How do I get my kid off their device without a meltdown?
Can I be real with you? If I had $1 (okay, it's 2023…$5) for every time a parent asked me this question, I would have enough money to pay off my student loans. I'm not kidding. In their desire to help their kid, parents usually want a quick and easy solution — preferably one that avoids meltdowns altogether. I get that! I too wish for the meltdowns to stop. Permission to be blunt, once more? When I'm asked for a quick tip about problems like these, a mini meltdown starts brewing inside of me. This usually happens to me when someone is asking for a simple solution to a highly complex problem.
Here's the rub: there’s no quick fix that’s going to work for everyone. If there were, tech companies would pour billions of dollars into eradicating said quick fix. There's no quick answer or easy solution because each family is different; this is easily several therapy session’s worth of problem-solving to find strategies that will fit your own family’s circumstances and needs.
In lieu of doing a whole therapy session with you, I'd like to offer some questions that will hopefully help you gain more insight into what’s making this hard for your family. Then, I’ll give you some general pointers.
Grab a shovel, we're about to dig deeper!
How did this whole thing start?
As a psychologist, please hear me when I say it is developmentally appropriate for a kid or teenager —especially if they’re an ADHD’r— to struggle with the executive functioning skills needed to moderate screen time. Heck, even adults struggle with this! *points to self* That’s not simply because we're lacking self-discipline. Phones, tablets, and video games are nearly endless sources of new entertainment — something that our brains are hardwired to seek out. Your kid is not trying to make people’s lives difficult, nor are they uniquely lacking in willpower. This is just what happens when a kid gets an incredibly enticing device that provides infinite content and access to friends. Be gentle with yourself and your child as you keep in mind this important bit of context and keep exploring how this whole thing started…
What were the expectations set when they first got the device?
Let’s cut ourselves some slack, but also be real… Many times, getting a phone or flashy new tech device is an exciting moment and it's entirely possible that an important conversation about healthy tech use got blown away in the excitement of this dopamine fiesta. If you went into this with little to no boundaries around screen time, you’re going to need to prepare for major backlash when you start setting expectations. Going back and course correcting is going to require boat loads of patience for both yourself and your child. How has my kid experienced screen time moderation in the past?
Dear reader, I promise you this: you are not the only parent who has at least one (or one hundred…thousand?) memories associated with fighting over ending or monitoring screen time. So be honest with yourself: what are your family's stressful memories associated with getting off electronics? Did some of them get out of hand? Have there been huge fights, meltdowns, or even screaming matches? If your kid has had stressful experiences with attempts at limiting their screen time, they might melt down at the mere mention of it. Moving forward is going to require some emotional repair first.
Phew! I'm tired. Are you tired? This is hard.
Take a deep breath. Unpack this history with them and try to establish a sense of calm going forward. Embrace a spirit of collaboration if possible. Helping your kid moderate their screen time is important – AND it’s not worth sacrificing your family’s peace.
Finally - is the real world as enticing as the screen? If not, how do we make the real world more exciting?
Wanting your child or teenager to get off their phone and read a book is great in theory, but if they're not already into books, don’t be surprised when they’re not thrilled by this idea. (Also, tons of kids read on their phones!)
Remember what I said about screens being endless entertainment machines? Dopamine fiestas? Anyone have another fun nickname? For better or for worse, this means that we need to make the world just as exciting. It’s a big, frustrating challenge parents have been given, but I think we’re up to the challenge.
So I’ll cut to the chase - here’s some ideas on how to help your kid cut back on devices and get excited about the outside world.
Take 15 - 30 minutes to spend time with your kid on their game or tablet. This can be helpful for a few different reasons.
Just watching your screen-lit kid’s face entranced by their device, it’s easy to assume that their screen time is just pure, unchallenging junk. And sometimes it is, but sometimes it isn’t. You’ll be amazed when you see how much creativity and problem solving your kid has to channel to build something in Minecraft. Knowing what’s happening during screen time will help you identify how to support your kid in cutting back, or identify more optimal pausing times.
Playing a game or watching a show together can be an incredible co-regulatory experience for you and your kid. Shared time is important!
When your time is done, this will give you a chance to help your kid practice getting off the screen instead of instructing them to do so from the other side of the room. Shutting off a device can be frustrating for a kid to do alone, so your *supportive* presence might ease the process.
Remember what I said about how knowing what’s happening during screen time will help you figure out how to get your kid off their device? This plays a lot into my second suggestion.
Figure out what’s so enticing about the screen, and bring it offline.
If your kid craves the emotional regulation that TV can provide - try coloring.*
If your kid loves doing parkour in Minecraft (yes, that’s a thing)… find a parkour class!
These might even be activities that you have to do with your kid. It’s much harder for kids to entertain themselves, which is what makes the device so enticing. But hey — you’re exciting, too! Having you there will make anything more enjoyable.
I hope this gave you some insight into what might help you support your child. Before I go, I want to stress that this is a super difficult and nuanced topic. That means that the question is not about whether or not your kid should have screen time at all, but rather, what kind of relationship to screens works best for your family. It’s a big decision that’s going to require a lot of critical problem solving and trial and error. Most families won’t be able to cut screen time out completely, and that’s okay. So, ignore that judgy parent that gives you a look for handing your kid their iPad when they’re melting down in the middle of a Target. You do what’s best for your family.
*Please note that I'll be receiving a small kickback from Amazon for any purchases made with these links. All proceeds will go to a scholarship fund I'm creating to provide sliding scale and pro-bono services. Clients are under no obligation to purchase from these links, and I have no way of identifying who does or does not make purchases!