How to take a screen away from your kid without a raging meltdown
This week I witnessed a miracle. Just a few feet away from me in a restaurant, a small child was playing with his mother’s phone. She wanted the phone back, so she took it. And there were no tears or protests!
If this seems as miraculous to you as it did to me, then you are probably familiar with the challenge of wrapping up any sort of screen time. Whatever your digital parenting style, there’s almost certainly a moment each week (or day, or hour) when you have to wrestle a device out of your kid’s hands. There is nothing like the moment of having to turn off a screen, or hand back a device, to provoke a dazzling range of complaints, outbursts or arguments from your kid.
In our own family, the moment of turning off screens has been the most frequent flashpoint for fights and meltdowns. But for that very reason, screen time has also proven to be fertile ground for building core skills around managing frustration and negotiating compromise. Our approach to this challenge has been profoundly shaped by Ross Greene’s framework for identifying “lagging skills” and collaborating with kids to find a “plan b” solution to recurring issues — that is, a solution other than “do what I say or else”.
For our 9-year-old son, wrapping up screen time has long been what Greene terms an “unsolved problem”: a set of “specific expectations a child is having difficulty meeting”. Ending screen time is tough because it requires a few skill sets that a lot of younger kids seem to lack: the ability to transition from one activity to another, and in particular, from a more preferred to a less preferred activity. Accurately tracking the passage of time, particularly when engaged in an enjoyable activity. Managing frustration — like the frustration of turning off a game or TV show.
Including both our kids in the work of developing an approach to screen time has been essential in helping them build all of these skills. That’s partly because the simple act of talking about screen time helps the kids get some perspective on their own use of screens, and to think proactively about how they’ll manage the challenge of turning off. But it’s also because developing and sticking to that game plan has helped our kids commit to practices (like deep breathing) that have built their capacity for self-regulation.
Here’s what’s worked for us:
Before you turn on the screen
- Set clear rules for screen time. It’s easier for kids to switch off a screen if they know when and how they’ll be able to have their next dose. Set up clear rules for screen time, specifying which devices (or even which specific apps) are allowed on which days or during which times. (Some families do well with total limits on hours per day/week instead.) Consult your kids on the rules, and if they raise reasonable concerns, adapt your rules accordingly. We keep a screen time policy posted in our living room at all times, and we revise our rules roughly every six months, to reflect our current circumstances. (We have different rules over summer vacation, and have revised our rules as the kids get older.)
- Choose interruptible activities. Some screen activities are more likely to lead to conflict when it comes time to wrap up. Ideally, your screen rules will let your child ladder down from more to less engrossing on-screen activities — for example, setting up a schedule that allows for a short TV show after video game time. When you’re first introducing screen time to your child, stay away from activities that are extremely “hooking” (like games that involve levelling up), so that your child can build their capacity to turn off before you start to challenge that capacity with highly compulsive activities.
- Schedule screen time for a time before a desired activity. If screen time is allowed at specific times of day, make sure that whatever comes after screen time is something your kid actually enjoys. It could be reading time, game time or dessert; it probably shouldn’t be homework, bath time or toothbrushing.
- Use timed screen limits. If your child’s screen time takes place on a device that supports time-based parental restrictions (like a computer), set the device to turn off at a specific time (or after a specific number of minutes). For many kids it’s easier to accept limits that are baked into the device than it is to accept a parent physically taking away a computer or phone.
- Make a plan for what happens when screen time is up. Talk with your child about how you can help them make the transition when screen time ends, including a reminder to save their progress if they’re playing a game or working on a project. If your chid will find it helpful, consider writing up a transition plan to refer to in a moment of need. For example, our Minecraft policy includes:
It is your responsibility to ensure a smooth transition from Minecraft at the end of your activity without whining, yelling or requests for more time. Before you begin playing, you will need to make a plan for how you will transition from Minecraft to your next activity when game time ends, and tell us your plan before you start playing. That plan might include:
• Taking three deep breaths
• Going for a walk around the block
• Getting out your favorite book, and having it waiting for you
• Asking us to set up a board game we can play when you are done with Minecraft
- Plan for your own transition. It’s very tempting to treat kid screen time as parent work time, but if you’re engrossed in a task when your kid’s time is up, you may be tempted to give into the request for “five more minutes” (which becomes ten, which becomes twenty) rather than interrupt your own work. Make sure that you’ll have the time and attention to handle the transition from screen time, even if it’s bumpy, and factor that into your screen time rules and schedules, if need be. For example, we only allow console time once a week, and only at 5:30 pm — because I know that the end of console time often brings meltdowns, and knowing that my husband will be home in time for the meltdown is easier than facing that prospect alone.
