Melissa Brohner-Schneider is a licensed marriage and family therapist.
The other day, my 12 ½-year-old daughter got her braces off and I was struck by her sparkly smile, newfound maturity, and inner beauty that was emanating from my little baby. Without thinking, I posted a photo of her on Instagram, a proud mom sharing this milestone with my 127 followers.
Within 4 seconds, I received 16 text messages from my daughter, all in caps, screaming at me what had I done, what was I thinking, it was the ugliest photo ever, and that I had to remove it immediately. I was stunned. It was a gorgeous photo, which was echoed in the many comments and likes that followed my post. However, that didn’t matter. My 12 ½-year-old felt blindsided. Her appropriate level of anger and surprise mixed with self-consciousness was a reminder that I had forgotten an essential step–to check with her before posting.
Now in all fairness, I, like so many parents, have been posting cute little photos of my family for years. Not too many, but just enough to document important, funny or heartwarming moments along the way of development. It had never mattered much to my children, and in fact, often they felt proud to see their faces and our adventures on my social media feed.
But this time, we had entered new territory, as my two children were now adolescents, forging their own online identity, something they cared very much about, as teenagers do, and something we parents never had to deal with growing up. I realized at that moment, that the issue of trust was creeping up in a new way in my relationship with my children, and I wanted to handle it well.
I started to think about how we develop trust as human beings, especially in the context of parent-child relationships, something I spend much of my time reinforcing in my work as a family therapist. Trust versus mistrust is the first stage in psychologist Erik Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development. It is known as the most crucial stage of development, where a child between birth to 18 months old learns if they can trust the people around them, and their needs are consistently met, then a foundation of trust is established and they will feel safe and secure in the world. Erickson also believed if you were able to trust your caregivers at this stage, then you were also more likely to form trusting relationships with others throughout the rest of your life. No pressure, right? But it makes sense.
The issue of trust is huge, and the work doesn’t stop at 18 months old–it is constantly revisited in relationships. Add this thing called the World Wide Web and Parent Bloggers, and we have a whole new set of problems. There is even a term used for parents who share too much about their children online. It’s called “sharenting”. Whether it be in the context of a blog post or an Instagram photo, parents often use these forums to vent, boast, share and connect with anyone from close friends and acquaintances to complete strangers.
Sharing online can be fun, helpful and even cathartic to the parent, but their children may experience it differently. The concern is that by the time a child turns 12-13, they come to realize that they already have a social media presence, but not one they had a say in creating. Sometimes, this can lead to feelings of embarrassment and overexposure with peers, getting teased or bullied, often leaving a child to feel that their parent doesn’t have their back. Sometimes there are more severe repercussions, such as identity theft, digital kidnapping or photos repurposed for inappropriate or illegal means.
Fortunately, there is a simple solution. Think and ask. Think if it is a good idea to post and ask your child for permission. Giving the child the right to say no before you post about them can allow the child to have control over their digital footprint. Modeling to our children to pause and think about digital identity is an important tool as we all navigate this new world of online sharing. Just asking your child the simple question, “Do you mind if I share this photo or story with other people?” can show respect and reinforce the kind of trust with our child that we have been working on since the day they were born.
By the way, I took my own advice and asked my daughter’s permission to share our story before writing this article. Her answer was filled with pride and ownership and trust that I have her back. And she wanted me to clarify that she wasn’t that upset about the sparkly toothed photo I posted on Instagram. Oh, the turbulence of adolescence.
For stories on how people have worked through other conflicts and failures, especially within the context of relationships, listen to Melissa’s weekly podcast The Other F Word Podcast: Conversations About Failure on iTunes, Stitcher and at their website www.theotherfwordpodcast.com