Parenting via Text Message: Tips for Communicating with Your Teen

Is modern communication replacing old-fashioned conversation?

Illustration by Yasmeen Ismail

When it comes to communicating with my 16-year-old daughter Hayley, I’m all thumbs—and often that’s a good thing. Since we both have smartphones, we text each other several times a day. Sometimes she needs me to call the school about something or she’s asking permission to go someplace with her friends; other times, I ask her to start dinner or check on her siblings.

Whatever the reason for a given exchange, I’ll admit texting her is pretty addictive. It tends to simplify our communication, removing the sometimes-explosive emotional layer that used to characterize a good portion of our discussions. It also gives us a record of what we have agreed on when we are not face-to-face. Plus, when I text, I tend to get an answer fast, whereas when I phone, I usually get her voicemail, which she might ignore.

I’m not the only parent who lets her fingers do the talking. “They know they can always reach me, whether it’s a forgotten item they need for school or simple updates, like ‘How are you feeling?’ or ‘Who won at basketball?’” says Ann Bacciaglia, an Ottawa mom of two teens. “Texting is just easier. A lot of times, they don’t want to talk to you. Texting isn’t so emotional; it’s to the point.”

Reading Between the Lines
“Texting is a great way to stay connected, express genuine ongoing interest in a child’s daily life and to stay engaged as a family,” says, Alyson Schafer, parenting expert and author of Ain’t Misbehavin’: Tactics for tantrums, meltdowns, bedtime blues and other perfectly normal kid behaviors (Wiley).

Texting can open a new communication channel that puts teens at ease, so they are more willing to share, Schafer adds, but cautions it should not replace a relationship with your teen. “If you are busy at work or travelling, it’s nice to keep up by texting. But when you are home, you still need to have face time and common experiences, and put in family time for a healthy relationship,” she says.

Schafer also points out that parents might miss out on nonverbal cues when they over-rely on texting with their kids. “Ninety percent of communication is body language,” she says. “If you text, ‘Are you okay?’ and they reply, ‘Yeah,’ they could also be crying and you wouldn’t know it. There may be way more going on than you can read in a text; you might miss signs of reaching out, stress or pain and the need to have you be more present.”

Find Time to Talk
Being present is tricky for Danielle Svenne because of her odd work hours, so the Winnipeg mom of three uses texting to keep in touch with her 14-year-old daughter, Ursula. This, she says, allows her daughter to do more on her own. “It bought my daughter more freedom,” Svenne says. “She can tell us what she needs.”

Schafer says parents still need to keep tabs on teens. “If we let the leash out too far thinking, ‘We are in touch and connected by texting,’ we drop the more traditional security methods: Asking where will you be? Will a parent be home? Can I have their phone number?” Schafer also points out that technology has its limits: “Cellphones may die, there might be no reception in the basement or kids may lie about the reason they couldn’t text.”

I know all about the lying thing. Not once, but twice my daughter has used texting to assure me she was at a friend’s house or on her way to some approved location when in fact she was elsewhere. How did her dad and I figure it out? Old-fashioned parenting: Her answers to our questions were inconsistent. One phone call to where she was supposed to be and the jig was up. So was her freedom for a week.

Bottom line: Texting can be a convenient and fun part of your parenting tool kit, but it doesn’t replace live, face-to-face time with your kids. “People do use modern communication tools in ways that are smart and wise, but,” Schafer warns, “don’t put blinders on. Nothing replaces being truly present with your kids.”

Be Text Savvy
Alyson Schafer’s top parental texting missteps:

• Texting the wrong person: Your child might read something they shouldn’t.

• Responsibility burden: As in, “Can you tell your sister to be ready for me to pick her up after school?”

• Favouritism: Do you text one child more than the other?

• Miscommunication: Without tone or context, it’s possible to misinterpret a text.

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