How to Talk about Technology When Your Tween or Teen Doesn’t Want to Listen

Michelle Icard
February 24, 2021

By the time a young person starts middle school, they feel a deep and pressing need to begin separating from you. It’s a normal and natural part of becoming independent. But still, it can feel messy and painful.

When this happens, your child will look for ways to establish their autonomy. Cutting off communication starts early. Think of it anthropologically. It’s the job of language to tie people together, but it’s the job of tweens and teens to begin breaking ties apart. This is simply part of the necessary, but sometimes painful, process of growing up and becoming independent.

This frustrates parents immensely because just at the age that the world opens up, and exactly when kids need the most guidance, they pull back. And though conversations about even the most innocuous topics jump the tracks unexpectedly at this age, nothing seems to derail you both faster than talking about technology. It’s the new playground or mall, where tweens and teens do most of their socializing. Their fear of being embarrassed, along with their desire for privacy, is so strong, they’ll do a lot to keep you from interfering or worse, cutting them off.

There’s only one thing to do. At around age 11, or when your child starts middle school, it’s time to learn a new language so that you can have better conversations about the things that matter most.

In my newest book, Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen, I teach parents how to do this. Like a Rosetta Stone for talking to your child, the book will show you which approaches and phrases encourage communication, and which shut it down.

When it comes to talking tech, let’s take a look at a few things that might help:

  1. Find common ground. You may have been dazzled by a pixelated Qbert when you were in middle school, but now you feel left in the dust by TikTok, Call of Duty, and House Party. You’re not only learning a new language, but trying to speak about an entirely new subject. This makes it even more important to start from a place where you and your teen can both relate. Reflect on the awe you felt when you first played a video game or recorded a TV show. Find your inner child and invite them to the conversation, too.
  2. Remember that technology is a tool, and like any tool, it is only valuable to us when it has potential to be both helpful and harmful. A stove that doesn’t get hot, a knife that is too dull to cut, a car with no gas…not helpful. But once a tool becomes helpful, it must also become dangerous. Just as you wouldn’t give your ten-year-old a saw and then walk away the first time they cut firewood, you shouldn’t give your tween access to technology without initial supervision and guidance. Little by little, as they demonstrate proficiency and good sense, you can pull back. Most importantly, talk about the pros and cons of tech in your family life. If you demonize the technology they love, your kids will tune out. Teach tech use the same way you would any other tool. Not sure how? Ask. Your friends, your kids, even Google. Put in the research and learn together.
  3. Don’t get lost in the weeds. Forget about the tech of it all, and focus on basic human behaviors you want your child to follow whether in real life or on a screen. Ask your child to list how they want people to think of them, and make those characteristics your guidelines for behavior on and off line.

Having a more formal conversation about technology (family meeting-style) is a great way to get things rolling, because you can present it as a way of exploring how tech influences the entire family, and your tween or teen won’t feel targeted. Whether your family is a party of two or twelve, be sure to note that the meeting is meant to be a give and take that should benefit all participants. Below are some ways to begin.

Tech Family Meeting Starter Questions:

  • What are ways technology is useful or helpful for our family?
  • What are some ways technology might distract or derail us?
  • How will we know if our technology use has moved from fun or helpful, to disruptive?
  • Is there anything we can be doing to make better use of technology? Are we missing anything fun or useful that could benefit us?
  • What are some tech-free things ween joy doing that can balance us out? Are we missing out on anything fun or useful outside the tech category that could be fun or helpful to us?

For more on how to have this, and other important conversations with your child, check out my latest book Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen: The Essential Conversations You Need to Have with Your Kids Before They Start High School, find me at MichelleIcard.com, or follow me on these platforms: Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.

Written by

Michelle Icard

Michelle Icard is a speaker, author, and educator who helps kids, parents, and teachers navigate the complicated social world of early adolescence. Her latest book, Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen (Harmony/Random House 2021) guides readers through the fourteen essential conversations parents need to have with their kids before they start high school. Her first book, Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years, is a primer for the social and emotional changes parents and kids navigate when mid-life meets middle school under one roof.

Michelle is a member of the TODAY Show parenting team and her work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, CNN, Time, and People Magazine. Her middle school leadership programs, Athena’s Path & Hero’s Pursuit, have been implemented at schools across the country and she speaks around the globe at schools and parenting events.