Managing device/tech use in children with emotional and behavioural challenges (reducing the meltdowns when screens and devices are turned off)

One of the most common stressors for parents/caregivers in 2018 is managing their children's device or technology usage.  This is true for all families, but particularly true for children with behavioural, social and emotional challenges.  It can be particularly difficult for these families because:

  • These children are sometimes managing their distress/overload/stressors by using screens/devices/gaming to cope with life - and find it harder than other children to just "switch off"
  • Parents/caregivers of children with challenges are usually dealing with more stress than the average parent - and therefore find it especially hard to find the huge emotional resources required in managing tech use in their children.
  • Children with emotional/social/behavioural challenges are more likely to experience stronger than average frustration and disappointment - meaning turning screens off is even tougher for them

It's not surprising then that putting limits on these activities is extremely difficult for parents/caregivers AND children.  Most parents understand they DO need to do this – but it’s one of the hardest issues they face.

Here are 10 ideas which may make this issue easier to manage for some families.  Please note that I’ve listed these as “ideas”, not as “rules” – as not all of the points below will be useful or essential for all families. 

Idea 1. Talk positively about screens, gaming and technology – at least some of the time.

When as adults we cheerfully acknowledge the benefits that screens offer children (they can be challenging, interesting, fun, stress-relieving, brain boosting, co-operative, and social skill building) then this makes us feel better about managing this issue in our children.  

And given that parents/caregivers of children with extra emotional/behavioural/social needs are already dealing with a lot of stress, anything that makes them feel even slightly more relaxed is often helpful. 

As well as making parents/caregivers feel more hopeful, talking positively about screens, gaming and technology often relaxes children who feel that adults “get” their enjoyment of screens. It can also make them more co-operative and willing to hear concerns.

Talking positively might be sentences like:

  • Wow, that looks fun.
  • Tell me about where you are up to on that game?
  • It's great you can talk to your friends so easily.
  • That video/channel/show makes me laugh.
  • Looks like that game tests your brain.
  • What an interesting show.
  • It's helpful you can ask for help/get ideas on your homework so quickly.

And generally avoiding sentences like:

  • I hate those screens
  • What a waste of time
  • I wish I'd never given you a (ipad/device/computer)

Idea 2. Talk calmly with children about the problems and pitfalls that screens, gaming and technology bring to children – in an ongoing, “non shaming” way.

As well as acknowledging the benefits, we need to continue to teach children about the potential problems for them in having too much/the wrong kind of technology use. 

This means avoiding labelling device use/tech/gaming as “all bad” but instead calmly identifying the specific problems, one at a time, with children.  

For example, device use/tech/gaming can bring about specific problems such as: sleep issues, reduction in family time, reduction in physical activity/interests, reduction in creative time/interests, increase in exposure to violent or inappropriate material, conflict with peers and exposure to dangers.  Focusing on these specific problems helps children and families think of plans to manage the issues, and helps educate children rather than them being alienated by our general negativity.    This is particularly important for children with additional emotional needs because they are not always able to identify them on their own.  This means having conversations which start like this:

  • Let's talk about the tough things that can happen to our sleep when we use technology too close to bedtime
  • I'd like to tell you about the problems that can occur when we don't do enough exercise during the day
  • Let's talk about the disadvantages of not having enough creative activity for us as humans
  • What do you know about the dangers that can happen if you play games with people you don't know?

By the way, it is not the “job” of any child to know about these issues or to be wary of technology – this is our job as adults.  Like all complex problems (think about learning to be a better driver, or good at writing essays, or a good footballer) - this takes many calm (not shaming or angry) conversations over many years.   This means we need cheerfully and calmly remind and educate them about these issues rather than speak resentfully to them about it as though "they should know this".  I'm not saying that this is easy to do - of course we will feel resentful at times as parents, but our goal should be to try to remind ourselves:  "this is my job, not theirs".  

Idea 3. Talk calmly with children about the benefits of nonscreen-based activity.

This is a similar idea to talking about the problems associated with tech/device usage - but there is a subtle difference.  Here the focus is on the good things that will happen for the child when having time away from the screen. 

For example, I talk with children with challenges about the fact that extra sleep will help them feel happier; extra creative tasks will mean they develop new hobbies; extra sport will help them be faster and get less sick and so on.   These kinds of sentences might include:

  • What great things might happen to you if you had plenty of good sleep each night?
  • What would be good for you if you had less fighting with your brother while playing xbox?
  • What might be good for your body if you did more reading every day?
  • What happens to your heart and brain if you played outside more after school?  Why might that be good for you?

It’s helpful to identify specific things the child cares about (even gaming) and teach them about what non gaming/screen time activity can do to help that particular value.

Idea 4. Talk compassionately about the difficulty in reducing screen and technology use.

Stopping or reducing what we perceive as fun, relaxing, interesting activities and potentially having to start a less interesting, hard, or lonely activity is always going to be tough – let alone when we are in the middle of a competitive and fascinating battle, conversation or journey.   

There is a lot of understandable disappointment and frustration for all children when they have to turn off their devices.  Children who are going through a tough time, don't feel like they have many other positive things in their life, who are managing their distress by using screens, or who have strong feelings of independence and frustration - etc etc - find it especially tough.

