Parents often take responsibility for their kids’ screen-free time by structuring activities for them. They think that if kids are upset or bored without electronic entertainment, they must provide another activity for them to do. But this is just another form of rescuing our kids.
When parents are quick to step in with activities to distract kids from boredom or anger about not having their screens, they inadvertently rob children of the opportunity to develop problem solving skills and resilience.
Turning off the TV is a challenge for many kids and families.
Have faith in them to work through this “suffering” to feel more capable in managing their time. When you have faith in your children to handle their feelings, they will learn to have faith in themselves, too.
It is important that parents do not make children suffer, but sometimes it is most helpful to “allow” them to suffer with support. Parents too often (in the name of love) want to protect their children from struggle.
They don’t realize that their children need to struggle, to deal with disappointment, and to solve their own problems so they can develop their emotional muscles and the skills necessary for the even bigger struggles they will encounter throughout their lives.
When allowing children to suffer…
- Express empathy. “You are really angry about not being able to play your video game right now. I understand.”
- Avoid lectures.
- Do not rescue. It’s OK to feel upset.
- Let them know you have faith in them to figure out what to do.
When a child “suffers” because she can’t watch the show she wants, allowing her to endure this experience can help her develop her resiliency muscles. She learns that she can survive the ups and downs of life, as well as the decision of what to do with her time when there are no screens to watch. The support parents can offer is to validate her feelings, but avoid solving the ultimate problem of what to do instead. Say, “I can see this is very upsetting to you. It can be disappointing when we don’t get what we want.” Period. Some parents overdo validating feelings; they go on and on with the hope that validating feelings will take away the suffering.
Validate a child’s feelings and then allow her to recover from those feelings. Then comes the tough part— no rescuing and no lectures. Simply have faith that she can get over her disappointment and figure out what she can do with herself.
Children will learn to get past the disappointment of reduced screen time, and they will be able to develop their imagination and creativity in solving the problem of, “What should I do?” Parents just need to provide an atmosphere of loving support that does not include “bawling them out” (lecturing on how many other toys, games, crafts, and activities there are available to do), and “bailing them out” (fixing their boredom by providing a new activity). Have faith in your children; they will grow stronger for it.
Decide What Screen Limits You Will Set
You have set a limit on screen time with kindness and firmness. You have faith in your children to handle their unhappy feelings about the limit. Now comes the part where you must decide what you will do.
Rather than rescuing a child from solving their problem of, “Now what can I do?” when the screens are turned off, have faith in them to work it out themselves. Since this usually takes time, it is helpful for you to decide what to do that does not include lectures or rescue in the presence of their turbulent feelings.
- “No TV until after homework is done. I will be in the kitchen making dinner. Anyone is welcome to come work in there with me.”
- “You may watch a half-hour of TV. You can turn it off when it the time is up, or I will.”
- “Everyone must turn their phones off during dinner. I will put mine away and meet you at the table.”
- “We’re not going to play video games today. I am going for a bike ride and would love for you to join me.”
- “We have discussed the responsibilities that go along with the privileges of having electronic equipment. When you don’t keep our agreements for the responsibilities, I will confiscate the equipment until you are ready to try again.”
- “I know you are disappointed and I’m going to give you a big hug; so you’d better run if you don’t want one.” Stating what you will do allows children to decide what they will do in the face of a limit that has been set. You are communicating, “I decided what I will do; what will you do?” They may continue to cry, complain, and have difficult feelings about the limit, and that’s OK. They may simply need more time to express and recover from their disappointment. By deciding what you will do, you are providing an example, while ultimately turning the decision over to the child.
Follow Through On Screen Time Limits
Many parents have great intentions to set limits around and manage their children’s screen time, but for one reason or another, the limits are never held. Or they’re not held consistently. Sometimes a lack of follow through on screen time limits is due to losing track of time—you tell your kids they can watch a half-hour of television, and before you know it, an hour or more has gone by because you were absorbed in other tasks. Or maybe you don’t really want screen time to end because will mean the kids will go back to their arguing, bickering, or fighting; the screen is a welcome distraction and you’re not ready to handle the problems that come when it gets turned off. Or perhaps you just don’t want to be “the bad guy” and have to tell your kids that screen time is over. They’re enjoying the time, and it’s tough to be the one who brings it to an end.
Whatever the reason, not following through on a limit you have set about your child’s time on front of a video screen sends a few messages:
- Limits on screens are not important.
- You don’t care what they do with their time.
- You don’t really mean what you say.
- It’s OK to keep playing or watching, even when you’ve said stop.
- You don’t prioritize family engagement.
- You lack confidence as a parent.
Children know when you mean what you say and when you don’t. It is really that simple. If you say it, mean it, and if you mean it, follow through. Parents sometimes believe that giving children what they want will show them that they are loved. But children will suffer much more throughout their lives if they develop the belief that love means others should take care of them and give them whatever they want.
They will suffer when they don’t learn they can survive disappointments in life—including setting limits around electronics—and discover how capable they are in the process. Permissiveness is not the way to help children develop initiative or any other valuable social or life skill. Parents who say what they mean and mean what they say do not have to use a lot of words. In fact, the fewer words used, the better. When you use a lot of words you are lecturing, and children tune out lectures. One reason you may use a lot of words is that you are trying to convince yourself, as well as your child, that what you want is okay. If what you are asking is reasonable, have confidence in your request.
When it is time for TV or video games or computer play to be over, ensure that it does indeed end in a timely manner. You may need to help your children stick to the media limits by following through with kind and firm action. It may take a while for kids to get used to your decisiveness about the limits, but when you are able to follow through each time, they will understand that you mean what you say when it comes to limits on electronics. Say it; mean it; and follow-through.
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