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How to help your child self regulate around screens

How do you feel about your child being on screens? Does it feel like they always want to be on them? Maybe it’s hard to find a balance that works for everyone in your family? Maybe you wonder if you gave them choice would they never get off them. I wonder if you may feel at a loss as to how to regulate your child’s use of screens.

If you find regulating screens with your child challenging, I want to send you compassion and love. It can be so hard finding the right path for you and your family- especially in today’s world with smartphones, tablets, YouTube, movies, and games all constantly accessible. Gone are the times of old-fashioned TV where programmes were on at certain times and natural regulation took place.

Deciding what your child watches and for how long is a decision each parent needs to makes individually. There is a lot of information available to help make this decision. I do, however, believe when a child is free of emotions they will know what they need. They will be aware of when they need to connect with someone, when they need time alone, when they are hungry, thirsty or tired, and when they need to move.

Often children younger than 5 years old learn best from live, immersive interactions with family members and caregivers. Given the choice, they will nearly always opt for talking, playing, or being read to over screen time.

I wonder if it’s helpful when you think of screen regulation to think about it in two ways. When your child wants to be on a screen it can be either to meet a need or it can be to help repress emotions that a child may not want to feel. Screens for children, like adults, can be very effective repression mechanisms.

I wonder if you can think of a time when you got really upset or were stressed. Did you reach for something – for food, move your body in some way or maybe you scrolled through Facebook, watched a TV series, or read your emails to help distract yourself from your emotions. Screens can be very effective at helping us dissociate from our emotions.

Children are no different and if their emotions build up and are not released through crying, tantrums, or laughter they may start to use screens as a repression mechanism or control pattern. When children use something as a control pattern they may be desperate when they ask for it, they may seem disconnected before, hyperactive, flat, or withdrawn.

Also if we as parents use screens as a repression mechanism checking emails, messages or writing things, then our children will start to do the same. Children will mirror how we use screens particularly when it’s as a control pattern. Children will mostly have the same control or repression patterns as their parents as they recognise that is how their parents cope with emotions.

If a screen is being used as a repression mechanism then setting a loving limit can be really helpful. The aim here is to bring in connection so that your child’s emotions can be heard and released; it is not about stopping an activity that you don’t want your child to do.

While you may say no to certain things during daily life, when you set a loving limit it is different. The aim when setting a loving limit is to be able to give your child the opportunity to be heard so that they can release any suppressed emotions. It may be helpful to say “I’m not willing for you to watch right now. I’m here with you and I’m listening.” Your child, if they feel sufficiently safe, will then be able to release their emotions by crying, raging, or tantruming.

I encourage you to listen to what comes up for your child and hear and give them embodied empathy. When we say no to something it can often touch on painful memories when choice was not experienced. As a result of saying no, feelings of powerlessness can come up to be heard.

Children know when we are pretending to be empathetic as opposed to when we are really giving embodied empathy. If you are thinking of setting a loving limit I always encourage parents to do this when they are well resourced and they have extra to give and hear what needs to be heard.

When we give empathy from a place of deep connection and love we can meet and hear our child’s disappointments, frustrations, or feelings of powerlessness that may come up to be healed when we set a loving limit. The loving limit will help your child connect with any past feelings and allow them to be released.

Afterward, I always encourage you to observe what happens when you have tried something with your child such as setting a loving limit. What was your child like before they had a big release and what are they like afterward? If you have set a loving limit around screen time, is your child calmer, more connected, can they hear what you are saying more easily afterward? If you notice this kind of change after emotions are released it can be encouraging to see and notice the benefit of emotional releases.

When it comes to emotions around screens it can also be very helpful to look at what is coming up for you as a parent when your child is on screens. Often we may simply feel that screens are bad because we are feeling uncomfortable when we see our children on them. If we have unresolved feelings of our own it can make it harder to see whether our children are fulfilling a need or whether they are using screens as a repression mechanism.

If you notice something come up for yourself I encourage you to really listen to your emotions, thoughts, fears, and possibly previous hurts. I know for myself when I see my daughter on screens feelings of disconnection and previous hurts sometimes arise. These come from when I was younger and visited my father and he would spend a lot of time watching sport during my precious time with him.

Understanding that some of our experiences of our children are about our past hurts can be very helpful. If you have anything you feel you need to process about the past, I encourage you to find another parent, friend, therapist, or come and share in the group. When you are free of your past emotions you will be more able to see what is happening for your child in the present.

Children also have legitimate needs around screens and what interests them. Screens may meet a child’s immediate need for fun, mastery, information, or relaxation. When children are free of emotions they will be in touch with all of their needs and are more likely to self-regulate around screen times.

If you do want your child to stop watching something or your agreed time has come to an end it can be really helpful to check where your child is in their programme. If you can, see what they are doing and discuss with your child your agreed end time. It can be helpful to remember they are in the middle of something that is really important to them. If possible, it can be helpful to give them a choice about the ending and if possible bring in something fun as you move from one activity to another. By doing this your child will maintain a sense of self-control and will not develop feelings of powerlessness.

Finally, it can be helpful to really connect with your child when they are watching something. Watch it with them and afterward ask them how they viewed what was happening. I find so often that our concerns as parents can be allayed when we speak to our children and hear what they are getting out of watching something. Also if you are able to watch with them you can explain things where some guidance may be required. Watching with your child can also help to meet their needs for connection with you.

I hope this was helpful. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions.