Child with brown hair sits facing away from the camera looking at bright colours on a large TV screen which is out of focus.

Switching off the Screen – How to Set Limits Around Screen Time

Is screen time and television at the end of the day a challenge for you and your family?

In this family, my friend and her son arrive home. They’ve been out all day, and everyone is a little spent and disconnected after separate days out in the world.

several school bags dumped in a cornerBen (who is 8): dumps his bag down by the door and jumps on his screen, logging into his favourite streaming platform to watch cartoons.

Mum (my friend), asks: “How was school today?”

Ben (now engrossed in cartoons), replies: “fine.”

Mum (a flash of irritation), thinks: “I wish he wouldn’t get stuck on the computer so fast.  Anyway, I’ve got better things to do than try to extract anything from him now.”

In the perfect world, it would be great to do some Special Time at this point. It’s a great way to reconnect, and (with younger kids at least) much more effective than asking questions (-;  But most of us find it hard at that time of day to be organised enough to manage Special Time.

A bit of screen time is OK

It’s fine to let a little bit of screen time buy us some slack to get in the door, unpack from the day and get dinner started.

However, that “little bit of screen time” often doesn’t do all that much for our children. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not against screens. Good programs would inspire hours of creative play at our house. And a bit of “down time” never hurt anyone.

Mum: Makes herself a cup of tea and says hello to the cat.

But screen time is not what our children really need

Unfortunately, at the end of the day, when their “cup of connection” is very low, our children can use screens to go numb, in a way, ending up slumped in front of the screen, “zoned out”. Boy (about 8 or 10 years) with glasses stares, probably at a screen, mesmerised, with zoned-out look on his face.

Mum: Tells me “I know my son comes home with his “emotional backpack” full up with the feelings leftover from a challenging day. Later on, when he and I are better connected, and the time is right, he will “vent” long and loud about his day – for example, about how it feels to try to learn times-tables when he is being compared with everyone else in the class. Or he will talk about how it is not fair that the break times at school are not long enough and there is hardly time to eat, and no time to play.”

Lots of hard things happen at school. Our children often do a pretty good job of managing it all while they are there. But by the end of the day, in the safety of their relationship with us, they need to “unpack the backpack” they’ve carried home from school – the emotional backpack. Unfortunately, watching a screen does not help them do that. Those hard feelings do not go away just because our children get temporarily distracted from them. The feelings sit there, waiting for an opportunity to “get out”.

Boy rests head on arms, with facemask on, scowling at the camera, looking grumpy. Green Forest trail and trees behind him.And try to “get out” they will! If we aren’t careful, the evening which follows may be full of fights between siblings, upsets over homework, refusal to come to dinner, and other behaviours that we might call “off track”.

First, we need to listen

So, how do we help our children?  How can we shift them from “zoning out” towards connection? How do we get to co-operation without having those hard feelings about the day leaking out in unhelpful ways?

Woman stands next to stove with kettle on it, cookingIt’s an approach we call “Listen, Limit, Listen”[1].  First we listen to hear what the difficulty is.  Is a limit really needed?  If so ,what kind of limit?

My friend (Mum) listened to her child and concluded he wasn’t all that connected or lively after a day at school.  And she checked in with herself – right now, what does she need?  To gather herself after the day and in readiness for the evening.

So a bit of screen time served them both well, for a while.

And then we need to limit

She’d be lucky, however, to be able to move Ben seamlessly from “a bit of decompressing in front of a screen” onto the rest of the afternoon.  More often than not, our children won’t want to get off the screen when we are ready for them to do so.

So she will need to set a limit to get Ben off the screen.  Actually, she will need to bring the limit. The more relaxed and connected she is and the less weight there is in Ben’s “emotional backpack”, the more gently she can bring the limit to be effective.


Step 1 Bringing the limit: the proposal or request

Mum has regrouped after arriving home and got the dinner started. She’s ready to pay more attention.

Mum (from the doorway):  “OK Ben, time to get off the screen.”

Ben: keeps watching, and takes no notice.

She’s started with the least forceful or intrusive limit – a proposal – in this case, an announcement from the other side of the room.  She’s still “Listening”:  Is he OK? Is he able to co-operate? Is there really a problem?  Did he just need some down-time, and can now happily move on to whatever needs to be done next? Does he need more information?  Maybe it will be enough to remind him that the time is ticking away and if he wants to get something else done he will need to stop.

Mum is also “Listening” to herself.  She’s asking “Is what I am asking reasonable, or am I just irritable/in a hurry etc?”

