I have run into this issue lately working with my teenage clients. They answer texts during therapy. Now I have to admit, I am an iPhone junky myself, so I can see the inclination. My iPhone alerts are like a baby calling. I know when my iPhone wants its mama even when it’s buried in my purse or far away in another room. *Ding!* That’s a text! Mama’s coming! While I’m being honest, I actually texted during my cardio workout the other day. So embarrassing. Why don’t I just get me a teacup poodle to put in my gym bag to complete the look? But it was important! At least I don’t have too loud conversations on public transit like the one I overhead last night: “Pookie! You know I want to see the kids, but I’m busy! Damn!” Everyone on the train knows about your marital issues. Fabulous.
So kids aren’t the only culprits.
In fact, I have had parents answer calls in the middle of presentations about whether or not their child has a disability. I have had parents check their email while their kid is telling them how they feel. A while back, I was working with a kid who did a drawing for me that was so telling. I have kids do what is called a “Kinetic Family Drawing” which is essentially a drawing of each family member doing something (to avoid the stick figure linear array and to get more at the roles the family members have). This girl, about age 12, drew a picture of her sitting on a chair in between her two parents, each with a cell phone on their ears, with a bubble coming out of their mouths saying, “Blah! Blah! Blah!” We had been talking for a while about her feelings, it was the end of the session, and I asked her, “Would you feel comfortable with me sharing this with your parents?” She said okay. I asked her, “Shall we bring them in right now?” She said, “Oooh. It’s just like Oprah. Bring them in.” Ha! I love that girl.
So what do you do when a kid is texting during treatment? I have taken several approaches. First, I think about the quality of the texting. Is it just one text and they say, “Sorry, I just have to respond to this because it’s my friend waiting for me?” Or, is it whenever we start talking about a touchy subject, the phone comes out? These are qualitatively different. I typically “notice and explore” to see if it is poor cell phone manners or a symptoms of something else (e.g. boredom, avoidance, passive aggressiveness). I say something like, “I notice when we started talking about school, you started texting. Is this an uncomfortable subject for you?” or “I notice that in the first few minutes of our session, you seem distracted with your phone. Can you tell me what that is about?” Usually, this ends up being a great starting point for other issues, such as parents trying to control them and their cell phone use, or how they get in trouble at school for their phone, or even how friends misinterpret what they text and they don’t understand why. I would have missed all that good stuff if I had been authoritarian about it, and stated “There are no cell phones during therapy.”*
Much of the time, when the phone comes out, it is just absent-minded poor cell phone etiquette.** So how do I address that? I think about what the underlying social skill violation is, and what the appropriate teaching point should be (usually, that it's rude to not pay attention to someone sitting 2 feet from you). Then, and give an “I message” to the student. As in: “I feel left out when you answer a text from your friend during session. Would you like to share what you are texting about?” Nine times out of ten, I only have to say that once, and I never see the phone again. On that tenth time, they sometimes share what the texting is about and it's a good topic to discuss in therapy. I can only hope my "I message" also planted the seed for preventing them from being that person who texts while doing cardio at the gym. Or at least that person who feels shame about it….
*In the public schools, I’m more rigid than in private practice. If there is a school-wide no cell phone rule, I give a warning and tell them the rules still apply in my office. They usually just put it away, no prob.
**In searching for a New York Times article I read a while back about how kids feel neglected by their parents because of excessive Blackberry use, I found this nice one on teaching kids cell phone etiquette. I couldn't find the original article I was looking for, so if anyone has the link, please share!