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Parents' Dos and Don’ts for the Digital Age

6 ways to keep the channels open between you and your twentysomethings

By Elizabeth Fishel and Jeffrey Arnett

Whether technology is a blessing, a curse or a mix of both, it’s surely the newest frontier — and possible battleground — between parents and their twentysomethings.

Today, kids have buds stuck in their ears and fingers attached to their touchpads. Tomorrow we all might have neural chips embedded in our brains.

But however the digital landscape transforms, the underlying issues between parents and their emerging adults will remain the same. Today’s twentysomethings are becoming separate, autonomous adults amidst this new landscape of ballooning social media and constant connection. Both the potential and the pitfalls play out during the dance of attachment and separation that marks the 20s decade. The promise of closeness is greater than it’s ever been before, but so are the dangers that result from relentless communication that can skew over-the-top.

Today’s 24/7 entanglement can ensnare both generations in a web that’s now worldwide. As Berkeley, Calif. family therapist Sherri Glucoft Wong puts it, for a parent who’s tempted by a child’s unlocked diary, “The Internet is one big, unlocked diary!” Let both sides beware.

Finding the right balance is personal to every family and may set the pattern — for better or worse — for years to come. Here are six tips to help you and your grown kids keep the channels open with as little static as possible:

1. Do respect the shifts in contact during your kids’ 20s.

Digital contact ebbs and flows through the stormy weather and calmer zones of the 20s. There’s often a barrage of calls, texts and emails during the early launching years when kids first leave home and burst with hot-off-the-presses news, the need for a helping hand or a cash infusion. Newly arrived college students may still rely on parents’ guidance in making decisions — which classes to take, how to resolve roommate disagreements and the best way to open a bank account. But as students get their bearings and build new networks, calls, texts and emails usually drop off.

Just as the mother of a toddler tries to gauge how much separation her child can handle with games of peekaboo or increasingly longer forays into the world on her own, so it goes years later with college students far from home. You want to be available when needed but also convey the message that you have faith that your grown kids can handle things and manage well on their own. You may also want to be clear that you’re doing OK on your own, too, not crying by yourself in their empty bedrooms.

2. Do observe good boundaries in cyberspace, as elsewhere.

Digital communication is a two-way street, and parents of emerging adults need to take care that they’re not overwhelming their grown kids with a messaging blitz in whatever media are available. Just because you can reach them anywhere or any time doesn’t mean you have to send a text on a Saturday night or expect an email to be answered seconds after you send it. Give them the same privacy and growing-room that you craved as a young adult away from home for the first time.

Your good-advice e-messages may be meant well (Don’t forget to sign up for Professor So and So’s seminar! Go to the health service for that cough!), but when too many pile up, they’ll become background music, easy to tune out. And if you encourage your grown kids to text requests night or day (How do I change my printer cartridge? What’s the capital of Slovakia?), you may be discouraging them from figuring things out for themselves.

3. Do use the right method to reach your kids where they live.

Most 21st century parents have figured out that leaving kids a voicemail and expecting a call back is whistling in the wind (“Mailbox is full”...since 2005). Email is slightly more effective, but can still be stonewalled. If you want a quick answer from your kids, LRN 2 TEXT. Texting is so quick, easy and uninflected, it’s more note passing than writing, and like an all-night diner, it’s always open for business. It can be done on the fly; in fact, it’s the preferred medium for the on-the-fly generation — from class, from cars (unsafely), from parties and from restaurants in the middle of elaborate meals. Even living in the same house, some parents have noticed that it’s easier to get their twentysomethings’ attention by texting, not talking.


4. Do think twice before becoming Facebook friends with your kids — and their friends.

Some twentysomethings may be more into Facebook than others, but more than any other social networking site, Facebook is still the global town square where the under-30 generation hangs out (or at least visits occasionally), meets and breaks up, tracks who’s dating and who split up, and who likes — or dislikes — which band, movie and political issue. Seen from a developmental perspective, Facebook is an arena where the identity issues of emerging adulthood are played out, as users assemble the self they wish to present to the world. But is this persona intended for mom or dad?

The Facebook currency is “friends,” those people to whom your Facebook page is linked. In theory, there are privacy settings or “groups” on Facebook that allow some friends to see more of a user’s profile than others, and these concentric circles of familiarity could help transfer to cyberspace the friends-with-etiquette relationship between parents and emerging adults. In theory, a college student could let her parents view her beach photos from spring break … and hide the ones where she’s dancing on bar tables.

Since Facebook’s privacy settings are often in flux, observe the same sensitivity about closeness versus distance in cyberspace that you do elsewhere. For example, if you are Facebook friends with your kids, you might look at the photos they post…but refrain from leaving a trail of comments on their wall. Likewise, don’t post anything cringe-inducing about them on your page. And a word to the wise: if you become “friends” with their current girlfriend or boyfriend, then when a break-up occurs, that former lover will be able to track any new relationship in photos on your page. During these years of changing partners and tender feelings it’s something to think about before you click “accept.”

5. Do learn to read your child’s communication clues.

Most parents develop a second sense about when their grown children need encouragement and when they want to be left alone to puzzle things out on their own. Unmade or unanswered calls may just mean a grown child’s life is happily full and attention is elsewhere. But unexpected, unexplained silences can also be a sign of trouble brewing or a crisis that has deepened into despair. You have to make a sensible judgment about each child and each situation based on what you know about your child. If a longer than usual silence suggests that a child is having a hard time or a recent call home has been particularly emotional, it might be time to follow up with an email or text: “Send me a brief message to say you’re OK” (or arrange a future call).

6. Do model the digital behavior you’d like your grown kids to follow.

If you repeatedly answer texts while you’re with your kids or sink into long phone conversations while they’re visiting, they might feel it’s just fine to do the same. If you want to share quality time together, model good digital use so your kids feel they have your full attention when you’re together in real life.

Elizabeth Fishel is the author of five nonfiction books including Sisters and Getting To 30: A Parent’s Guide to the 20-Something Years (with Jeffrey Arnett).  She has contributed to numerous magazines including Vogue, Ms., New York, The Writer, and Oprah's O.  She has written for Next Avenue since 2014. Read More
Jeffrey Arnett is the co-author of Getting to 30: A Parent's Guide to the 20-Something Years. Arnett is a professor in the Department of Psychology at Clark University. Read More
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