When as adults we are understanding about why and how it is hard to do this then our relationships with children stay positive, and we feel better.

Sentences which are compassionate about this might include (depending on the situation):

  • I'm sorry this is tough.
  • I find it hard to reduce using my phone too sometimes.
  • I know that turning off this game/app is especially hard because....

Idea 5.  Create several specific tech/device/gaming rules and apply them consistently.

Many families find that the great number of very specific rules, systems and routines they put in place, the easier children find it to manage this issue.  For children with emotional, behavioural and social challenges, the more predictability they have, often the easier life becomes.  For example, there might be rules for when the screens are turned off, which games are played, what apps/programs are used and when tech is used or not used. 

For example, some families might have "Two hours of gaming a day unless we are going out, in which case 90 minutes - half before 12 noon and half after"  OR "Gaming every afternoon between 2pm and 5pm on Monday, Wednesday and Friday this week"  OR "Gaming happens for 1 hour max, 4 times during the day, on 3 days this week".  

Other families can't think this far ahead and just tell their kids and teens the night before what their gaming/device/tech use times will be the next day.  But in both cases these families are giving kids some details about what/when needs to happen.

Idea 6. Remind children about rules or systems before, during and after screen time.

Following on from the idea about creating rules and systems - is the need to comprehensively communicate with and remind children of these rules and systems.  I often talk with parents/caregivers who have wonderfully specific and predictable rules – but their children don't know what they are, have forgotten them, or find it hard to remember what they are when they are in the midst of gaming/device time.    Conversations helpful to have with children sometimes sound like:

  • I know you forget the rules sometimes, can you tell me what they are now?
  • On the way home from school, before you start gaming - can you tell Mum/Dad/carer what the rules are for tonight?
  • This weekend, let's remember - what are the rules about technology?

Children with extra emotional/behavioural needs often need lots of education, reminders and information about rules generally, and rules and routines about technology use is no different. 

For example, some families find that they need to remind the child about when or at what point the screens need to be turned off before each and every screen time starts.  Some families find that visual clues (e.g. a ticking countdown clock or timer so they can have a rough idea of when screen time ends) work well for them.  Some children need at least a couple 10 minute - then 5 minute warnings. Some families find that they need to review and discuss rules for tech use weekly (eg Friday night before the weekend starts).

Idea 7. Focus on the minimum levels of “screen alternative behaviours” rather than the maximum levels of screen/device use.

If you are worried about the amount of time your child spends on games or screens, it might help to switch focus to what you really want them to be doing, not what you don't want them to be doing so much of.  What are your concerns that they are missing out on - and focus on making rules about that, not about gaming/tech use.

For example, some families make rules about what has to happen before/if gaming occurs, egy: “2 hours of outdoor time, 1 board game and 20 minutes of homework happens before you have gaming time (or to allow you to have gaming time the next day)”.  Some families make less rules about tech use per se and just have rules about other activities - eg "everyone does their 30 mins of household jobs each day, all kids play two sports a term, everyone does 15 minutes of music practice after school" etc.

Idea 8.  Help children identify strategies they can use to cope with feeling disappointed/frustrated when screens are turned off.

Coaching children through the process of turning off screens can be helpful.  Many kids with emotional/behavioural/social needs really need coaching and practicing in this area.  For example, the kinds of discussions I have in therapy rooms with kids - and which might help you at home - include:

  • Let's write down some “calm sentences” you can use when they have to switch off.  Where can we put these to help you remember?  How can I remind you of these before you start gaming?
  • Let's practice a big slow deep breath and shoulder relax to use when you have to turn your screens off.  When can we practice this so you are good at it?
  • Let's get some other activities set up right next to your playstation/ipad so it is ready to play with/dothe instant the screens are turned off which might help you feel better.  What can we do to make sure this is set up ready BEFORE you start gaming/screens?
  • Let's get some yummy and healthy food or drink ready for you to have straight after your screen time ends.

Idea 9.  Have screen/gaming free periods.

Some families choose to have set days, weeks or even months where they completely “ban” devices and games.  There are advantages and disadvantages to this approach - depending on how long the "tech free" periods are.  If you do choose to implement this, it is important to do it calmly and with discussion, rather than angrily and in response to being frustrated.

Idea 10. Play their games/use apps/technology yourself.

I find that usually the more adults know about the gaming/apps/programs their children are using, the more positive they feel about their children’s screen time.  It seems that actually playing and using the technology helps adults see and understand the positive aspects of the technology.

Watching video/gaming/using devices with children also helps adults know what rules are reasonable, how to help children if they need to finish in the middle of a “level”, and of course to monitor the risks and dangers.

Finally...

As I said in the beginning, there are no "one size fits all" approaches to managing device/tech/gaming use in children, but it's important to keep working on and experimenting with approaches which work for your family.

Kirrilie

I've just finished making a 3 minute animation for 5 to 10 year old children which is "Coping with Switching off Screens".  It includes some of the ideas in this article (but the video is for the child, not parent) and is designed to help children feel more positive about restrictions and rules about tech/gaming/device use.  There is also an activity sheet and poster which goes along with the video, which can be helpful to work through with the child/download for them to stick up next to their computer. 
If you'd like to see it, go to www.calmkidcentral.com (you can read a little more about calmkidcentral.com below)