While the screen is on
- Remind your child when screen time will end. When you turn the screen on, remind the child exactly when it will end. If your child is allowed 30 minutes of screen time, and you’re handing over the smartphone at 5 pm, point out that screen time will end at 5:30.
- Use a countdown timer. To help your child keep track of how much screen time remains, use a visual timer and/or a set of countdown timers. We’ve had great success using our Amazon Echo: when our kids get their half-hour of console time, I not only set a timer for 30 minutes, but also set timers for 20, 25 and 28 minutes. That way I can give them reminders that they have 10 minutes left, five minutes left, and finally, two minutes left. (Now that the Echo has a dev kit, I’m hoping someone will make a countdown timer that does that for me!)
- Stay nearby. Make sure you are nearby while your child is engaged in any screen activity from which it’s difficult to disengage — or using any device that provides access to hard-to-turn-off applications. That way, you can prevent your child from using any game or app they consistently refuse to turn off, and can also provide some reminders about how much screen time remains. You can also offer advice on how to plan their transition, based on what they’re doing: when my kids are watching YouTube videos, I look at how long the video is, and point out if they won’t have time to watch another once that video wraps up. The same thing goes for playing games with different levels or scenes: if they’re a few minutes from the end of screen time when they reach the end of a level, I suggest that they save their game at that point.
- Observe your kid’s reactions. I keep track of the impact that different screen activities have on my kids by watching their behavior during screen time. My son is very mellow when playing some games, while there are others that clearly wind him up. When he’s playing something that has him particularly excited (which is easy to tell, because he starts jumping up and down), I take extra care in preparing him to make a transition.
- Consider a single extension. Many, many kids will ask for “five more minutes” when it comes time to wrap up their screen time. Some kids will accept a firm “no”, and make their transition, but for other kids, it’s easier to accept an end to screen time if they know they can request a single extension when they want to wrap up a particular level or creation before screen time ends. If you’re going to allow occasional extensions, let your kids know that’s part of the ground rules for screen time, and set a hard limit on the maximum extension (probably five or ten minutes). But don’t provide that extension as five more minutes: ask your child how long she needs to finish what she’s doing (and save if necessary), and then set a timer for that amount of time. (Again, offering a reminder when there’s just one or two minutes left on that extension.) Keep those extensions to a maximum of ten minutes or you’re into a whole other screen session.
After screen time
- Give your child a snack. If your child has trouble transitioning from screens, makes sure to provide a snack as soon as screen time ends. Kids may not notice they’re hungry while they’re absorbed in a screen, but they’ll still melt down if their blood sugar has dipped.
- Turn off your own screens. Your child is going to have a hard time turning off her screen if you’re still using yours. Put your phone and computer away for half an hour (at least) after your child’s screen time wraps.
- Transition to another enjoyable activity. As soon as screen time ends, offer your child another activity that he enjoys. If your screen plan includes “laddering down”, that could involve transferring from one screen to another: our son often makes the transition from Minecraft time by watching an episode of Mythbusters. Setting out a boardgames or dessert is another great approach.
- Acknowledge your kid’s struggles. Make room for your child’s frustration or anger when screen time ends. Thanks to our experience working with Patti Drobot of the Neufeld Institute, we learned that our son often needs us to articulate the sadness underneath that frustration: a simple statement like “I can see it makes you really sad that game time is over” lets your child see that you care about his feelings, and can help him recognize his own emotions, which is the first step in learning to manage them. It’s just as important to acknowledge the victories: when your child transitions smoothly from game time, provide some positive feedback, particularly if it’s been a struggle in the past.
- Check in with your child. Unless you’re in full post-screen meltdown, ask your child how she’s feeling after screen time wraps up. Encouraging kids to notice how screens affect their minds and bodies is crucial to helping them develop a healthy relationship to screens. I keep a simple heart rate app on my phone, and used that to track my son’s heart rate before and after screen time for a few weeks, so that he could notice the impact screen time had on his body. More recently, I’ve taken a moment at the end of screen time, and asked him to close his eyes, scan his body and tell me what he’s feeling.
- Remove meltdown triggers. If there are specific screen activities that consistently trigger meltdowns when it’s time to turn off the screen, remove those activities from your child’s repertoire for at least six months. Let your kids know that any games they can’t turn off are games they won’t be allowed to play.
Remember that the transition from screen time isn’t simply an unavoidable side effect of allowing your kids some access to technology. It’s actually one of the most useful experiences your child will have with technology, because, with your guidance, it’s a chance for them to build their ability to switch off.
Switching off isn’t just an unsolved problem for many kids: it’s an unsolved problem for lots of adults, too. By embracing our screen struggles as a chance to work on core skills like managing transitions and frustration — rather than seeing screens as the problem to be solved — we can turn technology battles into fruitful opportunities for building our kids’ capacities, and our own.