What Parents Need to Know About the Social Media Children and Teens are Consuming

It would be an understatement to say that social media govern the lives of our youth at any given moment. A recent study reports that tweens ages 8-12 spend an average of 6 hours in front of a screen a day, for teenagers 13 and above that number increases to 9 hours a day. Our youth are spending more time online than they are sleeping, in school, or doing any other activity.  As a parent, it can be confusing and concerning navigating the waves of the technological boom and deciphering an appropriate boundary when it comes to social media.

The internet is a vast plethora of 7.4 million people’s imaginations. The information shared can be dangerous, violent, sexually exploited and worse. Our children’s minds are not fully developed to consume this content and distinguish the validity or even make decisions about it. Even adults at times have trouble distinguishing this content, can we expect our children and teens to be able to decipher it without support or knowledge from a caring adult?

You may be thinking “Well my child is advanced enough to understand it”. Unfortunately, science says otherwise. The prefrontal cortex, the area which covers the front part of the brain, controls planning, complex thoughts and behaviors, decision making, personality expression, and moderates our social behavior. Essentially, it governs our executive functioning. Because the prefrontal cortex is not fully developed until age 25, many of our children do not have the ability YET to carry out the critical thinking necessary to be safe online.

In addition, studies have also shown that social media can be addicting. In fact, app developers are actually working to make these apps addicting so they increase their revenues, spending thousands of dollars on studies of the brain to market and reel in our vulnerable youth. Scientists have found that teenagers can even experience withdrawal symptoms from social media. You may have seen witnessed some of these in your own children such as panic attacks when electronics get taken away, anxiety about being away from electronics or wifi, anger, and temper tantrums. We wonder why our children’s attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. The media they are consuming is a large contribution.

Consistent social media usage also leads to low self esteem, cyber bullying, and can increase suicidal ideations for teenagers already struggling with depression. Bullying no longer stops when your child gets in the car to go home from school. Now harassment follows them home on their devices, preventing the opportunity for children to recharge and engage in self care.

If you haven’t downloaded and looked at some of the things your child is consuming online, you are living in parenting La La Land. Teens post nude photos, suicide ideas and plans, gang related or violent material, and drugs and alcohol. 30% of teens have reported in a recent study that they believe their parents know “nothing” or “a little” about what they do online.

Last week I spent a lot of my time providing support to a family who recently found out their 14 year old son was sending sexually explicit content and sharing homicidal ideations with an active plan to friends on an app called Hangouts.  This app is accessed through Gmail accounts, and friends can message back and forth in group chats. It broke my heart to watch a loving and caring mother begin to see the reality of what is happening on her child’s social media. For this family, early intervention is no longer an option. They are now playing catch up trying to provide the support needed for this young man.

Be proactive when it comes to restricting media content from your children. Taking away electronics if they have already had unlimited access will be harder than setting firm and clear boundaries in the beginning. Provide regular restrictions on the amount of time your child spends in front of a screen. Encourage them to engage in their own imagination and be mindful in the moment instead of SnapChatting it. Look for signs of social media addiction such as anger and anxiety from being away from electronics, being up all day/night in front of a screen, and being secretive regarding their social media usage. Make sure you know your teen’s phone and computer passwords, Apple ID, and the multiple accounts they may have.

Parents are responsible to protect their children. Social media provides a false security because we do not see the danger in the moment. It is our responsibility to research and discuss the dangers of social media with our children. Provide incentives for them to be without social media until 16 years old, when the brain is more capable to consume such confusing messages. When you do allow social media, track it on a regular basis using apps like Onward, Onpact, and Life360. There is an effective way to parent in the world of technology and social media!

If your teen is engaging in alarming content or you see signs of internet addiction it may be time to talk to a professional. For a free consultation for therapeutic services contact Michelle Smith RMHCI, MS at 405-323-1786

When Distance Becomes a Warning Sign

If you have spent any amount of time around teenagers you know eye rolling, sarcasm, and distance are a part of the package deal. Many of these signs are very common; however, with the recent tragedy at Stoneman Douglas High School and the national attention on mental health, people are becoming more aware now than ever before. Many parents are concerned and questioning when does isolation become a warning sign that greater issues may be on the horizon, and when is the appropriate time to reach out to a professional.

To understand adolescence fully we need to take a trip back a couple thousands of years to the prehistoric era. Adolescence historically was a necessary part of survival. Lifespans were much quicker, puberty brought the ability for women to reproduce, and the important task for men to learn how to hunt and feed their families. Early civilization encouraged distance from the family system to increase social interaction with other humans their age to learn important survival techniques.

Fast forward a couple thousand years to 2018. Teenagers are growing up in a completely different world than our prehistoric ancestors. Technology, social media, and instant gratification rule the minds of our teens. Adolescents are distancing themselves quicker and quicker from family. So how can we truly know if this distance is normal or something to question? As a parent, it’s important to put some precautionary measures in place so that early intervention can happen if necessary.

