Next week kids will be off of school for winter break and with many cities under new shelter in place orders they will find themselves with little or nothing to do. For most kids that means more screen time, and for most parents, increased anxiety about how much screen time is too much and how to get kids engaged in off screen activities. While winter break isn’t the time to try to reduce screen time, you can definitely be intentional about setting up guidelines that promote a healthy balance of screen time and other activities that nourish your kids both physically and mentally.
Having a family meeting to talk about winter break and screen time guidelines is a great way to start the conversation. Here is a great resource about how to run a family meeting: https://www.verywellfamily.com/how-to-hold-a-successful-family-meeting-4155312
Here are a few tips to get you started. Use the ones that feel right for your family:
Contact me if you’d like a one hour coaching session where we will make a Winter Break screen time plan that’s just right for your family.
I live with my husband and two sons. My two boys are twelve and fifteen, well beyond the terrible twos, but for many months now I feel like I am back reliving the toddler years.
Two weeks ago, after a calm afternoon and pleasant evening, our older son lost it when we asked him to spend an evening with us, not online, playing videogames with his friends. A normally calm kid, he was enraged at the tyranny of his dictatorial parents, forcing him to play a round of “Code Names!” The persecution he felt was palpable, and it felt like he was going to call Amnesty International to report us for crimes against humanity. I looked at my husband and we smiled knowingly, working hard to wipe the smirks off our face. We had seen this before, but it had been about 13 years, when he was in diapers, Thomas the Tank Engine in hand.
Last week it was our younger son’s turn. He lost it when he just couldn’t take another day of distance learning, with the microphone not working, and wifi suddenly spotty. I think I saw steam coming out of his ears, cartoon style. And where did he learn those curse words? And laid out in proper order and emphasis! Is that what Discord is for?
And then it happened again, but this time it was my husband and then it was me. My husband did not want to fix the broken thermostat and went on a rampage about house projects and the inequity of gender roles in home improvement. And as for me, between keeping my cool over the people who don’t wear a mask and the lady at the grocery store who got a little too close to reach over me to get her salsa, the dam finally broke when I found out we wouldn’t be able to have Thanksgiving with our extended family. I yelled at my husband, my boys and the barking dog.... I’m not sure what I said. Well I do, but it’s not fit to print.
All four of us acted exactly the same: Anger, followed by yelling, followed by fuming and eventually embarrassment for these extreme reactions. If we were two-year-olds we would have been on the floor flailing our bodies in time with our outbursts.
What was happening? What had come over us? Had we all regressed back to the terrible twos? No, we hadn’t, we were just victims of what I call the Pandemic Tantrum and it’s not just for little ones. And we were ALL experiencing them again.
At first I felt terrible about the way we were all behaving. I know the pandemic has been hard, but are we really back to being toddlers? So I decided to do a little research. I found out that a tantrum is caused when the amygdala (the emotion center of the brain) detects a threat and the hypothalamus (the hormone center of the brain) causes you to snap. Without the developed prefrontal cortex of an adult to self regulate, most young children, and sometimes teens, lose it, triggering emotional fireworks going off in the brain. Kids’ brains literally don’t have the capacity to calm down the triggering of the threat and as a result they snap, cue the tantrum.
After my office visit with Dr. Internet I found an explanation for what’s going on with us. More than ever before in our lives are on edge. Since March, we have faced fears and disappointments that we never imagined. Under lockdown, we are faced with uncertainty of the vague threat of COVID, the poor quality of diplomacy exhibited by the President, political division, fire, poor air quality, no in-person school, hurricanes up and down the east coast, no summer camp, no certainty of when things will be back to normal, no traditional holidays, not to mention the pain, sorrow I feel for the trauma of systemic racism and the disproportionate impact of COVID on People of Color and marginalized groups. All of this is squeezing any last semblance of “normal life” we once had. Where we all had developed the ability to temper our emotions and outbursts, our hypothalamus and amygdala are working overtime to monitor all these threats and react with fight or flight. At the same time our prefrontal cortexes are DONE and have taken their own trip to Mexico, leaving us raw.
