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6 Steps for Defusing Screen Time Arguments with Teenagers

Updated: Apr 26

Setting screen time boundaries with teenagers can feel like a daunting task. Dr Danielle Einstein shares her 6 steps for defusing arguments and reconnecting your family.

One of the most common questions I am asked by parents is how to deal with conflicts arising from setting or changing screen time limits with kids. As a clinical psychologist and a mother, I have faced (and continue to face) these challenges with my clients and my own children.

Firstly, applaud yourself for taking the step to impose some healthy boundaries. The era of the smartphone has transformed our lives so rapidly, it’s not surprising that many of us feel completely ill-equipped to deal with device addiction in our families. I often see members of my own family reach for their phone to get the next dopamine hit. There’s a reason our smartphones are so addictive - they are designed that way!

Once you have agreed on the boundaries you will put in place with your partner and communicated these to your kids (you can find a guide to setting sensible screen time limits in The Dip), it is wise to prepare yourself for some (or lots) of resistance.

Your child may well issue a range of verbal insults such as “I hate you”, “you are the worst mum in the world”, “ or “I won’t do anything you ask me to”.

Then you think to yourself – “Now I have lost all hope, she will be on her screen for the whole afternoon” (this is known as catastrophising where we jump to the worst possible scenario in our heads). Your child might storm away doing something designed to upset you, like taking your laptop.

This can feel very frustrating and our initial reaction might be to get into an argument. But if we want to change our child’s behaviour, it’s important to stop and try not to react.

These six steps are a good way of dealing with arguments with kids about screen time limits.

  1. Do not react. You might say – “I understand how angry you are, so I am just going to stay away from you for the time being.” Or you might say nothing at all, which is also perfectly fine.

  2. Unless you believe that your child is in imminent physical danger (in which case, please see a health professional), take yourself to a different space. Go to the car, take a walk, or move to a different area of your home. Switch your own phone onto ‘do not disturb’ if your child starts trying to call you repeatedly.

  3. If necessary, call a support person in private like your spouse, a parent or a friend. Chatting to them about what just happened will help you to stop thinking the worst (catastrophising) and you should start to feel calmer and more in control. Try and contain your conversation to one person.

  4. When you return to your child, don’t try to resolve the situation immediately. Just carry on with your own necessary activities, however, make sure you choose activities that do not involve a device. Prepare some food, sort an area of your home or work, do the washing, or read a book - whatever you can do offline.

  5. If your child hasn’t eaten and is hungry, either suggest they eat or help them by getting some food out. Keep calm, don’t get drawn into another discussion and wait for time to pass. Remember, you are implementing a strategy that will take some time to consolidate - have confidence it will work over time. After a while, you can write some emails or do online work.

  6. A few hours later, you may be able to remind your child of approximately how much time they have been on their screen and let them know that you will be containing their use now. Ask them what else they need to do - have they completed all their homework? If you want to go out, you will either need to take their computer (and other accessible devices) with you or you can make an adjustment to the parental control so their screen use will stop at a certain time. Let them decide.

As with all parenting, there is no such thing as perfect. Some days you will tackle these challenges better than others. That is fine, you are doing your best at any given moment and that is always enough.

Got more questions? Get your copy of The Dip - a practical guide to taking control of device addiction and reconnecting your family.

Dr Danielle Einstein is a leading expert in understanding the impact of devices on mental health in teenagers. For 20 years she has developed and researched programs that prevent and treat anxiety, depression and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.

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