How to use cell phone struggles to turn things around with teen

Dear Dr. Laura,
My daughter just turned 14 today. Last October I got a family cell phone plan. The phone's original intent was for emergencies only. Then I got talked into text messaging plan and call display so her part of the bill is $50 a month.

Last night I found a message on her phone regarding me and some very poor language that I just don't tolerate. I found this after I caught her taking personal calls on the cell phone. We have pooled minutes and she was told no personal calls. Well in 4 days she has racked up 30 min.

Her dad and I are divorced but we still talk. He thinks I should take the phone away for a year. I think I should take the messaging and call display off and she uses the phone for original intent... emergencies only. The only reason why I am saying that is because I still have to pay a minimum of $35 a month for that phone.

Is there any thing else I can do? I feel like she is taking advantage of me. She doesn't contribute to the family in any way, most of her time is on the phone, computer or playing guitar hero.

I told her she can't take her phone to her dad's this weekend and she told me that she is not going. There is no option with that as I work and don't want her here all weekend alone.


Dear Kathy,
You certainly have your hands full!
This is why parents often dread the teenage years. The kids get too big to order around, and if they don't have a good reason to obey us, they simply don't.

Your primary question seems to be whether to take the cell phone away from your daughter, as your ex-husband suggests, or whether to simply change your plan so your daughter doesn't have the "extras" (text and call display). You are also unhappy with her using the phone for personal calls. But your problem is actually much bigger: your daughter doesn't seem to be connecting with you, which lessens her motivation to cooperate, and she is apparently angry enough at you to have used disrespectful language in regard to you on her phone. I can hear in your letter that this is a source of heartbreak for you. And I know that it's not good for your daughter, either. Teenage girls need to feel connected to their mothers. When they don't, it's a risk factor for all kinds of acting out, such as poor school performance, drug use and sexual promiscuity.

Of course, teenage girls also need to be connected to their peers, and cell phones are a kind of private space to them, a lifeline to the outside world. So we have to recognize a big disconnect in perspective: while most adults consider cell phones a privilege, our kids now think of them as a basic right.

Here's what I would do if it were my daughter:

1. Change the plan to one you are comfortable with. When you say you "got talked into" the “extra” texting and call display, it sounds to me like you did what we often do as parents, and went beyond your comfort level. Don't blame her -- take responsibility for your choice -- but you certainly should be listening to your own gut and setting the limits you need to, to be comfortable financially. Explain to her that any use of the cell phone beyond emergencies is a privilege that you provide and that she needs to earn with responsible behavior. Using those extra minutes was not responsible behavior.

2. Have a heart to heart with your daughter. Before you do this, get in touch with how much you love her. When you sit down with her, express that love. Then say that it hurts you that she feels so distant, that all she does is play guitar hero and spend time on the phone and computer. Acknowledge that teenagers need time with friends, but say that you also need her to stay connected to you and your ex and any siblings. Add that your feelings were terribly hurt by the disrespectful language used in relation to you on her phone. Remember that all of us defend against hurt feelings by getting angry, and commit yourself to staying in touch with those hurt feelings rather than the angry defensiveness that makes you want to attack her.

Listen to your daughter's response with as open a mind as possible, even if you have to bite your tongue. In fact, really try to see it from her point of view and offer her empathy. For instance, if she says she doesn't want to be around you because you always find fault with her, just listen, and don't take it personally. This is information about her, about how afraid she is that she doesn't measure up in your eyes. Just reflect her feelings: “So you find it hard to hang out with me these days because you think I criticize you a lot?” If you think there is also some truth in there about your own behavior, great, acknowledge it. Don't make excuses, and don't attack back. Think of this as a test you need to pass to get your daughter back. Your willingness to hear her out and stay calm will be like opening a door. She won't be able to tell you this now, but she will be enormously grateful. Someday she may tell you that it changed her life.

Before you end the conversation, state plainly that you expect your daughter to treat you respectfully, both to your face and behind your back. If she has a problem with you, she can express it to you directly and you will try to listen with an open heart. Tell her that clearly the two of you need to communicate better and that you intend to start by expressing your love for her every single day, and give her a hug. Then make a deal that you and she will have a daily check-in to touch base and catch up, such as a cup of tea before bedtime, as well as a date every weekend, such as going for a walk together.

3. Make a written cell phone agreement that you both sign. There are many examples of agreements online. You can also check out this article on Cell Phone Rules on this website. All kids need to work with their parents to take on the new responsibility of handling a cell phone when they first get one. Instead of "laying down the law," approach this as an opportunity to model expressing your needs to your daughter respectfully, and to listen to her needs. Ask her what she thinks is a fair way for her to repair things if she uses more than her share of minutes or otherwise breaks the contract.

4. Give your daughter the chance to redeem herself. Sure, you could just take the phone away. But that will only create resentment and widen the gulf between you. Instead, tell your daughter that you will take responsibility for not being more formal about your agreement, and not giving her the support she needed to keep to the agreement. Now, she needs to take responsibility to make things better between you, if she wants to earn a cell phone upgrade (texting/call display and/or extra minutes for personal calls). Decide what behavior change you most want from your daughter and focus on that. Is that more involvement with the family? More respectfulness in dealing with you? Getting her chores done? Let her make herself a calendar that she can use to earn stars to earn those extra cell phone privileges. Agree to check in together daily to evaluate how she did that day on earning stars. (Explain that she will have to maintain that level of stars to retain the cell phone upgrade in the future and that you reserve the right to change what you're asking of her in future months.)

5. Prioritize rebuilding your connection with your daughter. Keep those daily tea dates and weekly walk dates and use them to listen. (Forget about lectures; she won't hear them anyway.) There's lots of info on this website about how to do this. I also highly recommend the book Staying Connected to Your Teenager: How to Keep Them Talking to You and How to Hear What They're Really Saying by Michael Riera.

The good news is that in the larger scheme of teenage life, this skirmish with the cell phone is actually a relatively minor dispute, which highlights the fault lines in your relationship with your daughter. You have an opportunity now to do the necessary repair work to lay a foundation for the teen years ahead.

AHA! Parenting Magazine
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