Encourage Consistent Communication with Your Teen

This may be the most important step to make sure the distance does not turn into isolation. Distance is normal; however, consistent isolation can be a warning sign that there are deeper concerns happening with your teenager. As a family, it is important to have time scheduled where family engagement is required. Make a weekly date to put the phones, TV’s computers, and emails aside and talk to your children. Not only does this increase positive social skills, but it provides an opportunity for the family to discuss thoughts, emotions, and bring up concerns. As a teenage parent, you want to encourage your teen to be as open as possible with you. You may be thinking, “But I don’t WANT to know everything that is happening inside the mind of my teenager”. While this may be true, it is important that they have an opportunity to share with you. If your teenager is not sharing their feelings with you, they are sharing with someone else, and that someone else may be someone dangerous! Set a weekly day that family engagement is required. Keep your child accountable. If your child cannot attend, they need to inform the family in the same manner they would calling out sick from their job or a prior commitment. This will encourage social skills, responsibility, and give an opportunity for your child to know it is a safe place to share inside the family.

Monitor Your Child’s Electronics

Many children being born today will be more technologically advanced than we can even imagine. From the beginning of the lifespan, we are utilizing electronics now than ever before. It is common to see 7 even 8 year olds with their own cell phone, iPad, Snap Chat, and Instagram. Technology is not a bad thing, but it is a very powerful thing. A piece of technology in your child’s hands means your child has access to limitless information which may be dangerous. Since you know your child better than anyone, you have to assess when you feel your child is mature enough to handle this enormous responsibility. It may be that one sibling is more equip to handle the responsibility than another. You as the parent have the power! Don’t give in to pressure because all their friends have a device. If you are concerned about the safety of your child not having a device but feel they are not ready for a smartphone, purchase a flip phone without internet and wifi to call and text one number only. Prior to purchasing a device for your teen, have a sit down conversation about the rules and guidelines that come along with the device. Monitor your child’s device usage, go through your child’s phone with their consent and create a consistent time to do so. Discuss the benefits and concerns with the use of technology, and encourage your teen to continue to talk to you if they see concerning or questionable things on their device.

Make sure that you allow opportunities for your teen to gain more and more freedom with their device as they consistently demonstrate responsible technology usage. For instance, maybe for the first 6 months of having the device they are only allowed 2 social media apps and the phone has to be turned in at 9PM each evening. After 6 months, sit down and provide evaluation on how well your child did with the guidelines, than provide opportunity negotiate a little more freedom such as adding a new app or increasing usage time by 1 hour.

Reach Out to a Professional

You may follow all the guidelines provided and still find your teen distant and defiant. If so, this is OK. Do not stress, simply begin by stating that you are aware of your child’s behavior and you would like to provide a solution for them to connect with someone trustworthy. Utilize your insurance, recommendations from friends and family, and set up an appointment for your teen to talk to a mental health professional. Your teen will have the safety of confidentiality, but due to their age you will also be notified regarding any suicidal or homicidal ideations, danger concerns, and can request treatment updates from the therapist.

If you or someone you love could utilize a consultation for therapeutic services in the Palm Beach area contact Michelle Smith at 405-323-1786

The Secrets Emotionally Strong Families Know

You know those families, the ones who seem to have it all together. Close bonds, loving relationships, and appropriate conflict resolution (well, at least most of the time!) Maybe it’s your neighbor or the lady on the soccer field, but we all know a stable family that make us curious and motivated. So what’s the secret?

My experience working as a family therapist helping to restore families has uncovered some common themes of families who seem to have deep, personal, and loving connections. Families who create and sustain loving bonds, appropriate boundaries, and value each member’s unique contribution to the family system are most likely to raise emotionally and mentally strong children and teens.  With all the information on different parenting strategies, cultural accommodations, and always changing technology, these themes remain consistent across generations of emotionally strong family systems:

Validation

Family is our first introduction to language, social interaction, and our first lifeline to begin deciphering the world that we are living in. As a parent, it is our job to guide and protect our children into becoming the individual they are meant to be; however, our never ending to do lists, busy work schedules, and lack of energy and sleep can frequently get in the way. To build emotionally strong children, parents need to send the message children are heard, understood, and also have a place in the hierarchy of the family system. Parents have a daunting task of balancing the role between authority and love, compassion and compromise.