So here we are - naked and exposed, with our emotions tied to all the things right now that are out of control. What can we do? Short of getting out the old “What to Expect with a Two-Year Old” books somewhere stored with the baby clothes, I’ve taken a page from those old chestnuts of managing tantrums, and I’m applying them to all four of us.
As is often the case when we parent, I realized that I needed to soothe myself before I could help the kids. I have to take a breath and recognize that I am having a tantrum of my own. First, I let myself feel the anger, the frustration, the tyranny of it all. I have to let myself get mad. I try yelling into a pillow or in my car alone, or I can write (but not send) a scathing email. I know that resistance is futile, that I have to let myself feel the anger, give into the emotion. Let it out, so I can release and move on.
As I cool off, my prefrontal cortex reactivates and I can acknowledge that life is NOT even close to normal. I shared with my family what I learned about brain science and the new outbursts we were all experiencing. Together we came up with how to support each other when Hurricane Tantrum comes ashore. Here are the five things we all have agreed to do when someone else is melting down: we try not to yell back, we honor the feelings of anger and frustration, we try not take outbursts personally, we de-escalate things by staying calm and we use humor, distraction and hugs whenever possible. And we are encouraging ourselves to practice gratitude and compassion for ourselves and each other, even when we lose it.
And we acknowledged that we ARE under threat right now, that we will snap, and that more tantrums are inevitable. It’s actually comforting to know that our brains are working. In fact it’s probably the emotional release we all need under the circumstances.
That’s what is happening in my house and you know what...I’ve decided that it’s ok. With my new understanding of the brain science behind tantrums and my tantrum refresher course we are ready and able to ride them out until this pandemic is over and our brains can recalibrate as our lives get back to normal.
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I don’t know about you, but I have had to make BIG adjustments to our house rules, especially screen limits since the pandemic began. Before COVID, my boys had limited access to social media or gaming platforms. Now, my tween and teen are connecting to peers through Instagram and playing games online with friends. I know that I am not alone. Many of my parent coaching clients with younger children have had to resort to the screen to get work done or just get a break from being with the kids 24/7. I am exhausted and worn down after seven months of pandemic parenting and I am sure you are too.
Knowing my priorities for my kids is usually how my parenting decisions are anchored. After so many months of loosening all kinds of limits with my kids I find myself questioning my everyday decisions, unmoored and far away from where I feel confident as a parent. Without this foundation, inconsistency and instability are causing stress for everyone in my house. So I asked myself, “How can I get back in touch with my parenting values when it all feels so much like a moving target?”
I decided to take out a page from my parent coach training. One exercise we often ask of parents is to describe how they envision their child as an adult. What are the most important qualities they hope to instill in them when they are all grown up? For me that’s pretty easy. I hope my boys carry forward lessons from childhood that leave them resilient, gritty and tenacious. I want them to embrace a growth mindset, engage in intentional self care and give back to their community. I wish for them the ability to give and receive unconditional love. After doing this brief exercise I felt more in touch with my own guiding principles. I was able to focus my parenting decisions based on them. Each time I make a parenting decision, I know that I can fall back on these fundamental goals. I designed these four questions to make sure that my own decisions are aligned with my values when I am pushed to make decisions that are outside of my comfort zone.
The pandemic has been hard on parents. It has stretched us and forced us to make compromises with our kids that we never thought we would. If there is a lesson here, it is that sometimes it takes a shock to the system to rediscover what is most important to us. If you are feeling untethered from your parenting values take this time to reset. Ask yourself what are YOUR guiding parenting principles? What questions help you stay grounded in them? Use this opportunity to find your footing and to rebuild your confidence. Keep in mind the long game, the one in which the parenting decisions you are making today, however big or small, are supporting your vision for your child as they grow into adults no matter what is going on in the world around you.
