The Secret to Talking to Your Teen About Tech

Tech Stress Happens

Let’s imagine your 13-year-old has a friend named Sarah. You don’t like Sarah. She always seems to be starting drama, lying, getting in trouble, etc. One day, your teen comes to you and shares that she posted a TikTok. Sarah commented some half-joke about how your daughter’s elbows look weird in it, or something. Your teen is incredibly upset. You want to help her feel better.

So you say something like: Oh, it’s no big deal. You have great elbows! She doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Just ignore her! (Your teen responds: No I don’t! You don’t get it!

Or maybe you want to fix the situation, so you say: Why don’t you text Sarah and tell her that what she said hurt your feelings, and ask her to take the comment down? Your teen responds: Mom, no! I obviously can’t do that! You don’t get it!

These are natural instincts, to help our children feel better and fix tough situations. Our automatic response to a difficult situation is often to jump straight into problem-solving mode. But when it comes to talking to our teens about tech (or any other sensitive issue), these automatic responses can sometimes backfire. 

The secret? Validation. 

This approach leads to calmer, more effective conversations. 

First, a basic definition: Validation is communicating to someone that what they are saying, feeling, or doing makes sense.

Here is what a validating response would look like. You could start with a pause, an interested head nod, and something like: Wow, I’m so sorry that happened. That must have been really hard, especially since Sarah is your friend. I’d be upset if that happened to me, too.

With this response, you’ve validated the feeling. You let your teen know that the way they are feeling makes sense, given the situation they’re in and the experiences they’ve had. You labeled an emotion for them (“upset”), and told them that you get it. Validate first, and problem solving will follow. 

Validation helps teens calm down and connect.

Tensions run high when we talk to our kids about technology. Think of validation as a volume control button—it tends to dial down the intensity just enough for conversations to move forward.

For teens, validation can be critical for calming—and normalizing—the intense emotions that tend to arise during this developmental period.

Validation is an especially critical skill for tech parenting. When it comes to technology, teens often feel alone in their experiences. Validation shows them that even if you, their parent, don’t totally get the ins and outs of TikTok, you do understand the (very normal) emotions that may arise when using it. 

How to validate like a pro.

Here are the basic steps to validating your child (or, really, anyone):

1. Use nonverbal cues to show you’re listening.

Make eye contact, nod, set aside your phone and other distractions.

2. Listen to what your child has to say...

and try to imagine how they might be feeling. You might not be familiar with the social media specifics (and why are her friends performing a choreographed dance to a song about Jeff Bezos?), but you can likely relate to the feeling (it’s tough to feel left out of the group). Pay attention to your teen’s nonverbal cues, too, like crying, screaming, laughing, turning red.

3. Name the emotion...

and express that what they are feeling makes sense and/or that you understand it. Here are a few phrases to try:

  • I can imagine that you’re feeling [emotion] right now.
    I can imagine that you’re feeling disappointed right now.

  • It makes sense that you would feel [emotion] given [current circumstances].
    It makes sense that you would feel upset about not getting a text back, given that you were putting yourself out there when you texted your friend.

  • It makes sense that you would feel [emotion] given [past experiences].
    It makes sense that you would feel angry that your friend posted that photo of you, given that this is something you two have disagreed about before.

  • I would feel [emotion] if that happened to me, too.
    I would feel angry if that happened to me, too.

  • I totally understand feeling [emotion] in this situation.
    I totally understand feeling embarrassed in this situation.

4. Optional: follow up with a question.

Often, just reflecting how your teen is feeling will prompt further conversation, but sometimes, it is helpful to check that you guessed the emotion correctly (Is that right?) or to ask a brief follow up question (What else happened?)

Why validation works.

Another reason to use validation: there is good evidence that it works. Validation is a key component of Dialectical Behavior Therapy, a well-established treatment proven to be highly effective for teens with a range of mental health concerns. Research further suggests that teens whose parents are more validating report more positive family relationships and better ability to regulate their emotions. 

But am I just feeding into the drama?

One reason parents hesitate to use validation: they mistake validation for agreement. You might worry that by validating feelings, you are condoning bad or inappropriate behavior. But that’s not the case. The truth is that you can validate feelings and you can express when a behavior is not okay.

Let’s go back to our example of Sarah, the elbow-bashing commenter. Now imagine that your child is Sarah. Your child is the one who posted the mean comment on her friend’s TikTok. You found out about it because her friend’s mom called you and shared what happened. Your child, Sarah, tells you that she was just trying to be funny, it was just a joke, and clearly other people thought it was funny because her comment got a ton of likes. 

What do you say?

You want her to be empathetic, to recognize how her actions hurt others, so you jump in and say: Don’t you understand how that might have hurt your friend’s feelings!? You can’t just say things like that because they are funny. [Your teen rolls her eyes: It’s not my fault she’s so sensitive! It was a joke! You don’t get it!]

Or you want to make sure this kind of thing never happens again, so you put a consequence in place: You clearly cannot handle the privilege of having TikTok right now, so you are not allowed on TikTok for the rest of the week. [Your teen: You don’t GET IT!! Runs up to her room and slams the door.]

Building empathy and setting appropriate consequences are crucial, and you will do these things soon. But when your teen cuts off the conversation and runs to her room, it’s not accomplishing much of anything. 

Instead, consider starting with: It can be really fun and feel great when other people like our comments. It makes sense that you’d be surprised if you thought it was just a joke, and your friend interpreted it differently.

Here, we are validating the feelings (great, surprised), but not the behavior. It’s still not okay to make fun of a friend, and you’ll get to that in a minute. Just because we help teens recognize that how they are feeling makes sense, doesn’t mean we agree with the behavior they engaged in. After you validate those feelings, perhaps your teen will be more likely to listen. And that’s when you start the work of discussing empathy and determining appropriate consequences, if they’re needed.

The Bottom Line

Validation is an essential tech parenting skill. It makes conversations about tech go more smoothly. It shows your child that you can understand how they’re feeling. And it’s the foundation for successfully implementing other tech parenting strategies.

This blog is adapted from a post Jackie wrote for her email newsletter, Techno Sapiens. You can read the original and subscribe to Techno Sapiens here.