Emotionally strong families have parents who validate their children. That means putting down the cell phone or email to listen about the mundane details of their day and “showing up” for the little moments of life. Many parents tend to confuse validation with encouraging our children’s every decision. Validation does not mean that you are agreeing with your child’s point of view, it simply sends the message “I hear you, and what you’re saying is important to me”. To add some validation to your family communication patterns, be mindful when your children may be looking for encouragement or acknowledgement. Spend time without phones and send the message that you are ready to listen if/when they are ready. 5 Love Languages of Children by Gary Chapman is a great resource to identify the way your child best receives validation. Children require love and validation in different ways, and siblings likely have differing love languages. Getting to know your child’s unique needs and sending a message of inclusion is a key part of an emotionally strong family.

Clear Boundaries

Emotionally strong families have a unique balance between togetherness and separation that provides the boundaries necessary for a well-adjusted family system. One way to combat confusion is setting family guidelines or expectations. Notice I did not utilize the word “rules” because a guideline is something different. Guidelines, unlike rules, are created and enforced by the entire family system. For instance togetherness is an important part of keeping a family bond strong, but how you spend that time is unique to your family’s needs, schedules, and interests. Sit down with your family and discuss the feelings about your boundaries, allow each member to share their feelings on the time spent with family. You may be surprised the amount of insight your child or teen has into the communication patterns and their ideas. An example of a guideline may be every Sunday the entire family comes together for pasta night, or the last Tuesday of the month the boys get to decide the next family outing. This provides an opportunity for your children or teen to have some power in decision making, while also providing structure to their requests.

Don’t Treat Your Children as Fragile

Today our society is very focused on inclusion of all people, which is wonderful; however, it has created a fear of rejection that is becoming overwhelming to some degree. We are overly concerned if our children are fitting in, being treated fairly, and constantly making sure to catch them before they fail to a point of no return.  Although by doing this we may feel that we are protecting our children, we are actually hindering their ability to overcome adversity. Children are EXTREMELY resilient as these experiences of being the last to be picked on the soccer team, having an unfair detention or consequence at school, or struggling to create friendships shape them into empathetic, understanding and well-adjusted adults. Always coming to the rescue for your child will hurt in the long run, as you foster dependence and send the message that your child cannot effectively overcome adversity without your help. Inform your child it’s OK to fail, it’s OK to be angry, and it’s OK to have bad days. Talk about it, and teach coping strategies to let it go. Encouraging your child’s independence is an important strategy for emotionally stable families.

Parenting is one of the most difficult and least rewarded jobs in the world. There is no manual to becoming perfect family because guess what, there is no perfect family! Take the tips above and see how you can incorporate them into your unique family needs.

Michelle Smith MS, RMHCI

Talking to Children and Teens About Violence

Last week we witnessed one of the deadliest mass shootings unfold right in our backyard and once again lost precious human lives due to unnoticed mental illness. As a middle school guidance counselor and clinician, this incident left me feeling heartbroken and overwhelmed with emotion. The past week has consisted of conversations with students who lost family members in the shooting, are scared for their safety in school, or just need a safe place to be validated and comforted.Finding the right way to have age appropriate discussions with children can be tough; therefore, I have listed some tips below:

1. Reinforce That Your Child is Safe

This news can be very frightening no matter the age of your child. Your child needs validation and reassurance that they are safe in their school and at home. Allow your child to express feelings and be sure to normalize them. It may look something like, “Thank you for sharing that with me. It’s okay to be scared about what happened. It’s scary for mom too, and our schools and community work hard everyday to protect us and keep us safe”. It’s important to provide a safe place at home to discuss their fears. Once fears are brought into the light they hold less power.

2. Talk About It

This is probably the most important tip I can provide. As parents we want to protect our loved ones from the harsh reality of the world we live in today. We may turn off the news if our child walks into the room because it may be easier to dismiss the conversation than figure out how to address the tragedy appropriately. Although this likely will be a tough discussion with your child, it’s important you talk in your family about the tragedy that has unfolded. By dismissing the conversation, your child is receiving the message that this is something to be feared. This creates a mixed message or dialectical dilemma in the family system.

Allow your child’s questions guide the information you provide them. Notice signs that your child may want to talk such as hanging around the living room/kitchen. Younger children may express feelings artistically. You may sit down and ask them about the meaning of their artwork to prompt a discussion. Provide age appropriate responses. For instance, younger elementary students need less details than a high school student.

3. Notice Your Child’s Emotional State

During this time it’s important to be on the look out for changes in behavior patterns such as isolation, extreme anger or sadness, or anything out of the norm for your child. Look for changes in sleep or eating patterns which may indicate anxiety or emotional disturbance. If you do notice differences in your child’s behavior, let them know you are noticing in a curious way. Say something like: “I notice since we found out about the school shooting you’ve been spending more time in your room than normal. I’m curious how you are feeling and I want you to know I’m here when your ready to talk”

If your child’s abnormal behavior continues, it may be time to seek out a professional who specializes in children and adolescent counseling. Sometimes children hold information from parents due to concern that they will be a burden to your busy life. Allowing a third party to step in and provide a safe place to share is a great solution.

