The most underrated parenting tool is the pause button on your TV remote, said therapist John Duffy, who specializes in work with teens, parents, couples and families.
Use it to pause violence, substance abuse, sexually explicit content or even just morally gray situations and start a conversation between you and your child, added Duffy, who is based in Chicago.
As kids and teens watch more of their entertainment on their personal devices, it can be difficult to know exactly what they are taking in. And with shows like “13 Reasons Why,” “Game of Thrones” and most recently “Euphoria,” the content teens are talking about with their friends appears to have gotten darker and more mature in their themes in recent years, said Lisa Damour, an Ohio-based clinical psychologist.
It may be alarming to see your child go from laughing along with SpongeBob to being glued to a show where teenagers are doing drugs, having sex and engaging in violence — but the answer may not lie in a lecture or all-out ban, said Lisa Ramirez, a child and adolescent psychologist at the MetroHealth System in Cleveland.
“The challenge is, once they hit 15, you can’t really regulate what they watch,” Damour said. “The effort to be helpful to them has to come much more in the form of having meaningful conversations.”
No matter how uncomfortable it may be, having open conversations with your younger kids, tweens and teens about the shows they watch can help them put the shows in context, develop their value system and know they have support if they find themselves in tough situations, experts said.
“It’s better to be in on that conversation and use that pause button to talk about it then to be completely out of it altogether and in the dark about what your child is watching,” Duffy said.
Starting early, being in the know and leading with questions can help your family build positive experiences — even if you aren’t thrilled about what your kids are streaming.
Start talking early
On the first day of school, a second grader may be thrilled to know their dad thinks their outfit is cool. By fifth grade, they may not care so much, Ramirez said.
As we transition out of childhood and into adolescence, the opinions we care about most shift from our family’s to our peers’, she added. It can help to build a habit of communicating about the world and values before that transition happens.
Conversations don’t need to be limited to sex, drugs and rock and roll — it’s helpful for families to talk kids through the tamer stuff as well, Ramirez said.
What do you think about how that character was treated? What would you do if you were in their shoes? Have you ever seen anyone be left out at school?
“We can’t always protect them from everything, and so we have to help build that ability to work through things and to understand when something feels not right,” Ramirez said.
Know what they are watching
“There is no way my kids are watching anything explicit,” you might be thinking. And you would likely be wrong, Duffy said.
“I will hear from kids that they are watching something that their parents are certain they are not watching,” he said.
Even if they aren’t watching on the TV in the living room, they could be on their phone or at friends’ houses, he said. (Long gone is the time when television shows were only on the one television in the house.)
It’s important to start by getting familiar with what they are actually watching and even watch it yourself, Damour said. A show like “Euphoria” can either sound a lot better or a lot worse, depending on who describes it to you, Ramirez added.
If you can stand it — and if your teen allows it — try watching their shows with them so you can give context and ask questions in real time, Duffy said. It may be uncomfortable to watch and talk about a scene with adult behavior next to your teen, but it can help to be clear about it.
“Be really explicit about it,” Duffy said. Try this: “We have to talk about sex because it’s important. I’m not comfortable with it, and I don’t expect you to be comfortable with it,” Duffy suggested.
Then you can come up with an agreement together about how you will talk about it — like setting timers to only talk in short bursts, he added.
Lead with questions
Let’s say it turns out your kid is watching something you are not comfortable with. Your impulse may tell you to talk at them about why it is inappropriate and why they are not allowed to ever watch it again, Damour said. Take a pause and talk with them instead.
Start with questions asking things about what their reaction to the content is, why they were interested in watching, and if they have experienced things like what they saw on the show, Ramirez said.
You might find that they are also unsettled by the same things you are or that they have questions you can answer, Damour said. You can also then bring up a conversation about your values as a family and how you hope they respond to the pressures they may find in their teenage years, she added.
Help shape what they see as normal
A teenage girl told Damour that she was watching a show that depicted rape, and when her father responded to the scene with shock, she felt validated, Damour said.
Her father’s reaction reassured the teen that she was right to feel disturbed by the violence, Damour said.
Depictions in media can normalize sexual violence for teens, Damour said. Knowing what they are seeing can jump-start conversations about what they can view as normal and what they shouldn’t, Duffy said.
Helping them shape those perceptions can be especially important when it comes to representations of people of color or LGBTQ people, Ramirez said.
Representations of these groups can often be incomplete or inaccurate, and watching shows together opens the door to talk about stereotypes and celebrate shows that present diversity in a more positive way, she added.
Some of these topics may seem difficult and complicated, but a direct approach is often helpful, Ramirez said. And while you may not be able to dictate everything they watch, you can guide how your teens think about it, she added.