8 Simple Strategies to Prevent Your Child’s Techno-Tantrums

A guest post by Dr Kristy Goodwin

Many parents today have endured their child’s techno-tantrums from time to time. This is when their child or teen emotionally combusts when they’re asked to turn off the iPad or gaming console.

Unlike ‘conventional’ tantrums, techno-tantrums aren’t restricted to the toddler years. They can persist into adolescence. In fact, as a researcher I’ve seen my fair share of primary and secondary students throwing techno-tantrums when asked to switch off digital devices in the classroom. Many parents and professionals report that otherwise well-adjusted kids get agitated, angry and frustrated when asked to switch off a device. Techno-tantrums aren’t a red flag that kids are ‘addicted’ to technology, nor are they a sign that we should ban screens.

Let me reassure you. Techno-tantrums are in fact considered a ‘typical’ neurobiological response. We know, for example, when kids use screens it’s usually a pleasurable experience. Watching You Tube clips, or playing a game, or viewing social media posts all activate the reward system in the brain. So their brain is releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine. When parents peel the gaming console from their teens’ hands, or the TV remote control from their child’s clutches, you’re terminating their supply of dopamine!

As a mum who’s endured her share of techno-tantrums let me assure you that there are some simple strategies that you can implement to prevent the onset of the techno-tantrum. These strategies have been mum-tested and are also grounded in the research and science about how technology is impacting their brains and bodies.

  1. Establish boundaries before devices are switched on

It’s impossible to negotiate screen-time limits with your child once the device is switched on. Many parents are all too familiar with the ‘digital zombie state’ their child enters when they’re in front of a screen. If you establish limits and boundaries around how long they can play/watch/create before the device is switched on you’re much more likely to avoid the techno-tantrum.

Bonus tip- have discussions about screen-time in the morning and not at night. Kids’ logical brain (their prefrontal cortex) doesn’t work effectively at night and their amygdala (emotional part of the brain) takes over.

  1. Cognitive priming

When kids are playing a game, or using an app they often become so engrossed with their screen activity that they lose track of time. This is why kids often say, “But I’ve only been playing for ten minutes…” when it’s actually closer to 2-hours! They enter the psychological state of flow where their concept of time disappears. That’s why it’s imperative that you warn your child before it’s time to switch off the device.

“Sam, you’ve got ten more minutes on your game and then I want you to turn it off.” This not only psychologically prepares your child that the end is looming, but it also gives them sufficient time to make any preparations to finish what they’re doing. For example, do they need to let their friends know that they’re about leave the group SMS chat (this is particularly important for girls as many are ostracised if they don’t keep up in an SMS loop)? Perhaps they need to save what they’ve been working on, or finish the activity they were undertaking.

Bonus tip- notice in the example above the child was directed to turn off the screen. This is a subtle but powerful use of language as your child feels like they’re in control. When kids feel that they have a locus of control over their situation they’re much more likely to co-operate.

  1. Have an appealing transition activity

Given that their brains are releasing dopamine when using a screen and the reward pathways in the brain are activated, coming in and barking orders to, “Turn off the TV and go and do your maths homework!!!” will usually be met with the techno-tantrum. Instead, give your child or teen a choice of appealing activities to complete when they turn off the device. A choice of two is sufficient and they must be appealing for your child. For example, you could say to your six-year-old son, “It’s time to turn off the iPad. After you’ve turned it off would you like to jump on trampoline or work on your Lego puzzle?”

  1. Give a quantity not an amount of time

Giving kids a screen-time limit only works if kids have a conceptual understanding of time (which typically develops between 6-8 years). Saying to a three-year-old you have half-an-hour watching TV is pointless. Instead, give kids a quantity. You could agree on the number of TV episodes or You Tube clips they could watch, or you could determine the level in the game that they could reach, or specify the number of objects they’ll craft in Minecraft. Giving kids a quantity is much more objective than a time limit and gives them a firm boundary. This is important because when our kids use technology they enter the ‘state of insufficiency’ where they rarely feel complete or done. There’s always another video they could watch or another level in the game they could reach, or another update in social media.

