This is a response to a parenting question. We get a lot of requests for more info on teens and step-parenting but rarely are able to provide resources and real-life application of our theories. This step-parent reached out privately and I posted her question (with permission). This is her question, followed by my response.

Hello! Really hoping for any advice or understanding or resources. I live with my partner and his two young teenagers…I am very challenged with our lifestyle because my partner doesn’t put screen time limits on them, they are used to making their own meals and eating over top of their phones, all the while watching Netflix. When this happens, all I see is their awkward posture and lack of manners such as learning how to use cutlery and eat mindfully.

They are used to always being beside their phone. Even when we watch a shared show together at night or a family movie night, the phones are right there most of the time. More than screentime, it’s about outdoors time and creative play. To me, I want to see children who have better posture because they aren’t addicted to their cell phones… I want to see children who can entertain themselves by going outside, by going for a walk without looking down at their phone, by being active every day, by moving throughout the world in a way that is not so sedentary.

My partner workouts with them a couple times a week – but every other moment of the day has to be hunched over on phones??? I see lots of resources about parenting from young ages with these things in mind, but with children ages 11-15… Are they too old for him to start installing some changes?… Is it too late now that his kids have had their phones since they were 8? I’m really struggling, I want to find some resources that will turn him on to the values that I have, outdoor time, play, less screen time, but it needs to appeal to a parent who didn’t have these ideals before when the kids were younger..

He has agreed to listen to the audiobook Balanced and Barefoot…and we started it, but I feel like he’s starting to feel badly about having not raised his children with these aspects in mind.. he did say he would be interested to listen to the audiobook The Danish Way of Parenting..is that a good resource, Or, is that really for parenting younger children?

My Response

Our approach to parenting is less about trying to change children and our partners and more about deconstructing our own perceptions and feelings. Trying to understand why we think and feel a certain way and trying to understand the behaviours of others, through this reflective lens of empathy.

I must be honest, at first I was quite triggered by your message to me. I was a “troubled teen” so I tend to be very defensive of teens. Then I discussed the situation with a colleague to deconstruct my own feelings and was able to see your perspective (I think).

It seems that perhaps you had an image of what this family life would look and feel like. You were probably looking forward to the connection that a family brings. Perhaps you had to give up your own desire to havec a child, in order to join this family and that is HUGE thing to give up. Perhaps you are trying to make the best of it but now the vision you had of a connected family is not coming to fruition.

I have a harsh truth for you; the teens don’t care what you want so you need to find out what they want, in order to connect with them. What are they watching on Netflix? How can you engage with them about that? If they’re watching a certain show, maybe you can join a fan page and try and get interested in their interests.

You can’t force connection, especially with teens but you can try to connect with them in their world, in their way. It will be much more fulfilling for everyone if you do this authentically and organically. Ask yourself, “is this really about wanting them to get outside more or do I really just want to feel more connected to them?”

As for your partner, I would try focusing on what you like about his parenting. Teens being that independent is healthy. The time he does spend with them is obviously special to them or they wouldn’t do it. People on devices are not disconnected, they’re connected in a different way, like I’m connecting with all of you now, how I connected with my colleague across the country and how you connected with me. Screens are also a huge distraction so many families who have gone through challenging times have had to lean on screen use. As you already inferred, trying to convince your partner how “unhealthy” that is will likely just make him feel guilty and shamed. It probably won’t help you all to connect.

Screen use has been linked to mental health challenges but, I must admit, I feel the research is flawed and does not take into account neurodiversity. It shows a correlation, not a causation which could actually indicate that some people find a supportive benefit to screen use. Is going outdoors healthier than sitting on your phone? Obviously! But life is about balance and I believe we do so much on our screens now, to villainize it just contributes to this societal obsession with shame and guilt over common coping strategies.

From my experience, most, if not all parents, go through periods where they have to accept that the image they had of this parenting thing is not quite what they had in mind. I think maybe your just experiencing this with teens and not squishy little babies. Coming into a home that has already gone through big changes in dynamics is not an easy thing to do and I am guessing your relationship with your step-children will be a life-long journey, if you choose to take it ❤️