we picked him up from Narrandera, he has stayed close to me and when I'm home, he is by my side. It has felt so wonderful to be accepted completely by one member of our family. Flash has never run away and always listens to me... what more could a parent desire?
I took Flash to the vet for his annual vaccination and he started shivering with his tail between his legs the moment we entered the door. When we had our appointment, the vet could see he was scared. She said, "I think I’ll take him upstairs for this, he’ll be braver if you are not there." I have to admit, when he came back, he was pretty happy. I asked if that was normal practise for her to take dogs upstairs (as it hadn’t happened to us before). She explained that she finds dogs are better when they don’t have their owner next to them.
Ok, I know we are no longer talking about dogs, but I think there is a useful lesson here for helping our kids manage anxiety.
The takeaway message for parents:
It’s important to allow your child to face scary situations on their own. Don’t text them — if you let them, they will find and build inner strength. When they come back to you afterwards, chat with them face to face about what happened. Instead of focusing your conversation on their anxiety, focus instead on what they did to get through it. ‘How did you distract yourself?’ Then focus on their actions: ‘I’m so pleased that you dived in the pool / went to basketball/ talked to the Principal/ when you weren’t at all sure about it this morning’’ and finally ‘I’m so proud to hear that you did it on your own.’
Dr Danielle Einstein is a clinical psychologist, researcher and author specialising in understanding the impact of devices on mental health in teenagers. She is an Adjunct Fellow at Macquarie University and an Honorary Associate with the University of Sydney. Danielle is the creator of The Dip - a practical guide to taking control of screen addiction and reconnecting your family.