“When my mom and dad are on their phones they act like I don’t exist. It makes me sad. I call and call their names and sometimes they don’t even look up or act like they hear me.”
A child client of mine, 6 years old, told me this during our last session together. This child is sensitive, intuitive, and brilliant. I wondered if a child who was less vulnerable to feeling abandoned would react the same way if his or her parents were on their phones.
I began to observe other children with their parents outside of the office – such as in waiting rooms and grocery stores — to note any differences. It appeared that some children would give up after the initial approach of a parent on their phones. Other children would appear more anxious, upset, or frustrated.
There was the group of parents who would impatiently tell their children to stop and wait for them to finish what he or she was writing, while not even looking up from the phone. Some parents would put their phones away and address the child’s needs or would look up at the child to let them know they would answer them shortly. Some would not respond at all, like the parents my client had described.
Although children live in a world with technology, where tablets often replace toys and board games, children do not grasp the concept that you are interacting with another person when you are on your device. For example, when a child witnesses a social interaction between her parent and another adult, she soon learns to not interrupt if she is properly taught patience.
However, a phone to the child is akin to his parent watching television or being on the computer. The child can feel emotionally neglected when wanting your attention and starts to believe that a device is replacing his or her significance to you. If this happens often enough, the child can come to feel abandoned and this can establish a sense of low self-worth.
Should the child conform to technology use, or should parents become more mindful of their time and behaviors spent behind a screen? Being that children are constantly looking for cues from their parents on how to act or feel, especially about themselves, the adults are the ones who should become more aware.
In the example provided above, a child should wait patiently (unless in a state of emergency) if a social interaction between two adults is occurring. However, when it comes to phone use, should a child feel unheard, unseen, and neglected because the parent could not pause and at least look up to respond? What are we teaching our children? There needs to be a balance and a compromise. There needs to be more mindful parenting.
The child’s temperament can make a difference in how technology use is perceived. But regardless of temperament, they can feel slighted and ignored.
The beauty of technology is that it will be there just as you left it when you return to it. If you look up at your child and address his needs in that moment, validate the child and communicate with him, whatever you were doing will not disappear. However, your child’s self-esteem can disappear if you do not.
Sad child photo available from Shutterstock