Managing Screen Time

If you feel like blaming your children or teens for their fixation on screens, just think of the times when you, as a sensible adult, have stayed up too late, against your better judgement, watching something unmemorable on television. Or the times you’ve been lured into checking out just one more Facebook post or YouTube video. If we, the mature adults that we are, find it so easy to get sucked into Screen World, just imagine how much more tempting it is for our children and teens. It’s only when we are in charge, when we are the deciders of what happens in our homes, that we are able to do our job of transmitting the values, skills and habits that we believe are important. When we are not in charge, our children’s immature values will prevail and will be reinforced.

I’m sure you’ve read or heard the advice about making parenting less stressful by ‘picking your battles’. What this usually boils down to is avoiding situations that would result in your child or teen whingeing, complaining, arguing, pleading, crying, slamming doors or throwing himself on the floor. The problem with picking our battles is that it’s the opposite of the teaching and training we need to do in order to transmit our values, skills and habits. In this context, what I mean by teaching is making sure our children and teens know what they should do. And by training I mean guiding them into the habit of doing what they know they should do.

Children often resist this teaching and training at first because changing habits is rarely easy. It’s natural for children to react to new routines and habits and rules with some complaining, crying, arguing or even tantrums – at first. So let’s not view this annoying behaviour as a ‘battle’ to be avoided. Let’s think of these negative reactions as immature ways of expressing uncomfortable emotions. A tantrumming child hasn’t yet learned how to express his upset in words, or perhaps he is so overwhelmed by the strength of his emotion that he temporarily forgets how to control his actions. Or it could be that this sort of misbehaviour has worked in the past, at least some of the time, to get your child some of what he wants. Whingeing or shouting or arguing might have bought him a bit more time to do what he wants. Or he might have noticed that sometimes you give up out of frustration or exasperation. Or maybe he’s learned that the crying and whingeing are guaranteed to get your attention.

Our job is not to avoid our children’s negative reactions, but to teach and train more sensible reactions. We will enjoy our role as teachers and trainers much more when we remember that children are, by definition, immature. They want what they want. They believe they need what they want. Let’s allow them to feel their childish feelings. Let’s not think of their upset feelings or the resulting misbehaviour as a battle. In a battle someone wins and someone else loses. But teaching and training isn’t about winning and losing; it’s about changing habits. Being in charge is not a static state of affairs. Over time you will probably refine your values. And as your children grow and develop, their needs will change. You will naturally continue to cycle back through the steps below until your children leave home.

Assessing

Before you can decide to take action consistent with your values about screen time, you need to discover exactly what’s happening.

Assessing (and reassessing) the current situation includes deciding whether what is happening in your home fits with your values. This step also includes listening to your children’s opinions and wishes. However, you will always have the final say because you are wiser and because it is your job to guide children towards the values you believe are right.

Planning
In order to plan effectively, first you need to clarify (with your partner if you have one) what your values are. This enables you to decide which rules and routines will guide your children towards those values. It may not be easy to come to an agreement with your partner. Although your fundamental values may be the same, how you each tend to put them into practice might be very different. Consistency between parents can be difficult to achieve. But we don’t have the luxury of deciding to ‘agree to disagree’. It’s not fair to our children to expect them to feel comfortable with two different sets of rules in the same home.

As you put your plan into practice, you will find yourself revisiting these steps many times, assessing the current situation in your home to see the results of your actions. It’s tempting to jump the gun, but don’t assume a strategy is not working based on how the first week or two go. Stick with a new strategy for at least a month. This gives your child time to get used to the new rules and routines. If a rule or routine isn’t going according to plan after a month or so, you will need to pause to assess what went wrong and then decide what you want to tweak.

Getting in charge of the technology in your home and staying in charge probably won’t be easy. You will be swimming against the tide, and you may get criticism from your extended family (especially if your child’s grandparents believe that love equals indulgence), maybe from other parents at the school gates, maybe even from your closest friends. On the other hand, your family and friends may be cheering you on, and they may want to learn from you how to get back in charge.

Staying consistent will be difficult at times. Humans are not by nature very good at being consistent; we change our minds and our plans a lot. And getting back in charge can feel like hard work, for one thing because dealing with our children’s initial fury about the new screen time rules and routines can be very upsetting. You may feel frustrated, angry, guilty, confused. You may feel like giving up. You will need to keep your wits about you; you won’t be able to let your guard down. That can feel exhausting at first, until the new routines are firmly established.

