Can Using a Webcam Cause Distress in a 30-month Old?

Reader’s Question

My 2 1/2-year-old son has three half-siblings (8, 11 and 13) who live out of state. His siblings’ mother is pressuring us into setting up a webcam so that his siblings can “see him”. While this may make the three older half-siblings feel better about missing their half-brother, might it cause distress for the 2 1/2-year-old, who may not understand that his siblings are on TV but not “here”?

Psychologist’s Reply

Actually this is a great idea. I provided webcams to my own children last Christmas holiday and now everybody calls everybody.

Will this psychologically harm your 2 1/2-year-old son? Not at all. If we think about it, he doesn’t yet understand the concept that they are his relatives, even when you tell him. At 30 months, he is not developmentally capable of understanding half-siblings, in-laws, ex-laws, and even the relationship between people at home. He can use the labels for those around him as parents and brothers or sisters — but he doesn’t understand what those labels mean. Concepts related to television, live broadcasting, etc. are years away yet.

The webcam will be a great opportunity for everyone — at least for the children. Your son will quickly link the computer monitor with those three older children and will mention their name when he’s near the computer. My four-year-old grandson wants to call his cousins each time he sees a computer. There is no psychological problem here and it’s great for the children involved.

However, adults sometimes have difficulty with the video connections and communications you describe…but it’s not related to the children. Most divorce experiences contain some negative “emotional memory” — memories of intense emotions such as anger, resentment, rejection, depression, bitterness, etc. The Emotional Memories of that earlier relationship can be triggered by old songs, restaurants, photos, etc. The use of a webcam can trigger strong emotional memories if hard feelings persist. A webcam picture of an ex-spouse is not only a picture but the voice, comments, opinions, movements, and physical appearance of the ex-spouse — that’s a lot of memory triggers. This is why many people hesitate to connect households where the adults have negative or uncomfortable emotional memories.

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A webcam connection between “ex” households can also spark some insecurity and even jealousy with new partners/spouses. The desire for a connection might be viewed as an attempt to establish a connection with the ex-spouse. If this is an issue,

  1. allow the non-ex spouse to arrange the webcam calls,
  2. place the calls on a schedule and don’t take random calling,
  3. emphasize that it’s a call for the children, not the adults, and
  4. present your marriage as a team when making the calls.

I actually don’t sense any hidden agendas here — just an opportunity for children to maintain a connection in a format that is fun for all of them.

In short, a webcam between families is a great idea for the children and is psychologically healthy. It may produce some emotional discomfort for the adults involved, creating a need for an adult strategy to deal with issues of ex’s, insecurity, emotional memories, etc. In the long run, you may find this a very healthy line of communication between households with children in common.

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