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Using Screens to Numb Feelings

As a mom, I'm very aware of how stressful these times are for parents. We are juggling an impossible amount as we continue to make our way through this pandemic.  As school re-starts, I am also aware of how hard this time is on our children.

Many of our children are wondering if life will ever be the same. They miss their friends.  They worry about how they will learn without their teachers by their side. They are fearful of getting sick or that vulnerable loved ones may fall ill. They don’t want to be taught math by their stressed-out parents. This is part of the reason why so many of them are begging for more screen time.

So many children and adults turn to screens to numb out and avoid emotional discomfort. We feel awkward at a social event and reflexively reach for our phones. We feel lonely and suddenly find ourselves binge-watching a Netflix series. Screens provide endless distraction and as a result, give us relief from painful emotions. This is part of what makes screen time so addictive. 

However, this is a dangerous habit and one we do not want to encourage in our children. First of all, after being suppressed and pushed away, emotions can come back more powerful. This is the cause of some post-screen time tantrums. Second, our feelings are important messengers that tell us about our needs and wants, alert us to when something is wrong or not working for us, and keep us connected to our deeper selves. When we numb with screens (or anything else) we risk becoming disconnected from these internal signposts. Life becomes harder to manage. Relationships will be more confusing. It is harder to confront and overcome challenges. We don’t want this for our children.

Instead, let’s teach our children how to tolerate emotional discomfort, to understand their feelings, and listen to the information feelings communicate. We want to help them develop a healthy repertoire of strategies to soothe themselves in painful times, a repertoire that does not include potentially addictive activities such as screen time.  

So what does this look like in daily life?

Recognize the Pattern

Notice if your child tends to turn to their screens when they are upset. Last year my 8-year-old began to beg for the iPad after school. Then I learned that she was having difficulties with her friends at school. When I asked her about this, she said “Of course I want to watch a show! Then I can pretend everything is fine and not think about my stupid friends.”  Ding ding! A mother from my screen time workshop noticed her shy 12-year-old daughter picked up her cell phone each day during the carpool to gymnastics. Cha-ching! Our children will not likely notice this unhealthy pattern developing - so we must be vigilant.  

Connect with Your Child Around the Problem

The next step is to help your child understand that using screens to avoid pain is not a wise path. Start by validating that it makes sense to want screens when upset and that they are in good company - most people fall into this pattern at one time or another. Then explain the risk and what to do instead.  I said this to my daughter as she begged for the iPad after school:

After a hard day at school, it is totally understandable that you want to watch a show.  The show takes you into a different world and for a time, you can forget about your problems. I find myself picking up my phone too after hard days. The problem is that when we push away our feelings, they can come back stronger. Also, your anger at your friends may be telling you something important and if you push away your feelings, it will be harder to figure out what to do. Instead, let’s think of other things you can do that feel good to get through the feelings. 

Brainstorm Other Soothing Options

In general, temporarily distracting or soothing ourselves when upset can be very helpful.  However, distracting with screen time is problematic because it can be so numbing and addictive that little to no attention is paid to the feelings and problems at hand.   

The answer is to help your child come up with other ways to soothe themselves when upset.  Look for activities that help them feel comforted (such as cuddling with pets) or temporarily distracted (a family outing), but don’t lend themselves to addiction.  Here are some ideas:

Active: jumping on a trampoline, playing a sport, riding a bike/scooter, taking a walk, gardening, cooking

Creative: playing a musical instrument, drawing, journaling, painting nails, building Legos, playing with dolls

Relaxing: listening to a story, taking a warm bath/shower, reading, listening to music, playing board games/card games, petting a dog/cat

Comforting: using warm blankets, cuddling with stuffed animals, cuddling with a family member, using a hot water bottle/heating pad 

Your child will mostly resist turning to these soothing activities, and complain that none of them “work” to help them feel better.  With these options, your child must do more emotional work in tolerating their feelings because they are not so numb.  Don’t give up!  With practice, your child can learn to face their distress and soothe in healthy ways.  Dealing with pain will ultimately create the resilience we all want for our children. 

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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