Parenting as a journey is a popular metaphor. A journey has a starting point and a destination. The starting point is that you’re not completely happy with what is happening with electronics in your home: your child is too much in charge and your values are not prevailing. You won’t reach your destination in one giant leap. You’ll be taking lots of small steps. And to complicate matters, you and your partner may be at different points in this journey towards getting back in charge.

When you use the Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting strategies, screen time problems will be significantly reduced, and most can be eliminated. Even a severe problem can be transformed. Soon it will become a moderate issue, and then it will become a mild issue. Eventually, with consistency, it will end up a very mild issue. That is probably the best result you can hope for, given that our children will always be surrounded by the influences of Screen World. But you can live with a very mild issue because your children’s objections will fade over time.

Your children and teens will find renewed pleasure in non-screen activities. You will get more cooperation and respect. You will see more self-reliance and responsibility. You will have the immense satisfaction of seeing your children and teens developing more mature values and habits. You can make all this happen.

Respectful parenting

What do I mean by respect? That’s what this book is about. If you treat your child respectfully from birth, he may have a better chance of gaining confidence and developing good judgment. This plants the seeds of lifelong security. He learns how to relate to other people in a healthy way and how to realistically, rather than blindly, trust the world.

Respect is a two-way street. Equally important, you as parents have needs, too. Being a parent is the most difficult undertaking in the world, a twenty-four-hour-a-day job that requires your time, patience, and energy whether you are sick or well, in a good mood or not. And the task is no easier as your child grows into adulthood. Often parents are left with residual guilt, feeling “If only I had done this in the beginning . . .”

Implementing consistent routines help parents simplify their lives and develop the ability to recognize when they should step in to influence their child’s behaviour and when to save their energy for larger issues, such as for nurturing themselves.

The term “educarer”, combining educator and carer, means one who educates children in a caring manner. And I prefer to use the word carer rather than caregiver or caretaker because a carer neither gives nor takes. For clarity’s sake, I use the word “caregiving” when referring to an activity such as a “caregiving task” so that it won’t be confused with “caring,” which might be understood to simply mean loving.

A carer puts love into action. The way you care for your baby is how he experiences your love. Everyday caregiving routines, like feeding and diapering, can be educational and loving interactions. These everyday routines form the building blocks of edu-caring and respect. Allowing infants to learn on their own rather than actively stimulating or teaching them is a basic tenet. Children learn all the time, from the day they are born. If we refrain from teaching them, they learn from experience. What we need to do is not interfere, step back, and allow learning to happen. What young children need to learn is how to adapt to their families.

If you begin well, by trying to understand your child’s point of view from infancy, there is a greater likelihood you will continue doing this throughout your life. Many misconceptions exist about babies and small children, and too little knowledge is based on observation and empathy. Observing your child carefully helps you to tune into his unique rhythm and understand his unique needs.

This respectful approach differs from most other childrearing theories in that it is based on the simple concept of observing your child. In our fast-paced modern culture, child development fads appear and disappear like fashions that come in and out of style. Hanging black and white mobiles over babies’ beds, showing them flash cards, putting them in walkers to “help” them walk, all activities that push a child to learn, have nothing to do with the reality of a young child’s day-to-day needs.

Respect. Honour. Esteem. These words aren’t usually associated with young babies. Yet it is widely agreed that these concepts are vital later in life. A child’s personality is largely formed in the first three years. Her outlook on the world is being shaped. Why not engage in a respectful relationship with your child as soon as possible? The benefits will be long-lasting.

What does respect mean, in terms of parents and children? It means accepting, enjoying, and loving your child as she is and not expecting her to do what she cannot do. It means allowing your child the time, the space, and the love and support to be herself and to discover the world in her own unique way. It means trying to understand her point of view.

To respect your child is to believe in her competence and see her as dependent on you rather than helpless. It is to accept and support both her dependence and independence, based on the developmental stage she is in. It is love plus consideration, treating your child as you would treat an honoured guest. To respect your child is to create a little distance so that you refrain from interfering with her experience of encountering life. Respect means setting boundaries for your child and for yourself as a parent, and enforcing these boundaries. It is letting your child know your expectations of her behaviour so that she can cooperate and, thus, respect you. Respect means taking care of your own needs as well as hers. It is nurturing and honouring yourself.

A respectful approach encourages a child’s authenticity, or genuineness, which means encouraging her to be honest about her feelings. It tells a child, “to thine own self be true”. Be who you are. It’s an ongoing life struggle. No society allows total honesty, so we must all wear masks and learn to pretend at times. People lose touch with their real selves. That’s too high a price to pay to fit in.

