I took my teens phone. Now what?

Picture this…..

While picking your teen up from school, you ask, “How was your day?”

Your Teen: “OMG! Why are you so nosey!”

Taking a deep breath, you drive home in tense silence. Inside the house, you say, “Please put your clothes away like I asked.”

Your teen: “Ffft. Why does it matter? They’re already clean.” Insert sneer.

Digging deep to find compassion for your teen who obviously had a hard day or is in a hormonal vortex, you decide to let it go. Again.

A few hours later, you hear your teen using intentionally hurtful statements and sucking your other child into the vortex. Your eyebrow is furrowing, lips are pursed, and body temperature is rising.

Don’t yell. Just don’t yell.

Somehow saying this in your head keeps you from boiling over but you’re not sure how much longer you can tolerate their behavior. You know yelling doesn’t work; yet pretending the situation will change hasn’t either.

Dinner is on the table and you’re praying the hormonal vortex doesn’t show up like a foul smell to ruin the evening for everyone. You give your partner a quick heads up in a whisper voice from behind the fridge door to rally support over the next half hour.

Sitting down, you see your teen’s look of disdain and feel the tension rising. In your most collected voice, you ask, “Please pass the potatoes.”

That’s all it took to light the fuse.

Your teens ire escalates and after a short shouting match, they jump up and storm off to their room.

You, so fed up and past your limit, follow in hot pursuit with flushed face, heart racing, sweating palms, and in one swift motion, you reach for the ultimate leverage point: their phone.

Now what?

If this sounds familiar, please know you’re not alone. Parents reach out to me regularly about this exact thing and I want to share what works to change your teen’s behaviour AND increase respect in the relationship.

First, there’s rage.

If you’ve previously threatened to take away your teen’s phone but don’t follow through, your teen likely thought you were full of hot air. Now you’ve actually taken it, they’re shocked and have hit a level of anger you haven’t seen since visiting the Tiger enclosure at the Zoo just before feeding time.

Rage: intense, passionate anger with sometimes aggressive behaviour and a stream of heated language.

Your teen isn’t possessed. Smartphones were created to be addictive and the dopamine fix your teen’s brain has become accustomed to from constant connectivity, coupled with a lack of maturity for self-regulation is rearing its ugly head.

Then there’s bargaining.

After the adrenalin of fight or flight wears off and your teen realizes you’re not bullshitting this time, they start bargaining. And I mean HARD. All of sudden they’re full of enthusiasm to clean (with a toothbrush), speak in syrupy sweet tones, and run for not only child of the year, but sibling too. Offers are empty unless they act on them.

When bargaining doesn’t work, it devolves into begging or even threatening. Your teen is reminding you of all their redeeming qualities and how, for the most part, they’re not that bad – so you really don’t have to keep their phone.

“PPPPPAAAAAALLLLLLLEEEEEAAAAASSSSEEEE can I have it back?? I promise I won’t do that again”. Said every teen that’s ever lived. Everything after that is a ‘fill in the blank’ litany of reasons, i.e. “I need my music to listen to because it helps me concentrate.”

Next comes apathy.

This is a savvy move made to catch you off guard. You see, your teen thinks you’re taking the phone purely to piss them off and retaliate. If they flip into apathy, ‘that’s fine, I don’t care’, said in their best melancholy voice, they think you have nothing on them. Don’t be fooled.

In fact, all of a sudden they care even less about school and don’t get up on time to catch the bus or participate in online learning. Apathy in this situation is your teen’s passive-aggressive way of trying to retaliate and get back the control they felt they had.

*Please don’t confuse your child’s apathy about pandemic homeschooling with apathy as retaliation. They’re entirely different and you can read more here.

Now reality sets in.

‘Holy crap! My parents are actually serious 😳😳 They’re actually keeping my phone!

Many parents message me at or just before this point because they’re are in a pattern of hot potato with their teen – taking the phone and giving it back – and are unclear how to create the change they want.

This is the place behaviour change begins for both of you. If you take anything from this post, please let it be the steps I’ve outlined below.

  • Be decisive. If you’re going to take their phone, take it. Don’t threaten or waffle or your teen has your number faster than my grandma could yell BINGO on O71 during Seniors night at the care home. Teenagers don’t respect wishy-washy boundaries or discipline. You don’t have to know how long you’ll have the phone right now, but it becomes important later in this process.

I.e. “I’m taking your phone for now. I’ll discuss this with you once I’ve thought more about this situation and we’re both ready to talk.”

  • Model respect. Engaging in a pissing match will only get you more conflict and disrespectful behaviour with toxic undertones. No matter what your teen dishes out in the drama, anger and rage stage, breathe, remain calm and respectful or your teen knows they’ve got you. Using ‘I’ statements to take ownership rather than ‘You’ statements which generally blame models self-regulation and mindfulness in tough situations.

