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“What Do We Do When It Feels Like It's Too Late?” by The Axis Team

An Axis Course On The "Everything Smartphone" Guided Toolkit

Dear Axis,

My husband and I have worked hard to instill Christian discernment into our three children—all of whom are very different from each other. We decided early on that we wanted to foster an environment of reciprocal trust in our family, and we wanted our kids to have access to us in case of an emergency. For these and other reasons, we gave each of them their first phone as a birthday gift at age 13. 

We installed whatever restrictions we knew about at the time to limit their screen time and block certain websites. Our two sons seemed happy enough with what we proposed and, to my knowledge, never worked to outsmart us or go around our ground rules. 

Our daughter, however, has been another story. 

She became more withdrawn from our family from the first day we handed her an iPhone. We thought she was just excited to talk to her friends via social media and that after the initial excitement wore off, we’d have our daughter back. But in the two years since, she’s grown more and more invested in certain TikTok influencers and community forums that frankly, we don’t find edifying or valuable. She’s lost interest in her hobbies, like sketching and animation, her grades are down, and she has even quit her extracurriculars. I know we should have intervened sooner, but it didn’t seem fair to give her different rules than her brothers had at the same age. 

And now that she’s almost 16, I wonder if there’s anything we really can do to help get her off of her phone and back into our family. I’m worried my efforts will have the opposite effect, causing a tremendous fight and pushing her away from us completely. I feel like I’ve failed as a mom, and I’ve never felt so helpless about any of my kids. How can we help her? 

Sincerely, 
A Mom Who Waited Too Long 

 

Dear Mom Who Waited,

I’m so sorry to hear that your family is going through this. But as tempting as it might be to feel like you’ve failed as her parent, or to second guess choices you made years ago, what she needs from you right now is not a careful assignment of blame, but your guidance, your prayers, and your presence.

Even in the high school years, parents are still the biggest influence on their children’s lives. Deuteronomy 6:7-9 demonstrates how we are called to impress our values on our children as they grow into adulthood.

It might feel like your daughter cares more about what the latest TikTok trend or influencer is saying to her, but the reality is that you are still a person she looks to for guidance and attention.

You can’t force your daughter to reject the relationships and community she has found online. You also probably can’t decree certain apps to be off-limits in a way that she will not try to subvert. But you can try to demonstrate an interest in what she’s interested in—to care about what she cares about. She likely senses that the way you regard her phone use is through a lens of fear and despair—but if you were to try to ask, in a spirit of genuine curiosity, who she’s paying attention to online and why, that could open the door to a real conversation.

As far as not wanting to give her different rules than her brothers had, it’s important to maintain an approach that is realistic, but flexible. Every teen needs a different level of support and guidance when it comes to navigating life online (and lots of other things).

When someone starts to prefer their online avatar to their lived reality, the chances are that they think they are getting something out of being online that they can’t get in-person. Part of your job, in addition to caring about what she cares about, is to figure out what that thing is that she thinks she can only get online—and to see how you can offer it in other ways. For example: if she follows a lot of cooking influencers, you could ask if she’d like to try making one of their recipes together; if she follows a lot of makeup influencers, you could offer to take her to Sephora.

Given her prior love for sketching and animation, you could also look up drawing classes, or an in-person anime club. A school yearbook club or newspaper might offer an outlet to share her thoughts and opinions in a more tangible way.

The truth is, she may not be receptive to these ideas—or there may be a lot of pushback at first. Still, that doesn’t mean you should stop trying to reach out. We believe in a God who never gives up on us.

Her behaviors might seem to come from a self-indulgent place, but underneath them are also the big questions that teens are always asking: “Am I loved?” “Am I seen?” and “If I disappeared from this family, would anyone care?” Your task is to make sure she knows the answer to all of these questions is an unequivocal YES at every turn.

Finally, do not stop praying for your daughter. She doesn’t have to hear you do it (but that might be nice for her to hear). You don’t have to tell her about it (though that might be helpful for her to know). But do pray without ceasing. God is the one who fully knows, sees, and loves your daughter more than you could ever believe, and the most powerful legacy you can offer your children is one of sustaining faith even in troubled times.

As you trust your daughter’s future to His care, remember that the task of parenting was never a spiritual test for you to pass or fail. You were meant to be their mom, and they were meant to be your kids. And no matter what happens going forward, your love is best expressed through patience, compassion and prayer—the virtues Christ embodied.

Parenting together,
The Axis Team