Girl with headphones watching cartoons on a phone, eating a muffin.Speaking for myself, I have a LOT of feelings about screens. I used to get especially tense when my young daughter was watching cartoons (which was one of her favourite passtimes!).  Even though we had an agreement that she got some screen time after school, if it was cartoons, I was particularly irritable about turning off the TV when it was time.  I’m still not sure why cartoons tick me off so badly, but I remember plenty of ranting about it to my Listening Partners.  I got more relaxed about it over time.

Not the same as giving warnings

It would be easy to think that what she is doing as she starts with a proposal, is warning her boy, which is, after all, a respectful thing to do.

It’s a good thing to give a child some warning of an impending change or transition. Sometimes the warning is enough to allow them to shift from one activity to the next without difficulty. But often when we warn our children that something is about to change, we aren’t just “preparing” them. Our intention is to try to avoid or put off the outburst of feeling that we know, in our heart of hearts, will follow.]

Oh! How hopeful we parents are! It’s the marvel of what I call ‘parenting-crooked-logic-magic-thinking”: If we just give our children enough warning, it won’t be disappointing to them to have to stop something they want to keep doing, even though every other time in the past they have got upset about having to stop…hmmm.


Step 2: Bring the limit a little closer

Mum checks in with herself. It makes sense for the screen to go off.

Mum (moving into Ben’s line of sight and warmly repeating the proposal): “Honey, time to switch it off”

Ben: keeps watching as if she has said nothing.

Mum (thinks to herself): “I know it won’t help to lecture him. We’ve had plenty of conversations about the trouble with too much screen time. He knows what won’t get done if he keeps watching.”

It’s not rational

Woman frowns and looks annoyed, with a hand out and shoulders tensed -"why aren't you listening?"It’s difficult sometimes not to get a bit irritated with our kids.  We’ve got better things to do than nag our children to do what they know needs to be done.

We are also often tempted to try to justify our limit to our children (and ourselves) by explaining our reasons to our children.  We are hopeful that stating it again will help our children be reasonable. Underneath this habit is a misconception: that the problem is that our children don’t understand the need to stop watching. So we explain again, hoping they will get it this time.

But Ben knows all those reasons back-to-front – they’ve had that conversation a million times. The problem is not that he doesn’t understand.

In fact, he is hooked – the technology has been specifically designed to pull on his attention in a way that can bypass his decision making capacity. Understanding that it will be a good idea to turn it off won’t necessarily make it easier to turn off.

Limit = connection = feelings

The other part of the dynamic is to do with feelings. Ben has come home with a day full of unprocessed challenges in his emotional backpack. Sitting in front of a screen shifts his attention elsewhere, but it doesn’t deal with those feelings. For that to happen, he will need to feel connected and emotionally safe.

Mum has done plenty of Special Time and Playlistening with Ben over the years. So Ben knows there’s a place in his relationship with his mother where he is in charge and he can bring up issues if he needs to; there’s a lot of emotional safety in their relationship.

And when Mum brings the limit, she is actually connecting with Ben, and that means that he may start to feel some things.  These are feelings which watching a screen doesn’t allow.

Step 3: Bringing the Limit – playfully

woman and young girl roughhouse on a couch, holding each other close, smiling and laughing as they wrestle.Mum decides to start playfully. Playful limit-setting goes a long way. She’ll get two for the price of one: first, she is bringing a limit in a way that is inherently connecting. Second, if she gets the tone right, Ben will laugh (she might too!).

Laughter is much underrated as a way of resolving feelings – mostly lighter fears. So a playful limit that gets him laughing will help him offload the first layer of feelings that the screentime was keeping in place.

Mum (goes down on her knees in a begging posture, starting to crawl across the room towards him): “Oh puleeeze, can it be me to turn it off? Puleeze give me the remote. I want to be the one who turns it off. It’s not fair that you always get to do it!”

Ben: starts to smile, and as mum gets more dramatic, he rolls his eyes, but he also starts to giggle.

Surprisingly, playing in this way often works. On a good day, Ben can take up the playful invitation to connect, turn the screen off, and move onto other things.  He might need five minutes Special Time to warm the relationship up a bit more, or a bit of a wrestle or some other bit of playfulness.

Step 4 Bringing the limit – get even closer

And when a playful invitation is not enough, and he still won’t turn the screen off?

Mum (kneeling down, standing in front of the screen, without “getting in his face”, and in as warm a tone of voice as she can muster): “Honey, it’s time to turn it off.”