Removing your teens phone does NOT give you carte blanche to comb through it at any time unless you have specific reason to. In that case, have your teen present and remain transparent about your reasoning and intentions.

Teen: “I hate you! You’re the meanest parents EVER! You don’t love me; you just use me for chores around the house”. ⬅️ Fill in your teen’s favourite lines 🙄

You: “I hear you’re angry. It’s never been ok to speak to me or your siblings the way you did today. I’ve found your behaviour increasingly disrespectful over the last week and no matter how nicely I asked, nothing seemed to change. I’m choosing to take your phone for a time while we work through this.”

  • Be empathetic. Even though you didn’t grow up with a phone and see it as a peripheral privilege for your teen, they’ve grown up in a time where it’s another appendage and believe it gives oxygen or life itself. The new culture of digital connectivity with their social network has become the norm and a lifeline for many teens during this pandemic.

Teen: “I’m missing all the conversations my friends are having. They’re probably talking about me now and how awful you are!”

You: “I hear this is hard for you. I imagine not having your phone is frustrating and you’re doing a great job even though it feels hard.”

  • Be consistent. I can’t stress this enough. If you feel like a pinball stuck in a machine and bouncing back and forth between steps 1, 2 and 3 so fast your head is spinning and you just want to get off the ride, you’re doing it right. Giving up now will only get you more of what you already had.
  • Be clear. Now that you’ve set the tone for calmer, more respectful conversations, you must be clear on how your teen will earn back their phone. FAILING TO DO SO WILL INCREASE ANXIETY AND CONFLICT AND IS MORE ABOUT POWER THAN CHANGE. Set reasonable, daily goalposts for your teen based on behaviour and attitude and continue to this process for up to a week.

i.e. Helping cook dinner, grocery shopping, doing laundry or other cleaning, washing the dishes (all great opportunities to spend time together, even if it’s in silence) and choosing respectful ways to communicate with family.

  • Be their champion. What’s your inside voice saying when you screw up? Generally, not nice things that build confidence or self-esteem and your teen is no different. For every action they take toward the change and relationship you do want, offer clear affirmation.

i.e. “Thank you for washing the dishes tonight. I feel respected and appreciate your contribution to keeping our house clean.”

“I know some of these tasks are new for you and you’re doing a great job at learning them. I’m happy to help if you’d like.”

“I heard how you spoke to your sister after school today and I appreciate you being kind and respectful.”

  • Stay in the conversation. Checking in regularly is key to reinforce the above points, and to begin redefining your relationship. Have you ever asked your teen what respect looks like for them? I guarantee your teen’s list will be fodder for negotiation and a little unrealistic but it’s the best place to start changing your relationship. If you both make a list and pick one thing each week that respects each other more, you’re teaching that relationships are 2-way and both parties need to invest to keep them healthy.

Frequent checkpoints are the only way to navigate the hormone rollercoaster so your relationship is resilient AND respectful while maintaining clear boundaries in the process.

  • Be predictable. If a similar situation arises in the future: rinse and repeat. Hoping this is a ‘one and done thing’ where you can just threaten without follow through is fantasy. Teenagers respect and need predictability even though they’re constantly pushing limits. When they know the consequences to stepping over clear boundaries, you’re more likely to see behaviour change and break the cycle.
  • Be reasonable. Removing your teen’s phone may have worked this time, but it’s NOT the ‘fix all’ for all transgressions. If the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, you’ll lose more respect than you had gained by getting this far. Keeping your teen’s phone for more than a week, if you’re in quarantine without other social contact, may increase feelings of isolation, anxiety and depression.

Phew! Sounds like a lot, right? These are the exact steps I gave to a stressed-out mom and in 5 days her teen was turning around so they could discuss what they both needed to stop the pattern and create a healthier relationship.

Phew! Sounds like a lot, right? These are the exact steps I gave to a stressed-out mom and in 5 days her teen was turning around so they could discuss what they both needed to stop the pattern and create a healthier relationship. These are the topics I talk about and offer tips and resources every Wednesday night in my FREE Facebook community for parents. If you’re not a part of it yet, jump in now! 

2 Responses

  1. Definitely all sounds reasonable to me! We went through this with our oldest children, wish I had this then, now we are on our adopted kids and we don’t do the phones, but they are homeschooled and there are many reasons why! We did figure out way back how damaging these phones can be and to do what you say etc. thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you for sharing your experience Jessica. Taking phones is more about finding the pain point and using coercion or manipulation which doesn’t change behaviour. In fact, it’s been proven to increase defiance! However, in times where taking the phone is appropriate, understanding firm boundaries is critical for increasing respect while mentoring children through behaviour change.

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