Anybody who has shared living quarters with a teenager knows how skilled they are at finding new ways to worry us.
This week’s worry, while not life-threatening, is plenty interesting.
For decades, parents have been counseled to pay close attention to children and teens who spend too much time alone, isolated from friends and activities they once enjoyed. That remains true today.
But, thanks to technology, we’re facing the other side of that coin.
Wired 24/7, tethered to friends via texting, Instagram and FaceTime, a growing number of teenagers don’t know how to be alone, ever, or why they’d want to be.
Anne Gearity has many compelling reasons to introduce our kids to … themselves. A veteran clinical social worker at the University of Minnesota with a mental health practice, Gearity sees healthy alone time as essential to helping teenagers figure out who they are and what they want, separate from the group.
It’s in this space where they can innovate and create. It’s where they build self-confidence.
And how they do at this developmental passage can determine the health or lack of health of adult relationships.
Gearity spoke about this, and other 21st century parenting challenges, last week at Southwest High School in Minneapolis.
“What happens in early adolescence is that you come to the realization that, although my parents are there for me, they can’t be with me in a psychological way,” Gearity said in a follow-up interview.
“They say, ‘I have to be my own person.’ But there’s a dilemma of ‘How do I be me?’ Socialized to be in a group, the dilemma is, ‘How do I hold on to myself?’
“High school is a lot of negotiation of that. The tension between the we and the me is really strong.”
Alone time helps kids sort that out, but they have to make time to do that, which many aren’t. Gearity laughs at some of the texts kids share with her:
“Where are you?”
“Down the hall.”
“OK, I’m coming!”
“That feeling of constant connection has become the new norm,” said Gearity, the mother of two grown children. It’s not unusual, she said, for kids to text 500 times a day.
“They have a whole speedy language that facilitates this almost merging of the minds. How can they hear their own thoughts?”
Back in the Dark Ages (pre-cellphones and computers), kids did, at least, have that opportunity in abundance.
After school, they came home, maybe did a little homework. If they wanted to go out later with friends, they had to do something called planning ahead. They ate dinner with their parents. There was, in that 20th century routine, what Gearity calls “necessary regulation,” not too much time alone or with family or friends.
Predictable and healthy tensions with parents were alive and well, of course, but kids escaped to their rooms “to incubate for a while.”
Without that breather, kids are more likely to go to college with the same groupthink mentality, she said. “College for them is about living in the dorm and being with people. I ask ‘What’s your major?’ and they don’t know.
“That’s a problem.”
So, how do we help our kids incubate in healthy ways?
First, we need to resist calling or texting them all the time. How can they develop respect for alone-time if we panic every moment they’re away from us?
We need to learn to embrace “pleasurable quiet” in the car instead of trying to get them to talk. (Gearity says teenage sons are the best teachers here).
We might take them out to dinner on occasion and ask them about what matters to them. Then we need to resist jumping in. Another way to say this: Stop talking.
Make them leave the cellphone at home once in a while to show them that they can, in fact, survive.
And remember that it is important for us to work on being happily alone ourselves on occasion, to model to them how it’s done.
Gearity sees adults who never mastered this skill struggle to please partners, “or need to do everything together. You see people in friendships where friends are so much more important than themselves.”
The good news is that many older teens start regulating on their own by their junior or senior year in high school, she said.
“They say, ‘I never keep my cellphone on because I can’t stand the noise.’ It’s a natural adaptation that some kids get to, but not all.”
What we want all of our kids to get to, she said, is healthy autonomy.
“It’s a sense that I can be with myself because the people I need feel internal to me,” she said. “I can enjoy my own company because I have what I need.
“If I need the relationships, I can go get them.”