Failing at screen rules? Read this

Are you failing with screen rules? You are not alone. As parents, we are up against a technology revolution that is so strong that it can genuinely overpower all aspects of our lives, including our parenting lives.

I often talk with and receive emails from parents who are incredibly frustrated by their inability to set limits for their teens that actually get followed. When kids are younger than around 11—and this varies of course—we have a lot more facility and success at setting limits. The parents from whom I hear the loudest cries of desperation are those with teens. I can relate because I have two and I still have my share of struggles. Here is an example of an email that I received from a father last week:

“I'm trying to limit my son's video game time to 6 hours a day ... Since it's the summer and we're not home, he's probably online for 10 hours a day, yes, 10 hours ... It seems too hard to deal with so we just leave things as they are, yet it eats at me every day.” —Steve W.

If you feel beyond frustrated at trying to set rules, I have some suggestions that I hope will help you or someone you know that you can pass this along to:

First, these 3 things are helpful to keep in mind:

1. We all have 3 very essential needs as humans—a sense of autonomy, connection to others, and competency. Screen time can undoubtedly scratch all three of these itches for teens— think raising one’s game (competency) and socializing online (connection). Meanwhile, when we want to set limits on their screen time, they feel like their autonomy is being threatened and thus it is not surprising limits can elicit such strong reactions.

2. Repeat to yourself the words “not yet.” When your teen is not interested in getting exercise, exploring the outdoors, reading books, volunteering … all the things we want our teens to do, say to yourself “they’re not interested YET.” Remember they will become interested in many things that they are currently dismissing right now.

3. It is so important that our teens know that we love them unconditionally. We don’t always love their behaviors, but we do love them unconditionally.

Now, for some suggestions:

Read this book—One of my favorite adolescent specialist and author, Laura Kastner, Ph.D., who is in Screenagers, just updated her fantastic book, Getting To Calm, to include advice on screen time. Read this book, and you will thank me many times over.

Baby steps—Maybe the goal with your teen for this last month of summer is to step back from trying to make certain limits happen and to focus instead on a baby step goal. For example, asking your teen,  “Hey, what if we focus on arguing less and just work together to find one small time we are without screens--maybe 10 minutes in the car or…..? ”

Excessive but accountable—You might ask them to pick a number of hours they would like to be on screens per day just for these last weeks of summer. Then, whatever number they choose, it is on the condition that they are accountable to that number. They will need to agree to do check-ins with you every few days or to tell you the time they have spent each day. Consider asking them to use an app like Moment to keep track of the time spent on their phone and video games. This approach often shows teens how much harder it is to limit their time than they had expected even when they are picking the number of hours.

Work on you—It feels cliché, but the only real control we have is working on ourselves, but this is how we get better at recognizing what our teens do to trigger us and learning ways to handle it skillfully. For example, you might really want to talk to your teen at the very moment they are disrespectful or inappropriate, but you know that conversation doesn’t generally go well in the heat of the moment. So, instead go outside and mark down the date and the time, write something in a journal, take a breath, and then plan to bring up the situation later. When you do bring it up later, try to use “I” statements such as “I feel XYZ when you do XYZ.” This is a much more effective way of getting your teen to talk with you rather than if you said something like ”When you do XYZ, it really is disrespectful.”

Join them—If the screen time issue has become too toxic, you might just want to abandon talking about it for a while. Instead, dive into in-depth empathy exploration by asking to let you do something fun on screens with them like playing a video game. After a few times, maybe you will have cleared out some of your anger, and you’ll have more capacity to say something like “Wow, I can really see why you love these games so much” and then see where this take things.

Reverse it—When you find yourself in a good moment with your teen, see if you can engage him or her in a short role reversing exercise. Ask something like this “Can you humor me for a moment—I am going to play you, and can you play me?” (Let’s assume for a minute they say yes). Then, you start playing as if you are them, “Look dad (or mom) I love my phone/computer time, and I want to be on it at least X numbers of hours a day.” Then hopefully they will engage back as if they were you. Try to keep it lighthearted.

Back Peddle—(A technique from Dr. Kastner) Consider starting a conversation like this: “Hey, I want to talk with you about screen time, and given our past conversations, I realize that no matter what I do it’s really tricky. If I don’t try to talk about screen time I feel pretty crappy as a dad because I really think my job as a dad is to make sure you have lots of different experiences and opportunities, and if I do bring up anything you might feel judged or angry. Is there a way that we can discuss this that might make it go better?”

Get involved—I know how much this has helped me. When I feel stuck in my own personal and family life, I have redoubled my advocacy efforts. When I take my foot off the gas pedal at home and apply it to a related but outside cause (such as mental health advocacy), I start to feel so much better. Here is something you could consider, checking out our initiative to address cell phones in school at AwayForTheDay.org.  

Outside Help—Set up a visit with a person who can mediate a talk with you and your teen, or maybe even the whole family using some of the techniques in this blog. Consider a grandparent, a counselor, a college advisor, a person the family admires that has grown kids and is a skillful mediator, or a leader from a religious center. The ideal situation is with a trained counselor, but they can be expensive and hard to find (particularly if school is out and you can’t see a school counselor).

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