The days full of anger and frustration seemed to be outweighing the days full of joy and satisfaction. My kids and I were locking horns over screen time every single day. I was struggling to get them following any limits, completing chores or finishing homework before getting on their devices. I was at my wit’s end and worried that our relationships were deteriorating into dangerously negative territory. Seeing my desperation a friend of mine recommended that I “talk to someone”. Therapy didn’t seem like the right fit. I didn’t need emotional healing, I needed a practical solution in the here and now. But my friend corrected me, she meant a parent coach, not a therapist. I was puzzled. I had heard of life coaches and executive coaches, but not parent coaches. She told me that like other coaches, parent coaching could help support me to make the positive changes I so badly needed.
I was ill at ease enough to look into it. After doing some research I decided to contact a parent coach. From the very first call I felt relieved that I had someone to help me. Coaching, I learned, was going to help me get in touch with my parenting priorities and values around screen time. It was time to block out the noise of the internet searches, parenting books and advice from family and friends and tune into what I really wanted for my kids and my family, and not just about screen time. Combined with her expertise about child development we would get me to a better place. I wasn’t sure I could fit coaching into my busy schedule but I set aside one hour each week for 10 weeks and it was worth it. For the first time, in a long time, I felt hopeful.
With the guidance FROM of my coach I was able to see that some things were actually working for screen time at my house, even in spite of the challenges. While they were on the screen more than I wanted, they were using it to learn new skills, connect with friends playing games that were interactive and collaborative.
We spent one session formulating my dream. The ideal family life that I was longing for without all of the tension and struggle. We spent a session talking about my strengths as a parent and my children’s strengths. I am really good at talking with my kids about things and making sure they know how I feel. They do well when rules are clear and they have a voice in decision making. Then we used the strengths to design the steps I would take to make my present day to day match my dream.
I engaged my boys in conversation when I wasn’t feeling charged or anxious and we were able to come up with some screen time parameters that worked for everyone. I had homework and there were times that I had to step out of my comfort zone. But each week I took a small step towards creating limits and boundaries around screen time at our house making sure my kids were part of the process. It wasn't perfect and it didn’t resolve everything, but it made life easier and I felt the joy return to our household and in my relationships with my kids.
Coaching is also about engaging in self care because it is an essential part generating the high energy and focus that is required to be a parent. It is so easy to let it go when there is barely enough time in the day to maintain balance between work and family. I came up with the self care that works for me. It felt doable, just 10 minutes a day to take a walk, meditate or write in my journal. On days when I followed through (most of the time) I was more patient with the kids.
While having a better screen time balance in my household was the reason I sought out a parent coach, I came away with so much more:
I am grateful to my friend for introducing me to parent coaching. In this day and age when so many people are raising kids without the help of extended family around, and now so many of us are isolated from our regular communities due to COVID, it is nice to know that there is a resource out there to help.
If you want to learn more about parent coaching and how it can support you please visit www.truenorthparentcoaching.com.
Everyone agrees that in-person learning is best for most kids. Being in school provides not only the best academic learning opportunities but is essential for the social-emotional development of all children. In addition, some kids depend on school for meals and other important services. For many parents having kids at home is an economic stressor which makes it impossible for them to go to work or even work at home. In California, where I live, most schools have started with distance learning as mandated by the governor. As the counties in my area see cases decreasing, schools are making plans to reopen. While all parents have the option to continue with distance learning, many are faced with the decision of whether or not to let their child return in person. We all want our kids to go back to school, but we all want them to be safe too. It feels like an impossible decision. Here are 8 questions to ask yourself while you weigh the pros and cons:
Remember to breathe, stay grounded and trust that you know what is best for your child and your family.
If you need more support and would like some coaching in making this decision please contact email@example.com. True north is offering individual and group coaching sessions to help you.
