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How to Help Your Child Deal With Emotions vs. Numbing With Screens

The return to school this year is unprecedented and may be bringing up strong emotions for your child. Before returning to school, many parents allowed extra screen time to help cope during SIP. But now, with all of the screen time devoted to remote learning, many families want to roll back that extra screen time to give children more balance.

As we rollback screen time during a time of intense emotions, we have to expect push back and distress. Screens often numb or mask our children’s emotions, so if we want to shift this, we have to be ready to help our children handle their emotions in a different and healthier way. We have to connect with our children, support them through intense feelings, and help them find words and solace for what they are experiencing in this time of upheaval.  

How do we do this?

Be Present - Even if Just for a Few Minutes 

Easier said than done! As parents, we are more distracted than ever as work, home and school all occur at the same time and place. Yet, if we want our children to cope without turning to screens for solace and constant distraction, we have to help them do so.  

The first step is to find moments to show up, put down our own phones, and be present with our children. It can happen in a quick check-in between calls, a special activity, or a deeper conversation when needed. Mostly, being present just entails leaving your computer in the other room, breathing deeply, and tuning into the little being across from you.

Here’s an example of what this may look like:

Your son gets off his afternoon zoom call and immediately yells at his little brother, then begs to play Roblox. You put down your to-do list, go sit with him and say, “What’s up? You seem upset.” 

Listen & Validate

The next step is listening to understand. This is not as easy as it sounds! As you hear what he says, try to ‘get in his world.’ Reflect back how he is feeling: frustrated, annoyed, angry, worried, sad. If you aren’t sure, ask him. Try to resist corrections, defensiveness, and problem-solving. Find the words that guess how he feels until he feels understood.

Here’s one way that may go:

Parent: “What’s up? You seem upset.”

Child: “I’m not upset! I’m annoyed! I’m on my call and my little brother comes into my room making noise. Can’t you keep him out of here? I hate doing schoolwork. Can I play Roblox now?!?”

Parent: “So frustrating! It's hard to be on calls with noise around! I get it. We never used to have this problem when we were at school.”

Child: “Yea! I hate doing work from home! It’s so dumb here. Can I play Roblox?” 

Parent: “Sure, you can play Roblox at 4:30, when you have your screen time. And by “dumb”, I think you mean it’s difficult to work from home and not be in school. You wouldn’t have to deal with your brother at school!”

Note that validating doesn’t mean bending boundaries or changing rules just because he is upset. Hold firm on no Roblox (we don’t want him going to screens to numb feelings). Hold firm on inappropriate language. These boundaries teach your child to deal with feelings appropriately. Help them find the language that accurately describes how they feel and why.    

Help Your Child Soothe in Non-Addictive Ways

If he is too upset to have this conversation right now, help him soothe and distract in non-screen time ways (see the list from my previous blog). These other ways allow a person to feel some emotion while engaging in activities that bring comfort and/or a mental ‘change of scenery.’  When they have soothed without screens, return to discussing the original problem and validating feelings. In this way, your child learns to soothe but not numb emotions. They learn to tolerate and express feelings. They learn that adults are safe sources of help and understanding.

Help Problem Solve

One of the most validating things you can do as a parent is to help your child solve the problems that upset them. After listening, engage your child in solving the problem together.  

“Most problems have solutions. How do you want to solve this one? What are some ideas we can come up with to keep your brother out of the room when you have your calls?”

When you solve the problem together, your child learns that seemingly overwhelming experiences can be solved. They learn that they don’t need to panic or numb - they can face the challenges life (and COVID) brings and cope effectively.  

Allow Appropriate Screen Time

Schedule a daily screen time so that your child can enjoy some entertainment and social time with friends. When they want to turn to their screen for emotional coping, help them in the ways just described, but remind them that they do get screen time at their normal time. This way they learn that screens are to be enjoyed in moments of calm but not used as a crutch to cope with hard times. (See upcoming blog for how to schedule daily screen time and ensure that it doesn’t interfere with healthy development.)
Remember, if you don’t want your child turning to screens to cope with feelings, you have to let them turn to you! This means staying connected and present for their feelings, especially those surrounding their upcoming school year. If you want more guidance on parenting from a place of connection, see Dr. Laura Markham’s work here.

Sign up for our newsletter to get healthy screen time insights and tips from clinical psychologist, Dr. Demi Rhine.  

About Beyond Limits Academy

Beyond Limits is a simple step-by-step online program that teaches parents how to prepare their children for a lifetime of safe and healthy technology use. Going beyond just screen time limits, our skills-based approach provides a clear roadmap that reduces conflict and sets children up to manage their own tech use independently and responsibly. In an increasingly digital world, preparing our children to use technology wisely is no longer an option . . . it's a necessity.

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