PEP Blog


A Teen and a “Burner Phone”

By Trish Pannuto

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, Teens Smuggle Burner Phones to Defy Parents, shared the Van Every family’s struggle to contain their daughter’s access to a cell phone after hours. The four-year battle began with the then 14-year-old daughter downloading apps such as Kik and SnapChat against her parents’ wishes and objecting to her parents’ limit of no cell phones after 8 pm. The resourceful teen began to sneak her phone out of her parents’ room after hours. After getting caught multiple times, she began to acquire so-called burner phones which, the article enlightened me, are available for sale from some entrepreneurial teen in just about every high school.

The parents crafted cell phone rules and the consequences for infractions. The daughter described the enforcement—and her mother concurred—as inconsistent, often losing her phone for longer than the agreed upon period. Fast forward to the age of 16 when the daughter began sending provocative pictures to a boyfriend. The parents, bankrupt of ideas when she refused to provide her parents with the passcode for the phone, said that “they didn’t want to enable her behavior and told her that if she wouldn’t abide by their rules, she could move out.” And that she did.

We don’t know all of the nuances of their story and the relationships here, but I have no doubt that aspects of this story play out in homes across the country, though hopefully resolving before the U-Haul pulls up.


The article brought to mind Dr. Michael Bradley’s presentation at our Noted Parenting Author Talk several years ago. In his talk Dr. Bradley used “going to the mat,” a wrestling metaphor, to describe similar scenarios. He said that we can threaten to take our teen’s bedroom door off its hinges and remove every stick of furniture, leaving nothing but the floor boards, and still not get our kids to capitulate or even cede to our point of view. Perhaps this escalation is what happened to the Van Every family.

For better or for worse, cellphones and technology are here to stay. Despite our best efforts to manage our kids’ use of technology, it strains and ruins relationships.

Every class here at PEP includes parents expressing anger and exasperation about managing screen time. We describe anger as a symptom of an underlying issue, such as feeling hurt or fearful for our children’s safety. Maybe parents despair about cell phones and technology is emblematic of our:

  • Lack of control — We can’t overhear conversations on SnapChat and other instant-messaging apps.
  • Fear – Who are they communicating with and what’s really going on in their private lives?
  • Concern – The lack of sleep, the intensity of academics and our personal desire to see them succeed.
  • Sadness – Let’s face it, who doesn’t miss the cuddly little creature that once shared everything in exhausting detail and now seems so closed off and secretive?

So what’s one to do?

  1. Start early. Identify what your family values are around technology and screens. Take a parenting class where you’ll learn how to establish and maintain effective limits — and don’t wait until the horse is out of the barn.
  2. Connect before correcting. This pivotal bit of wisdom from Dr. Tina Payne Bryson is important on two levels:
    • In the moment: When screen time is up, get down on your child’s level, establish a connection by looking at them eye-to-eye and, with a gentle hand on their arm as an interruption signal, and state the limit in a firm and friendly way. “Screen time is up.”
    • For the long haul: We don’t influence our children by being the loudest voice in the room. To have real influence as our children grow up, we have to have a relationship and that means connecting with them in deeper ways – beyond questions about homework, carpools, and screen time.
  3. Communication, communication, communication. By its very definition, communication means expressing thoughts, feelings, and information. That doesn’t mean a broadcasting a barrage of directives: “get your homework done, get your shoes on, turn that thing off.” It means communicating your:
    • Lack of control – “When I was a kid the only way we could talk to our friends was on the phone tethered to the wall – my parents, or worse yet, my brother, heard everything.”
    • Fear – It is the job of teenagers to individuate from parents. Rather than trying to control their thoughts and feelings, get curious: “Wow it occurs to me that it’s prom season. What does that look like at school, how does it feel to witness one of those ‘promposals?'” “There are so many news stories lately about the opioid epidemic, it scares the hell out of me. Do you think drugs like this are an issue in your school?”
    • Concern – “Jeez in a few years, you’ll be heading off to college where you’ll have to manage your own time. I know I’m a zombie when I don’t have enough sleep – my brain actually feels like Jello and I’m unable to think. When you’re on your phone late at night, I feel worried about…”
    • Sadness – Maybe the sadness is ours to hold on to, and the fact that they’re growing up and doing what they’re meant to do (individuate) isn’t really their problem, it’s something for us to wrestle with. To soothe that sadness, perhaps you ask for a hug and let it linger a little longer or offer a back rub.

Like all important topics, the conversations we have with our kids about technology are not one and done. The technology will change and as your kids demonstrate greater responsibility, your boundaries should, too. Limits will be tested, agreements will be broken and there will be feelings, it’s what you do in these moments that really matter.

With that in mind, I will make an argument for developing some skills around connection and communication. In fact, the communication strategies that you’ll learn in our classes extend beyond parenting and apply to all of your relationships at home and at work. We have two, four-week online classes that begin on the first Saturday of each month. Encouragement! Building Your Child’s Confidence from the Inside Out and Redefining Discipline: A No Gimmicks Guide to Raising Responsible, Respectful Kids. 


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Parent Encouragement Program
10100 Connecticut Ave.
Kensington, MD 20895

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