You may wonder how to encourage the spirit of authenticity. Simply let your child be. Spend time sitting back and observing her. See who she is and what her needs are. Don’t expect her to do what she is not ready or able to do. Let her crawl until she can, on her own, take her first steps. Don’t encourage your child to smile when she doesn’t feel like smiling. If she is sad, let her cry. Don’t expect or demand behaviour that is not genuine. Rather, value what she does.

Children are often expected to “behave” rather than be who they are. In many situations people unwittingly teach children how to be less than honest. When a child cries, she is not asked, “What happened?” but is usually told, “You’re okay.” We do this as a society. The message is: if you are not okay, keep it to yourself. Often, too, with children, conformity, rather than honesty, is encouraged. But perhaps we can learn to let children feel free to express their emotions and, as they grow, learn how to control their impulses.

Dealing with toddlers

A toddler acting out is not shameful, nor is it behaviour that needs punishing. It’s a cry for attention, a shout-out for sleep, or a call to action for firmer, more consistent limits. It is the push-pull of your toddler testing his burgeoning independence. He has the overwhelming impulse to step out of bounds, while also desperately needing to know he is securely reined in.

There is no question that children need discipline. As Magda Gerber said: “Lack of discipline is not kindness, it is neglect.” The key to healthy and effective discipline is our attitude. Toddlerhood is the perfect time to hone parenting skills that will provide the honest, direct, and compassionate leadership our children will depend on for years to come.

Here are some guidelines:

1. Begin with a predictable environment and realistic expectations.
A predictable daily routine enables a baby to anticipate what is expected of him. That is the beginning of discipline. Home is the ideal place for infants and toddlers to spend the majority of their day. Of course, we must take them with us to do errands sometimes, but we cannot expect a toddler’s best behavior at dinner parties, long afternoons at the mall, or when his days are loaded with scheduled activities.

2. Don’t be afraid or take misbehavior personally.
When toddlers act out in my classes, the parents often worry that their child might be a brat, a bully, an aggressive kid. When parents project those fears, it can cause the child to internalize the negative personas, or at least pick up on the parent’s tension, which often exacerbates the misbehavior. Instead of labeling a child’s action, learn to nip the behavior in the bud by disallowing it nonchalantly. If your child throws a ball at your face, try not to get annoyed. He doesn’t do it because he dislikes you, and he’s not a bad child. He is asking you (toddler-style) for the limits that he needs and may not be getting.

3. Respond in the moment, calmly, like a CEO.
Finding the right tone for setting limits can take a bit of practice. Lately, I’ve been encouraging parents that struggle with this to imagine they are a successful CEO and that their toddler is a respected underling. The CEO guides and leads others with confident efficiency. She doesn’t use an unsure, questioning tone, get angry or emotional. Our child needs to feel that we are not nervous about his behavior or ambivalent about establishing rules. He finds comfort when we are effortlessly in charge. Lectures, emotional reactions, scolding, and punishments do not give our toddler the clarity he needs and can create guilt and shame. A simple, matter-of-fact, “I won’t let you do that. If you throw that again I will need to take it away,” while blocking the behavior with our hands, is the best response. But react immediately. Once the moment has passed, it is too late. Wait for the next one!

4. Speak in first person.
Parents often get in the habit of calling themselves “Mommy” or “Daddy”. Toddlerhood is the time to change over into first person for the most honest, direct communication possible. Toddlers test boundaries to clarify the rules. When I say, “Mommy doesn’t want Emma to hit the dog,” I’m not giving my child the direct (‘you’ and ‘me’) interaction she needs.

5. No time-out.
I always think of Magda asking in her grandmotherly Hungarian accent, “Time out of what? Time out of life?” Magda was a believer in straightforward, honest language between a parent and child. She didn’t believe in gimmicks like time-out, especially to control a child’s behavior or punish him. If a child misbehaves in a public situation, the child is usually indicating he’s tired, losing control, and needs to leave. Carrying a child to the car to go home, even if he kicks and screams, is the sensitive and respectful way to handle the issue. Sometimes a child has a tantrum at home and needs to be taken to his room to flail and cry in our presence until he regains self-control. These are not punishments, but caring responses.

6. Consequences.
A toddler learns discipline best when he experiences natural consequences for his behavior, rather than a disconnected punishment like time-out. If a child throws food, his mealtime is over. If a child refuses to get dressed, we won’t be able to go to the park today. These parental responses appeal to a child’s sense of fairness. The child may still react negatively to the consequence, but he does not feel manipulated or shamed.

7. Don’t discipline a child for crying.
Children need rules for behavior, but their emotional responses to the limits we set (or to anything else, for that matter) should be allowed, even encouraged. Toddlerhood can be a time of intense, conflicting feelings. Children may need to express anger, frustration, confusion, exhaustion, and disappointment, especially if they don’t get what they want because we’ve set a limit. A child needs the freedom to safely express his feelings without our judgment. He may need a pillow to punch. Give him one.

