Ask Doctor G: When Should(n’t) a Kid Get a Cell Phone?

Today I am taking questions from our readers. This one comes from a mom struggling with whether or not to give her daughter a cell phone. Does this sound familiar? Read on!

Dear Doctor G,

My daughter is 13 and my husband and I have behavioral issues with her. She has always had a strong and vibrant personality but the type where if you tell her to go left, she’s going right!!

I have a mental illness and I have certainly passed those negative habits on to her. She is my no means spoiled, she simply lacks coping skills and it comes out through anger and frustration and verbal attacks on those around her. I do carry the guilt because I have suffered with the same pain my whole life.  That being said, we cannot condone these fits, throwing of things, and verbal disrespect to everyone.

Here’s the problem. We have had a rule that they do not get a cell phone until age 13. My daughter turned 13 recently. She has yet to receive the phone because her behavior has been totally unacceptable. Here’s the dilemma. My husband (and our therapist) think that she should be given the phone to use as “leverage” to improve her behavior.

I believe the very opposite. As a former Elementary Ed teacher, I feel that Lindsay should be given time to show us that she can get her emotions and behavior under control.

When I continue to be disrespected to my face, I cannot fathom why I would then hand over a phone and say, “Don’t do that again”, when we know she will. According to my husband and therapist, when she behaves that way, the phone gets taken away. What happened to PROVING to us that she has made a true effort to improve her behavior and get her feelings under control? When is she getting the practice to understand the WHY she needs to change and that a phone isn’t the reason.

Please help!!!!

-Anonymous, CA

I hear your struggle and I completely understand.

Your husband and your daughter’s therapist are also experts in your daughter and her behavior, and I don’t presume to know her better than they or you do. It is important for your family that you and your husband come to an agreement so that you can present a united plan.

What I’m hearing you say is this:

Giving your daughter a phone would be compromising your own parenting philosophy and the culture you want to create in your home. You’re talking about internal vs external motivation, and of course, internal motivation is better for your daughter in the long run.

My sense of your husband’s point of view is that he would like to have a tangible carrot and stick to try to change her behavior. Also that he would like to please her in order to reconcile somewhat with her so that she can see you both love her and want her to be happy.

It’s very difficult to teach kids to have internal motivation, though it’s possible – through patience and persistence – to guide them towards it.  By definition, she has to find her own reasons for behaving well as opposed to working only towards a tangible “finish line” that would allow her to consider the work of treating you respectfully as also “finished.”

One possible way forward is this:

  1. Set aside the issue of a phone for the next 2-6 months (whatever makes most sense to you)
  2. Pick one behavior that you want to change – I’m guessing you’ll pick “speaking respectfully” but choose the one that will get the most peace in your home for everyone
  3. Spell out very clearly what behaviors are not acceptable and what the consequences will be
  4. Spell out very clearly what behaviors are desired and what the consequences of those will be
  5. Ask her what behaviors of yours (not gifts – like a phone!) would help her show that desired behavior and pick one or two that you can agree on
  6. Give her the chance to earn a different privilege through consistent (but not perfect) improved behavior
  7. Check back in one week later to see what needs to be tweaked

It’s totally reasonable to tell your daughter that these changes have to happen before you can consider when and how she can earn a phone from you. And the logic there is clear – she can’t be trusted to roam or communicate with others until she shows she can treat people (starting with her family) respectfully.

It’s also totally reasonable for her to be angry or hurt when you talk to her about this plan. She may feel betrayed or hopeless – especially if she is trying to change this behavior and hasn’t been able to do that. Have empathy for her frustration – it’s real. Keep telling her you’re in this together and you’ll keep working with her to find a way to solve all this.

I hope that you have great support in your own pursuit of mental health treatment. Please don’t equate mental health struggles with “passing on negative habits.” If you had asthma and then one of your kids developed it, would you say you “passed on bad breathing habits?” No! There should be no shame or guilt in illness. Get her the help she needs and keep holding her to a high standard of behavior. She deserves that, and so do you.

What would you do? Share with us on Facebook or Twitter! If you have a question, submit it to our podcast!

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