Ben: tries to look around her to the screen.

This could be an opportunity for a bit more playfulness, dancing around so he can’t see the screen.  However it doesn’t work.

Ben (starting to get agitated): “It’s not fair!  You never let me finish my program!”

Mother puts out hand on television remote control to limit television timeStep 4 Holding the limit…

Mum (kneeling on the floor facing him, puts her hand on the remote and says gently): “We are going to turn it off now”.

She is holding the limit, gradually bringing the limit closer and more firmly, all the time with a warm tone. Later, she tells me “Unless he is in a really good mood, if I try to set the limit from the other side of the room, or from the kitchen as I am unpacking the groceries, it usually doesn’t work.  He’ll just ignore me.  I think the pull of the screen is too addictive, but also, the real problem is that he needs connection.  So telling him to do something from the other side of the room won’t work.  I have to do something physical.”

…Until the feelings start to show

Boy sitting against leather couch is upset and crying.Rather than trying to prepare him with warnings, when my friend sets the limit this way, warmly bringing the limit closer, she’s looking for the exact spot when her son’s feelings start to erupt.

She says:

“Sometimes just the announcement that we are going to turn off the screen is enough to start the feelings. Sometimes moving to sit at his feet, or next to him, and putting a hand on him while I tell him the screen is going to go off, is enough. Sometimes I have to put my hand on the remote as if to turn it off.

“But I don’t turn it off straight away. I wait to see if I have got his attention. I will know by the eruption of feeling that I have got it right. Sometimes, to get to the feelings, I really do have to turn the screen off. Then he can’t avoid that screen-time is over. With this often comes the great wave of feelings that he was keeping under wraps while he watched.

“Usually, the upset shifts from how mean I have been by turning it off to how tough it is to spend the day at school being bossed around, and on to a whole long list of things that were hard about the day. There may be tears and storming around. The upset is not really about the screen going off, and it is not really about me or anything I have done. He is off-loading the feelings left over from a long day at school, away from me, in a sometimes difficult and challenging environment.”

Won’t he get the wrong idea?

You might ask: “Doesn’t it give him the wrong idea, letting him behave that way toward you?” It’s a good question. We worry that unless we are consistent in all things, including how we allow our children to talk to us, our children will get the wrong message. They might think it is OK to talk like that all the time.

My friend says

“I’ve found that if I allow times like these, where he is “blowing off” the tensions of the day, then he comes out the other side much more reasonable. I try not to take it personally, or react negatively, when he is in the heat of the upset. Though it is hard sometimes!

Man on bench gently grasps small child to stop them from walking off end of bench“I do correct it if he speaks to me in a disrespectful or inappropriate tone at other times. When that happens, sometimes it makes sense to respond with humour: “Whoops, where did that cranky tone come from?  Was it under this pillow?” This tells him I have noticed, and the offer of warmth and connection, or a chance to laugh a little of the tension away, will shift things.  Even though he’s 8 now, I can still get a laugh if I act a bit goofy.

“Sometimes I need to make gentle physical contact with him and say “Sweetie, I’m not going to let you talk to me like that.” And then listen.  The fact that he is speaking to me in that way is a sign that he is carrying around some tension – when I interrupt it, gently, he’ll often take the opportunity to show big feelings. He might complain that he wasn’t being rude, or start off about how unfair I am being, but pretty quickly it will tend to move on to some difficulty about his day. That was what was really bugging him, and which was driving the rude behaviour.”

Children will accept reasonable limits – eventually.

Man and Boy sit on bench with arms around shoulders often worry that the outburst of feeling is an indication that our child will not accept the limit, or is confused about the limit or about what is appropriate behaviour.

I don’t think this is the case. The outburst of feeling is in fact the way children (all of us?) recover their ability to accept a reasonable limit. By and large, our children know what the right thing to do is. They know the rules – we’ve told them often enough! What they need is an opportunity to show us how they feel about the rules – which will often actually be feelings about all sorts of other things.  Those feelings were getting in the way of clear thinking and remembering what’s appropriate and accepting the limits we set. Upsets are often the necessary pathway to co-operation.

[1] I often have to stop and think when I am talking about this with groups of parents. It wants to come out of my mouth as “Limit, Listen, Limit”. I think that’s because, in the broader culture and certainly in the way I was raised, there was a lot of harsh limiting, and not a lot of listening.

No need to go it alone!

Madeleine loves to help: why not book a Free 20 Minute Consultation, and she can help direct you to the best resources and support.

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