Jan. 18, 2021

Ask Margaret - How To Turn Off Screens Without Tears

A listener asks how to help her child regulate the strong emotions that arise whenever it's time for screens to go off.

Today's question comes from Crystal in our Facebook group (facebook.com/groups/whatfreshhellcast):

My six-year-old son is very difficult at the end of screen time. He gets one hour in the afternoon, but always fusses, grunts angrily, or melts down when time is up.

I feel like in a normal world, I'd just take screen time away when he gives me attitude. But these days, we are home all the time, and it’s the one thing he enjoys.

How do I help him develop the ability to regulate his emotions in this situation?

The biggest thing a parent can do to help a child regulate their emotions around transitions is to provide runways. Doing this will ensure that the transition of getting off screens isn't a sudden splash of cold water for your kid.

Try using a visual timer - so that kids who struggle with the hypothetical concept of "one hour" can easily see how much screen time they have left.

You can also verbally count down the hour by saying "45 minutes left", "30 minutes left," et cetera, but we think it's always better to let the timer be the bad guy.

Once it's time to turn screens off, allowing a brief grace period for your child to finish their current level or video helps give them some sense of control. Once that happens, transition immediately to another preferred activity. This does not have to be elaborate; it can be as simple as "let's have a glass of milk together in the kitchen."

If your child still melts down after you've implemented these strategies, then it's time for consequences– but make them immediate. Saying "if you fuss now, you'll have no screens later" provides a delayed consequence that doesn't work as well, especially for younger kids. Try addressing the behavior with an immediate consequence– a time out, or loss of access to the preferred activity that was coming up next.

Finally, apply all of these techniques consistently. Keep the time remaining clear, allow for grace periods, enforce immediate consequences when necessary, and this behavior should improve.

Send us your parenting questions- we might answer yours next!


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