I hear of parents whose knee-jerk reaction to almost anything that their child does wrong is to take away their child’s cell-phone. “It’s the only thing they care about”, parents will tell me. “It’s the only thing that makes them do the thing I ask them to do!”
Whether the misbehavior is talking back, refusing to do chores, allowing grades to slip, or being mean to a sibling, these parents whip out their one skill (the cell phone take away) in response to their child’s disobedience, whatever it may be.
Imagine for a moment that you had won a set of beautiful leather couches. And you loved those couches. When friends would come over, they would sit on and admire the quality of those couches. Now imagine that one of your weak areas in life is time management. You are a hard worker, but you usually get into the office about 15 minutes late. One morning your boss comes to talk with you again about your pattern of arriving to work late and ends the conversation by saying, “That’s it! We have talked about this before and you keep coming to work late. I’m just going to have to take away your new couches until you start getting to work on time!”
What thoughts would come to your mind if your boss did that? Would you think, “You know he’s right. I really should get to work on time. I deserve that he is going to take my couches away.” Or would you instead think, “What right does he have to take my couches away? What do my couches have to do with me being late? My boss is a jerk. He can’t take away my couches!”
When consequences don’t logically connect to a particular misbehavior, people have a harder time accepting the consequence and learning from their mistake. Instead, they will more likely learn that the person in charge is mean and controlling.
I’m not saying that taking a child’s phone away or disconnecting service is not an appropriate consequence. In many situations it is a very appropriate consequence. For instance if the child is misusing the phone by calling or texting too late at night, playing games on the phone at inappropriate times, sending inappropriate texts or messages, etc., taking the phone away would be a logical connection between the child’s privilege to use a cell phone and their misuse of that privilege. Therefore, taking away that privilege would be a logical consequence.
Caution: A cell phone is not just an electronic device to a child – especially a teen. It represents their connection to the world and their status as an individual. There is an emotional connection to the phone. Therefore, taking away the phone will likely create feelings of powerlessness, hurt, and sadness that will often be covered up by anger toward the parents. In order to bypass a child’s fury when restricting phone privileges, some parents show lots of empathy and understanding when they ask the child to surrender the phone. It might sound like this, “Son, I noticed that you have been texting after 10pm at night again after we had set the rule not to text so late. This is probably going to be difficult, but I’m going to need your phone for a little while.” Then brace yourself for the explosion of anger and respond, “I know it’s hard son, and you’re welcome to use the phone we provide you when I know that you are using it appropriately.” Other parents prefer that the child learns that they have been misusing the phone when they suddenly realize at school that the service has been shut off.
When parents can logically connect a consequence to their child’s misbehavior, and respond with empathy and understanding before delivering that consequence, their child will more likely learn from their misbehavior and will less likely conclude that their parent is just mean and controlling.
Shiloh Lundahl, LCSW, is a child and family therapist in Gilbert and Mesa, Arizona. He is the founder of Parent Arizona and Counseling Services and is part of the Arizona Family Institute.
He provides parenting classes using the Love and Logic curriculum, classes for parents of children with ADHD, step-parenting classes, and advanced trainings for foster and adoptive parents. He also provides in-home therapy in Gilbert, Mesa, Queen Creek, San Tan Valley, Chandler, and Tempe, Arizona.