Bonus tip- if your child understands time, use the timer app on your mobile device or a kitchen timer. Kids are much less likely to argue with a timer (than you) and it’s pointless to plead for more time with a timer.

  1. Provide a cut-off time or point

Given that our kids enter the state of flow and the state of insufficiency when using technology we have to provide them with artificial end points. They need hard stop points. Often games, apps and social media don’t have a finish point. Instead, you could say to your child, “When you reach level 7 I want you to turn off the game”, or, “When it transitions from day to night I want you to turn it off.”

  1. Empty their sensory cup

Using screens can hyper-arouse kids and cause their sensory and nervous systems to become overloaded. This is a chief cause of the techno-tantrum (particularly boys who appear to be more vulnerable to this stressed post-screen state). Parents need to help kids and teens calm down after using a screen. Time in nature, physical activity, having a shower or bath, chewing ice, playing with playdoh or Lego are great ways to get kids to empty their sensory cups. These activates, especially physical activities, help with their cortisol (stress hormone) discharge.

  1. Establish AND enforce your boundaries

Parents need to be the pilot of the digital plane (not the passenger). This means that parents need to help establish healthy boundaries around screen activities and not allow their child to be in control of the digital plan. Kids need to be involved in the decision making, but it’s up to parents to enforce the boundaries.

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Establishing boundaries is relatively easy, but consistently enforcing them is much more difficult. Try to be firm with your boundaries around screen-time. Giving into their desperate pleas for another hour, or another level tells your child that you’re willing to negotiate. And we all know how effective their pester-power can be! Try, where you can to stick to your boundaries.

It’s important to note, that sometimes we must be flexible. Demanding that they turn off a device immediately can be frustrating especially if they’re part way through work they’re editing or creating, or if they’re at a critical stage in the movie. Just like you wouldn’t like it if your partner demanded that you turn off the movie at a time, nor do our kids respond well to arbitrary cut-off times.

Bonus tip- Have logical consequences if kids don’t adhere to your boundaries. I’m not talking about using screen-time as a punishment (this is something I strongly discourage) but our kids need to learn that if they don’t follow the established boundaries then there are logical consequences. We want our kids to see technology as a privilege, not a right.

  1. Discuss after the event

If your child has a techno-tantrum (and remember, they’re inevitable) give them some space before discussing it. Don’t reason in moment. Talking to them when you’re feeling frustrated and they’re in a stressed state is a recipe for disaster. Given that boys take longer to process emotions and find the language to describe the situation, it might take boys a few days to process. Girls may need a shorter time frame than boys. Ask them what else they could you do next time that would be a more appropriate way of behaving?

Plan, don’t ban technology. Digital abstinence isn’t the solution.

Given that our kids will inherit a digital world we need to teach them how to use technology in healthy and helpful ways and how to mitigate any potential pitfalls. They can only develop these skills if they use technology. They can’t learn these vital life-long skills through osmosis.

Whilst there’s no silver bullet or one specific strategy that I can completely guarantee (and no, there isn’t yet an app that predicts or prevents techno-tantrums), what I know for sure as a mum is that the basics work, if you work the basics. Pick three strategies from above that you think would work for your child and consistently implement them. Over time, your child will gradually learn that throwing a tantrum when asked to switch off the iPad isn’t an appropriate or socially-acceptable way to behave (we’d like to hope that our sixteen-year old daughters learn that flapping around on the floor like a seal isn’t the best way to cope when your mum tells you it’s time to go to bed without your device).

Guest blog author:

Dr Kristy Goodwin is one of Australia’s leading digital parenting experts (and a mum who also deals with her kids’ techno-tantrums!). She is the author of Raising Your Child in a Digital World, a speaker and researcher. In March 2018 she will be joining Maggie for the very special event, Raising Children Who Shine: Exploring Toddlers to 10-year-olds in Perth, Brisbane and Sydney. Find out more…