Distance learning is hard on everyone, but especially for our youngest learners and their caregivers. That is why True North Parent Coaching and the PA of the Contra Costa Jewish Day School created a workshop: Tips and Tools: Strategies for Successful Distance Learning for Young Learners K-3. We gathered a group of parents to find out about their most pressing issues around distance learning and to share strategies to increase focus, promote independence, manage screen time and much more. We compiled the results in this Resource Guide. Please use it and share it. If you are interested in bringing the workshop to your school or organization please contact Truenorthparentcoaching@gmail.com
To watch the workshop for free click HERE
Recently my friend sent me this great article, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Screen, by Linda Wilbrecht, PhD. It helps frame some of the positive ways that screen time can support teens during the Pandemic. When I received the article I had already been reflecting on how much screen time my two teenage sons have had since the lockdown in March. Since the boys were young, we have always limited their screen time out of the fear of the negative side effects like screen addiction, social isolation, increased anxiety and depression and lack of in person communication skills.
This past summer, without their regular summer activities, the boys were on the screens a whole lot more, and I know it was the same for most kids. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it wasn’t all bad and that even in my own home there are some really positive ways screen time is helping my kids through this crisis. So much of what my kids were choosing to do was actually helping foster many of the things that I had feared in the first place! Instead of becoming addicted, they are actually finding their own screen balance, increasing social connection, sharpening their communication skills and learning new things.
One of their friends developed a server for Minecraft, the “world building game”. Together, they go on adventures and build new worlds including a “Capture the Flag” arena where they actually play “Capture the Flag”. This past weekend, six kids got together to fight the Enderdragon and “win” the game. While they play, they talk and chat through Discord, a communication platform. But the great thing is that they organized this all themselves! From the other room, I hear them working together, being creative, working out conflict and collaborating in ways that they just can’t do right now in person. Both of my kids are exploring their interests and developing new skills using their screens. One is learning to draw his favorite anime characters while the other is teaching himself to repair and maintain his bicycle.They are also spending time diving mindlessly into the black hole of YouTube videos and there seems to be a place for that too.
We have had conversations about different types of screen time because as Linda Wilbrecht writes in the article, "it may not be the amount of screen time that is important, but what we are doing with our screens." She makes a good point and with this in mind it became my goal to help them to distinguish between active, productive screen time where they are building skills and passive screen time which is purely for entertainment. Encouraging them to balance active and passive screen activities made the difference between feeling good about their increased screen use and my worry that they are online too much.
My boys still don’t have free reign of their screen time. We talk about it daily, how much, what kind and how it makes them feel. All screens are off by 9:30pm. We make time to connect as a family each evening. We make sure that they are getting enough exercise and sleep. So while I still can’t say that I love the screen, it isn’t scaring me as much as it used to. I am more at peace because I see its value for my sons during this time that they are cut off from their friends. I appreciate their giving me a new perspective on an “old foe” in these challenging times.
In her article “Four Things to Do Every Day for Your Mental Health”, Elizabeth Markle says that, “in the absence of everything that normally dictates our days, we are called on to create the structures that will support our health, physically and emotionally, in a time of profound uncertainty.” Markle advocates that we all create our own structure using these four concepts:
Move: Build movement in your structure, at least 20 minutes per day!
Nourish: setting up a daily structure that (mostly) fills you with nourishing, healthy foods
Connect: Humans need to connect to other humans. Since right now it won’t naturally happen throughout the day, you have to ask for it and schedule it.
Be: Pause long enough from the chaos of our new realities “to let your nervous system come back to baseline after prolonged activation.” Find what works for you, be it meditation, doing a puzzle or simply watching TV. Whatever helps you just BE.
As parents we can take care of ourselves by incorporating some of this into our daily routines, as we model for and support our kids, of any age, to do the same.
Read the full article:
I came across a great article in the NY Times by Anya Kamenetz, education reporter for NPR and author of “The Art of Screen Time”. As a full time working parent who lectures about screen time all over the country, she uses this article to reframe the issue of screen time during the time of COVID. The screen rules that were in place before shelter in place no longer have the same meaning or value for most families. Life for her and for most parents has dramatically changed as kids regular summer and school routines were interrupted last Spring. And with no end in sight she offers up some new screen time guidelines:
Find the full article here.
Jenny Michaelson is a PCI,
Writing Contributor at: