Alright. Your child just went to the other parent’s house. It’s sad. You miss her. You’re worried about her. You don’t agree with your ex’s parenting. You want to stay connected—there’s a hole in your life. You want to pick up the phone, but wonder:
“How often is too often?”
Answers from the Pinwheel Therapist Council
We’ve invited our Therapist Council members, Dr. Mike Brooks (author of Tech Generation) and Rebecca Hubbard, MS, LMFT, to weigh in on the question. Both individuals work with children, technology, custody, and split homes, so they certainly have a real-world perspective on the “how much is too much” question.
Though interviewed separately, they both went to the same two places:
- The value of relationship
- Adhering to the Golden Rule
Establishing a Healthy Relationship With Your Child
From Dr. Brooks:
"Rather than focusing on what kids are or are not allowed to do on screens, the focus should be on the relationship parents have with their kids. Having a healthy, loving, supportive relationship with our kids is more important to kids’ overall well-being than the screens themselves. Moreover, it is through having a strong relationship with our kids that we can manage their screen time more effectively.
Our leverage of influence as parents is based on the quality of our relationship with our kids. A quick mnemonic to remember is:Rules Without Relationship = Rebellion. Thus, focus on building a strong relationship first,then think about managing screen time. If the parent-child relationship is defined by a push-pull over screens, then the parents have already lost.
In an ideal world, you have this conversation with the non-custodial parent (or the joint custody parent) and your child. 'Hey, what is the proper amount of contact?'
It used to be that when you went somewhere you were kind of out of touch for a bit. Yeah, your parents could call and check on you at your friend’s house, but they had to just assume things were okay unless they heard about a problem.
Establishing expectations at the front end is best. If you’re going to do a check-in, set that up. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure! 'Hey, doing fine at Dad’s, talk to you tomorrow!' might be all that’s needed. It’s better to arrange this on the front end rather than after the fact.
This intrusiveness is part of the helicopter parenting where you’re hovering because you’re concerned about their welfare. But your intrusiveness as a parent can be, ironically, the cause of a rift in the relationship, mistrust, and a strained relationship. It sends a message of 'I don’t trust you, and you can’t make good decisions on your own, so I’m going to look.'
Instead, parents should be focused on helping establish healthy use of devices and what it would look like if things were going bad—describing cyberbullying, when friend texts cross the line, etc.
How bad would it have to be for a parent to get involved?
Those are conversations to have with your child, not sifting through your kids messages to find that kind of information on their phones.
I would ask the kid to drive the decision more. 'Hey Billy, while you’re at your dad’s, what kind of contact between us makes the most sense to you?' This sends a message that you trust both the kid and the other parent, which is the least problematic and most relationship building.
Err toward the side of “less is more” on contact.
Help the kid to understand that a quick check-in goes a long way towards parents relaxing when you’re at a friend’s house or the other parent’s house."
Learn to Manage Anxiety Without Always “Checking-In”
"'Helicoptering' is what parents are doing when they manage their own anxiety by checking in on their kids constantly, and technology can enable this type of behavior.
Cell phones have been described as the world’s longest umbilical cords. To me that’s one of the hidden dangers with technology: that parents get used to managing their anxiety by always checking-in, and they never learn to sit in the unknown. Kids go off to college and they’re still checking. Then they’re surreptitiously monitoring their kids after college.
Try to err on less frequent checking and involve the kid in collaborative problem-solving, making your child think 'What is okay? What is enough?'"
Help Your Child Learn Independence
"Of course, you get some anxious kids that want to reach out to the other parent all the time. That’s when that other parent needs to help by saying, 'You know, we don’t need to check in every 15 minutes… once before bed will be fine.'
The whole independence thing is very American, of course. My big caveat is that these values are cultural. I can’t help it! I’m an American. I was brought up this way."
Following the Golden Rule is Best
"When answering the question of 'how much is too much?', I always think about the relationship:
When the kids are with you, how would you like your ex to contact your children?
Let’s say the kid reaches out to you because she is upset that Dad didn’t let her go swimming. Relationally, you want to empathize! But you have to be careful. You don’t want to harm the relationship between your child and the other parent? Having a good relationship with both parents is in your child’s best interest (unless the court says it’s not!)
It’s time for the Golden Rule: 'Honey, I know you’d like to go swimming, but you need to go talk to your Dad about that.'"
Involving a Parent Facilitator
"If there’s something going on between Mom and Dad where they can’t manage it on their own, then that’s when it’s time to think about a Parent Facilitator. The reason these parents might be fighting over the cell phone boundaries is because they can’t get the simplest things done together.
You always go to the other parent if you have that ability! 'Hey, I noticed that you and Suzy were talking last night at two in the morning. Can you tell me what was wrong?' If nothing was wrong, then a response may be, 'If you’re concerned about Suzy that early in the morning, then I’d prefer you to call me, and I will check on her.'
I tell parents all the time:
When it is bedtime your child’s cell phone shouldn’t be in their room! The phone should be put up until the next morning. Children (okay, adults too) struggle with not reaching for their phone at night. It’s okay to turn phones off bedtime."
"Here’s where I love to do role reversal. If I were the parent that was, let’s say, the weekend dad, and the mom was checking every fifteen minutes, how would I feel?
This is our time to establish our relationship and to build it, and we’re not getting that because the other parent is texting constantly! That’s the opportunity for the non-custodial parent, or whoever is in possession at that moment, to connect with the kid and build the relationship.
There are always the situations—'Dad is an alcoholic, I want to check if he’s drunk.' Yes, those situations exist, but they’re not the majority. No, both parents don’t often parent the same way, but they’re generally in the realm of “good enough” and so you don’t need to check-in every thirty minutes.
It’s good for the kid to gain that independence—'I’m here in this household and I can do these things, and I need to establish my relationships here. I can still check-in with my other parent, but I don’t need to be in constant contact.'”
So… How Often is Too Often?
Based on the advice of our Therapist Counsel, it sounds like less is more when cultivating independent children who have healthy relationships with both caregivers. Staying connected while distant is a crucial emotional skill for kids to develop, and here’s an opportunity to do it.
See our other resources on split homes, custody, and cell phones: