Parenting is often described as one of the best and most stressful jobs that a person can take on. Becoming a parent is an incredible responsibility that comes with a new set of rules, and the need to constantly be “on.” So what happens when parents go from being “on” top of things to being distracted and “on” their phone maybe a little too often?
The term for this phenomenon is distracted parenting. You may not have heard this term before, but you’ve likely seen it in action. Here are some examples of distracted parenting:
- An entire family on their phones at a restaurant, not even making eye contact.
- At a playground, a child is misbehaving and would likely be corrected if their parent was not texting.
- At an event and one kid is running out of the door with no adult present and you think, “Where is the adult?”
These situations are too commonplace and have caused concern among pediatricians. The American Pediatrics Association recently revealed that more children are being treated for more severe injuries from playground accidents than in the past. Parents were observed at playgrounds where they looked at their phones, talked to each other, and did other things more often than they looked at their kids.
The dangers of distracted parenting
These distracted parents gave their children the perfect opportunity to take risks that could otherwise be prevented such as throwing sand, climbing up the slide, or jumping from large heights. Over 200,000 children under 14 years of age are treated in emergency rooms for playground-related injuries each year, and children will take risks regardless. While none of the children in this study were seriously injured, researchers noted that children are more likely to take those risks when their parent is distracted.
Not only is there a potential for physical harm when distracted parenting happens, it can also be emotionally damaging if a child or teen feels that their parent is too busy to be attentive or connected to them at the moment. Children may even engage in risky behavior just to attract the attention of distracted parents, and distracted parents are not as responsive to their kids, or as sensitive to their needs.
Parents, instead, might share that perfect Instagram pic of their kid going down the slide rather than going down with them. Parents may be more interested in posting about their family dinner rather than participating in a conversation at the table. These actions in place of making eye contact, engaging in conversation, and actively participating in play can leave a child wondering what they need to do to regain the attention of their parent(s).
Distractions are a part of life, but they can be managed
An article on Psychology Today notes that being distracted as a parent is expected to a degree, especially with multiple children in the home and/or with parents working. It’s part of family life when you have to balance chores, meals, jobs, and a budget.
However, it is the level to which the distraction occurs that matters. Children and teens are aware when the important people in their lives, like their parents, are not paying attention to their needs physically or emotionally. In those moments when a child feels a disconnect from their caregiver, they will test what they can get away with, whether it’s jumping from the highest point of a jungle gym, sneaking out at night, or skipping school, among other risky behaviors in the hopes that someone will notice them.
Make efforts to be intentionally attentive
If you think you may struggle with being a distracted parent, leader, teacher, or caregiver, think about your habits and ask yourself these questions:
- When was the last time you played with your child or teenager?
- What was the last conversation you shared as a family?
- Ask your kids if they feel you are distracted. Honesty can go a long way in opening up communication, just avoid responding defensively and ask more about what they need from you.
- Think about the last conversation you had with an adult: Were they on their phone? Did you make eye contact? Did you feel heard?
- What makes you feel heard? The same probably applies to the children and teens in your life. Have an open conversation about what listening looks like in different settings.
There will always be distractions in our lives. We will all have a “parenting fail” moment at some point, but those should be our moments that cause changes in our behavior. We can all learn to become less distracted and more active in the lives of our families. We can be better about putting the phone down, closing the laptops, and turning off the TV in order to engage our children in conversation, make eye contact across the table, and have time to play.
These acts, like The Gottman Institute’s motto of “Small Things Often,” may seem small in nature but they will have long-lasting positive effects on the emotional health of families. To do that, we can focus on creating undistracted time in order to fully engage with the people that we interact with on a daily basis. Try setting aside an hour at home, with your kids, where no phones or screens are allowed, and do something fun with them. Try putting your phone away more often when you’re engaged in conversation with others. Your children, teens, friends, and other family members will notice when you make the effort to give them your attention on a regular basis.
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