8. Unconditional love.
Withdrawing our affection as a form of discipline teaches a child that our love and support turns on a dime, evaporating because of his momentary misbehavior. How can that foster a sense of security? Alfie Kohn’s New York Times article, “When A Parent’s ‘I Love You’ Means ‘Do As I Say’,” explores the damage this kind of conditional parenting causes, as the child grows to resent, distrust, and dislike his parents, feel guilt, shame, and a lack of self-worth.

9. Spanking – NEVER.
Most damaging of all to a relationship of trust are spankings. And spanking is a predictor of violent behavior. A Time Magazine article by Alice Park (“The Long-Term Effects of Spanking”) reports findings from a recent study which point to “the strongest evidence yet that children’s short-term response to spanking may make them act out more in the long run. Of the nearly 2,500 youngsters in the study, those who were spanked more frequently at age 3 were much more likely to be aggressive by age 5.” Purposely inflicting pain on a child cannot be done with love. Sadly, however, the child often learns to associate the two. Loving our child does not mean keeping him happy all the time and avoiding power struggles. Often it is doing what feels hardest for us to do: saying “no” and meaning it. Our children deserve our direct, honest responses so they can internalize right and wrong and develop the authentic self-discipline needed to respect and be respected by others. The goal is inner-discipline, self-confidence and joy in the act of cooperation.

The child-counsellor relationship in the counselling of children

Those of us working in nurseries have to develop the skills of being able to counsel young children – or at least listen and show empathy akin to being a counsellor. The relationship between child and counsellor is primarily about connecting with the child and staying with the child’s perceptions. The child may see the environment in which they live quite differently from the way in which their parents see this environment. The counsellor’s job is to join with the child and to work from within the child’s framework.

Approaching the child–counsellor relationship with judgement, affirmation or condemnation, invites the child to move away from their own perceptions and towards those of the counsellor. Instead, it is important for the child to stay with their own values, beliefs and attitudes rather than to be influenced by the counsellor’s values, beliefs and attitudes.

The child–counsellor relationship provides a link between the child’s world and the counsellor, enabling the counsellor to observe with clarity the experience of the child. This observation will inevitably be partially distorted by the counsellor’s own experiences, and some projection of these onto the child is unavoidable.

However, the counsellor’s aim is to minimize the influence of their own experience, so that their connection with the child’s experience of the world is as complete as is possible.

The child–counsellor relationship as an exclusive relationship
As counsellors it is important for us to establish and maintain good rapport with the child so that trust is developed. This development of trust can be supported if the child experiences a strong flavour of exclusivity, that is, a unique relationship with the counsellor which is not compromised by the unwanted intrusion of others, such as parents or siblings.

The child will have a personal perception of themselves, which will not be the same as the parents’ perception. For the therapeutic relationship to be effective it is important for the child to feel accepted by the counsellor for the way in which that child perceives themselves. It won’t be helpful if the child thinks that the counsellor’s views of them have been influenced by the parents or by significant others. This can be avoided if the child–counsellor relationship is exclusive.

Keeping the relationship exclusive means not allowing others to intrude or to be included without the child’s permission. Consequently, preparation of the child and parents for therapy requires specific attention because there is clearly an ethical issue involved. The parents have care and control of the child, yet in therapy we are proposing that the counsellor builds an exclusive relationship with the child. How do you think the parents will feel about that?

The situation may be aggravated in cases where parents are using public health services or the services of large non-government agencies. Some parents may feel disempowered and overwhelmed by the system, even though individual workers may try to create a personal consumer-oriented service. Such parents may be worried by the suggestion that they will not be fully included in the counselling process. This ethical issue can only be addressed satisfactorily if the counsellor is clear with parents about the nature of the therapeutic relationship and gains their acceptance of what is required.

Therapy is generally a new experience for the child and the parents. We may find that parents are likely to have a satisfactory level of comfort and to have confidence in the process if they are fully informed about the need for the counsellor to maintain an exclusive relationship with the child. It is helpful to warn parents that at times their child may not wish to disclose information arising from a therapy session.

It is also reasonable to expect that parents may feel anxious and believe that they might be left without information which they should rightfully know. Parents need to have reassurance that in time they will be given all the information that is important for them. They need to understand that children often have great difficulty sharing important and private information and that such sharing needs to be done when the child is ready and feels safe about sharing.

Sometimes, particularly at important points in the therapeutic process, a child may develop behaviours which are more difficult for the parents to manage than the presenting behaviours apparent at the commencement of therapy. It is helpful to warn parents that there may be a period of improvement soon after treatment begins which is often followed by a setback.

Passing general information to the parents, such as that mentioned in this and the previous paragraph, does not compromise the exclusivity of the relationship. However, to pass on specific details of a therapy session without the child’s agreement would certainly compromise exclusivity. As the child’s confidence in the counsellor increases and the counsellor’s understanding of the child’s issues becomes broader, the trust that the child experiences becomes stronger. This trust is reinforced by the knowledge that fears, anxieties and negative thoughts towards parents, events and situations will not be disclosed to the child’s parents or family members without the child’s agreement.

We may believe that a child has a right to privacy, subject to certain limitations, but must understand that it is sometimes difficult for parents to accept this. Clearly, it’s highly desirable to enlist the support and encouragement of parents so that the child feels free to talk openly with the counsellor. Counsellors have found that if we are open with parents about the nature of the child–counsellor relationship, parents will most often be very supportive of our work with their children.

Hence we try to build a trusting relationship with the parents in the child’s presence. Thus the exclusivity of the child–counsellor relationship is maintained, the child is fully aware of the parents’ acceptance of that relationship, and is given permission and encouraged by the parents to join with us.

Considerations in counselling young childen

Sometimes children suffer longer than they should in environments that are stressful, abusive and unsafe because the adults around them lack the skills to open the door to effective communication. Engaging effectively with children requires skill and commitment, but it is a skill that can be learned, and these activities will help build your confidence and give you practical ideas and resources to use.

Social workers frequently have to work with children to address very difficult issues. It is often the first time they have met the child. It is important to keep in mind that the world view of children who have been abused and neglected is likely to be that the adults around them neither care about them nor have been able to protect them, and may have been the abusers themselves (Ainsworth et al. 1978). In these circumstances, it is imperative that we are able to convey to the child that we are safe, caring and interested adults.

When engaged in long-term work, there are additional challenges in building and sustaining a relationship with a child. Children who have been consistently let down by adults often build a protective barrier that means they are very cautious of, or even closed down to, investing in a relationship. It is not uncommon for a child to try very hard not to engage with a worker, to reject the possibility of a relationship almost before it has begun. For these children, experience of multiple losses has shown that it can be unsafe to trust (Fahlberg 1991). Their experience is that they have to attempt to self-regulate, to be emotionally self-sufficient, which, for an immature brain, often results in defensiveness on the one hand, or being emotionally over-demanding (Gerhardt 2004) on the other.

With every interaction we have with a child we have the power to begin to change this world view of adults, whether we are foster carers, social workers, teachers, nursery nurses or care workers. In effect, we can offer children a different working model of the world.

This healing process can begin with the child learning to engage and trust just one other person in her life. You could be that person. This is a huge privilege and also a huge responsibility, but the rewards and benefits are immeasurable, for both the child and the worker.

Children have the right to confidentiality during one-to-one sessions. However, it would be naive to think this can be absolute. Issues will arise in the course of working with a child that do need to be shared with others – either with the child’s immediate carers or, in the case of child protection, other professionals and potentially the child’s own family members.

The important thing is to be honest with the child from the start. The child’s developmental age will determine how you explain the level of confidentiality that you can offer (and this may also depend on your role). With younger children, counsellors talk about safe and fun secrets, ‘like when you have made a card for mummy and you don’t want to tell her before her birthday’. You can tell the child that we all like those kinds of secrets. But there are other secrets that are upsetting, maybe about the child or someone else getting hurt or not being safe. These kinds of things can’t be kept secret because they are too big for anybody to have to keep secret. We have to tell these secrets, so we call them ‘have to tell secrets’.

You can have this conversation using a series of picture cards and discussing which ones could be secrets. Why would they be secret? Are they ‘fun secrets’ or ‘have to tell secrets’? For children who can read well, having short scenarios written down can be more developmentally appropriate. In group work you could ask one group to act out the secret and one to discuss whether they think it is a ‘fun secret’ or a ‘have to tell secret’. Do both groups agree?

Issues will arise in sessions that you either need to tell main carers or that would be beneficial to tell. In this situation acknowledge this with the child and explain why it would be a good idea to tell. In a situation where it would be beneficial to tell, social workers may invite the child to tell the carer/parent with them and let the child do the talking while they are present, as support. If this is not comfortable for the child, speak directly to the carer/parent, preferably in the child’s presence. If the child doesn’t want to be there, or leaves half way through, that is fine. The aim should be to involve the child as far as possible.