3 Steps To Fewer Fights Over Screen Time

Dr. Delaney Ruston

During the early days when I was first struggling with my kids over screen time, I found that when I saw them on a screen when they weren’t supposed to be, I would react quickly from a place of frustration. I knew this approach was not how I wanted to be handling things. That is when I started to look deeper at the research about what works best for promoting behaviors we want our children to engage in. 

Tammy Fisher Huson, Ph.D., is the author of “Fearless Parenting,” among other books, and has fortunately taught me about the power of the Nurtured Heart Approach. Psychologist Howard Glasser developed this method of working with kids.  Glasser’s approach is based on his observation that children so often get attention when they are acting up, but adults often ignore them when things are going well. Children subconsciously want attention, even if it is not the best kind, and so they may act in ways to get the type of attention that is not ideal. What if adults started directing their energy toward the behaviors they want more of, rather than the undesired actions? Sure enough, when this approach is employed, it often leads to more of the behaviors we want to see in our kids  — including those around screen time issues. 

The Nurtured Heart Approach is based on three principals, which are like three legs of a stool:

Absolute Clarity, Absolute No, and Absolute Yes. These three “absolutes” are not about what we say to our kids but how we ourselves operate.

Absolute Clarity is about being clear about expectations and rules and consequences. (Ideally, a family will have done the work to come up with screen time etiquette and limits  together.) Absolute Clarity is being transparent about why certain rules exist — such as deciding as a family that tech should be put away during meals because, as a family, you value uninterrupted time together. 

The idea of Absolute No is that the parent does not get energized and mad if a child does not follow a rule, or does a behavior that you do not want them to be doing. So it means that the parent does not give significant energy when a rule gets broken. This does not mean they ignore or dismiss the rule, but instead to stay calm. 

Let’s say your tween was supposed to stop being on their phone by 10 pm. The phone should be in the kitchen by 10, but at 10:30 you find your daughter in her room on her phone. Rather than putting your energy toward getting mad at her by saying something like, “Hey, that is NOT OK,  you know you were supposed to put that away!” Instead, you would take a few deep breaths, calmly ask for the phone, and say goodnight. Then, the next day you would employ Absolute Clarity — you had a clear rule, and it was broken, and the goal is a small consequence was already established. So you would then say to her, “Tonight you need to turn in the phone at 9:30, and then tomorrow it will be 10 again.” You don’t want to give big consequences, but rather you want her to be able to get another chance very soon to show she can follow the boundaries — our kids can do that, and we want to give them opportunities to show they can. 

Now let’s get to Absolute Yes, which is the part I love about all of this — it is a mindset and practice I have employed and has made such a difference. It is all about holding a mirror up and pointing out the good choices your child makes. You say things like, “Wow, how you handled things with your friend Sara shows real bravery. You asked to talk about those issues and, then, how you were a strong listener shows such great strength.”

And in terms of screen time, examples are, “Hey, I saw that  you got off your game right on time, that shows a lot of responsibility.” Or,  “I noticed you put your phone away last night without me asking, that really shows a lot of respect, and how reliable you are.” Or, “I just want to say that I see how consistently you follow the rule about asking to use my computer, and I’m impressed by your ability to be so on top of that — it really shows your self-discipline.”

Let’s take another situation. Two siblings prone to fighting are in the kitchen talking about things, joking around, and having fun. You enter the room. With the Absolute Yes approach, you might say something like: “It’s so fun to see you being pals, I love how you make each other laugh. What a great quality in both of you.” Then, later on, when the siblings are fighting, you want to stay calm and give their argument very little energy. You might need to intervene, and if you do, do it with low energy. The point is that it is easy not to point out the times when they are making each other happy or when they are working together to clean the kitchen, which is why it is even more impactful when you point it out. 

Another key point, particularly for teens, is to point out the fact that a lot of the behaviors our kids do are not easy.  Let’s say you had to remind your child to get off his game to come to the table. You are frustrated that you have to remind him, and so often, we add fuel to that by being angry when they finally come to the table. We say things like “I should not have to remind you so much!”

Instead, with this Absolute Yes approach, when your child finally comes to the table, you might say something like: “Hey, I see you left your game, and came to the table, and I know that was not easy. You love that game, and disconnecting is really hard.  It shows a lot of willpower, and it shows that you know our dinners are important.”

There’s a good chance the child will still be a bit grumpy, but often you will see their face light up because you have held up a mirror and are talking about the good decisions they made rather than our natural tendency to get frustrated by their poor decisions (i.e., that he was late to the table). 

Tammy once said this to me in an interview for Screenagers NEXT CHAPTER:

“What do I really want to build in my child? Maybe it’s resiliency. I need to be more resilient under challenge. Maybe it’s persistence. And you choose that idea and then you’re going to look for it. And then you’re going to name it. I need to reset myself. I cannot call my kid lazy because if I continue to put voice to that, he will be. He will rise to whatever we name. Whatever you name, you get more of. So I decided to name greatness. Decide to name something you want more of that’s powerful and positive.”

 Take-home points from my personal experiences

  1. I started to point out positive behaviors with my teens more often. For example, if Tessa regularly put her phone by my bed on time to charge at night, I might say something like: “Hey, hun, I just want to say that I have been really impressed by how on top of it you have been with your phone at night. That shows a lot of responsibility on your part, and a lot of respect for yourself to make sure you are getting the sleep you deserve.”
  2. I have also started doing this more in other areas of my teens’ lives. Not long ago, I was driving Tessa home from school, and she talked about a social conflict she was having with her friends. While she talked, I consciously looked for the parts of what she said that I could reflect back to her. I said: “So even though you were angry, you were able to act calm, and you went and talked with her. That is not easy, you could have just avoided it all. And instead, you stepped into the challenge and that shows real grit and courage.” I saw Tessa’s face light up. The best part about that was that she mentioned how much she enjoyed hearing me say that a few days later. 

What parents can do

At this point, you might worry that your child (especially if you have an adolescent) will roll their eyes if you engage in the Nurtured Heart Approach. The good thing is that when you follow these steps, it will happen far less than you would expect. The key is how we do it. It is a combination of three steps that make all the difference. 

First, describe the facts (i.e., you turned in your phone, you resolved with your brother who gets to use the Xbox). 

Second, let them know that you recognize the challenge they faced in doing what they were doing in order to follow the rules (i.e., you finally turned off TikTok, and I know how hard it is. You laugh a ton when watching it and having to stop is not easy). This step of validation gets teens to listen without rolling their eyes. They (like all of us) love to feel like someone really gets what they are going through.  

Third, give them specific examples of the positive things their action shows about them (i.e., you left your phone at home during our outing today, and it shows that you value undistracted time with your family. That is such a great quality in you). 

Ideas for conversation starters:

  1. As a family, can we describe some positive behaviors we see each of us doing to manage screen time? What do these actions say about each of us? 
  2. Absolute No is about not putting energy toward what is not going right. Do you put a lot of energy toward things when they are not going right? 
  3. Absolute Yes is about putting energy toward what is going right. Can you think of examples for when I have done this?
  4. Absolute Clarity is about not being confused about what the boundaries and rules are. It is about having clarity and consistency. Do you think we have that in our home? If not, where can we work to make things clearer?

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