Last week I was reading a fascinating article at The Daily Beast on the use of technology and some of the new research on the impact it is having on our lives. The article was called “Is the Web Driving Us Mad?”
In the entire 5 page article, one little line really stuck out to me. In talking about the use of laptops and phones they write:
“Children describe mothers and fathers unavailable in profound ways, present and yet not there at all.” (bottom of pp. 4)
I believe this statement really resonated with me because it confirms a lot of what I see in my work as a therapist. Parents who are there, but are not really there. Parents who are present, but just really unavailable, especially from an emotional perspective.
It’s a form of neglect that is often more difficult for people to put their fingers on because it can be so subtle and hard to explain.
It reminds me of a lot of men who say, “I don’t cheat on my wife or abuse my kids. I’m a good provider financially. What else do they want?” Well in fact, not cheating on your wife, or abusing your kids, and being a good financial provider is not enough. They want more. They want connection. They want emotional availability.
Or it reminds me a lot of some of the parents I see on the playgrounds, constantly on their phones, staring down at the screens, while their children are signaling for their attention, but never quite get it.
I had a person one time tell me that their dad was at every soccer game. He was there. But he was on his cell phone the entire game doing work. So he wasn’t really there. That dad would say he was present because he was there, but his kid would say he wasn’t available.
What all this unavailability creates in a person’s life is a type of deficit: Inadequacy or Insufficiency.
As children we are born into this world with a sense of expectation and desire for connection/attachment to our caregivers. In Contextual Family Therapy this is known as an entitlement: A term used to describe what one has coming to him/her. This is a a good thing. But to the degree that we don’t get the things that we are entitled to as children, a deficit is created. I’m not using entitlement here in a selfish way meaning, my daughter is entitled to all the candy and toys she wants. But what she is entitled to is that I pay attention to her, that I’m emotionally available, and that I’m there to meet her needs. To the degree that I can’t do these things (and parents are not perfect, so the goal is not perfection here), it creates an emotional deficit in my daughter.
If my daughter continually clamors for my attention while she is jumping on the trampoline, but I fail to acknowledge and pay attention to her…then she eventually learns not to desire or get that attention from me. She will look for it somewhere else, and perhaps in some unhealthy ways.
I think this what makes therapy so difficult for people at times. Lots of people say, “I had a good family. My parents didn’t fight. My needs were met. My parents didn’t abuse me.” But often as we pull back the layers we see a level of emotional neglect that many people are unaware of. They know something is missing, but they just can’t quite put their finger on it. It’s the person who often has a hard time connecting emotionally with their partner, or struggles with intimacy. The deficit created in their lives over a period of time often leaves them not desiring it anymore, or not knowing how to go about getting it in a healthy way.
So what does this all mean?
I’m writing this for awareness, because as a parent I have been more than guilty of staring at my phone while on the playground, or not closing my computer to engage my family. And I think the article is spot on. In many ways, our ability to be mobile with our technology has taken away some of the places of refuge in our lives where there wasn’t a struggle for our engagement with others.
When I go to the playground with my daughter I’m now being more intentional about leaving my cell phone home, or leaving it in my pocket. Leaving at home is better for me, because then I’m not wondering who just texted me when it vibrates.
When my son wants me to play Legos with him I’m paying attention to my computers being put away so he knows I’m fully engaged.
When my wife wants to talk with me/connect with me, I’m being more intentional about creating the space so we can emotionally connect (TV off, phone in other room, computer closed).
What can you be working on?