It is an unfortunate reality that our children are growing up in the midst of witnessing violence on the news, in their schools, and communities. As parents we have an important role to provide a safe and secure space for our children during this tragedy. In the upcoming weeks and months to come attempt to keep routines as normal as possible and reinforce the ideas listed above.

If you or someone you know is struggling with anxiety, grief, or how to talk to your children about tragedy contact me for a free consultation to see if I would be a good fit for your therapeutic needs.

Michelle Smith MS, RMHCI

(405) 323-1786

Self Care and Work/Life Balance

Do you find yourself feeling tired, sluggish, pessimistic about your job? Have you felt “the grind” doing wear and tear on your relationships, mood, and social interaction? Have you lost the motivation and drive you once had when you began? If so, you may be missing a key aspect of work/life balance called self-care.

We are always being torn from one responsibility to another, whether it be home, work, or family life, to-do lists are always overflowing. It’s easy to allow this to become an anxiety provoking and create stress in your own life that translates outside of the workplace. Companies and organizations are always demanding more of your time, your energy, and your brain power to work for their own benefits. It’s time to stop and ask yourself, what have I done to protect my own well-being recently?

As a middle school guidance counselor, I provide support and encouragement to the entire school community. Frequently this includes helping our teaching staff becoming non-reactive with students, and understanding thoughts, emotions, and actions that are leading to conflict in student-teacher relationships. Speaking with my colleague the other day I realized many professionals struggle tremendously with creating healthy boundaries at work. We feel obligated to say “yes” anytime an opportunity is presented our way. Whether we believe this will be the next step to that promotion, or increase our annual performance evaluation we justify that it is, “the right thing to do” to be a yes person. I’m here to dispute this myth. Always saying “yes” when you feel overwhelmed, exhausted, and are in need of some serious self-care can do more harm than good. Although you may feel you are doing a service for your company, if you are not in the right mindset you may actually be hindering the goals you are working towards instead of helping them.

During my guidance lessons, I speak tremendously about boundaries. Working with the middle school population, this is a very foreign idea for many of my students. I notice this is also foreign in the American workplace. Instead of giving ourselves time to reboot, recharge, and refuel, we stretch ourselves to the point of no return which eventually can lead to professional burnout. You may be burnt out if you feel apathetic at work, sluggish. and overall lost a sense of joy waking up to do what you love in the morning.

Luckily there is some simple steps you can do to stop being the “yes” person and begin being a contentious employee who sets clear and concise boundaries:

1. Make a list of one thing you are doing for yourself each day

It can be a large or small thing such as drinking your favorite tea, having a conversation with a friend, or treating yourself to a manicure. Everyday it is important to embrace the little moments we have for self care. Try to incorporate one each day, and transition to incorporating these moments throughout your work day. I enjoy beginning my day listening to an audio book on my drive to work, this gets me in a positive mindset. I create short “Brain Breaks” for myself such as 10 am coffee, a walk around the building, etc. to make sure I’m making the little moments count! Find what works for you a stick to it!

2. Say “No” more often

This may be the hardest step of self-care. As humans, we are created to be social beings. We care tremendously about relationships, our reputation, and how others perceive us. As you begin to set boundaries in your life and say “no” to working that third weekend this month you may feel a sense of guilt. Acknowledge this feeling by stating to yourself “I am feeling guilty right now, AND I am doing this to better myself to be a better employee overall”. Allow yourself to feel your guilt for a short period of time and then move on. Guilt can only be helpful to a certain extent before it can lead to anxiety and self-shame.

3. If you find yourself still struggling, think about talking to a professional

Sometimes an outside observer who is not personally invested in your journey can provide depth and understanding to certain situations. If you find yourself still struggling contacting a therapist is a wonderful step towards gaining your independence and vigor for life back! If you’re in a field that is no longer bringing you happiness, it’s OK to have a fresh start! After all, we spend most of our lives in our workplace! Make sure it’s a positive place that is fostering growth in your life instead of sucking you dry of your energy and happiness.
When you follow these steps, it may be shocking at first for your administration or supervisor at first to accept this transition. One piece of advice as you move towards creating healthy boundaries to remember is the word “No” is a full sentence. When we say “no”, we feel the need to justify or over explain the reasoning, when in reality we do not owe this to anyone. The feeling of guilt is designed to help us reflect and problem solve; however, when it becomes obsessive we tend to self-shame, become overwhelmed, and avoid the real problems. If your mind, body, and soul is craving some “me” time listen! At the end of the day, you are doing a service to yourself and your company to take a step back and preventing long-term career burnout.

If you are struggling with career burnout, work/life balance, and setting boundaries contact me at 405-323-1786 For a FREE consultation.

Michelle Smith, MS, RMHCI