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screentime meltdowns

Perspective | ‘What should I do about screen-time meltdowns?’

A screen-time expert's advice on how to handle the inevitable clashes.

One screen-time question I get all the time from parents is:

How do I deal with the meltdowns that come when my kid has to give up a phone, an iPad or a computer, or when I ask them to stop gaming? 

It is important to understand that we are not having a fair fight with our kids when we ask them to give up their devices. This is because persuasive design, a combination of psychology and technology intended to change our behavior, has been embedded into the products themselves.

(You can read more about how persuasive design works here and see examples of it here.)

Again, we have to remember that asking our child to give up a screen is not a fair fight. These products are designed to hold our kids’ attention, and when we take them away, we’re interrupting a flow of feel-good hormones to our children’s brains. Those hormones in their bodies are saying, “This feels good. I don’t want to stop.”

When the device is taken away, the brain revolts and you get a meltdown.

Meltdowns are one of the biggest stressors for families — whether it’s the 2-year-old and the iPad or the tween and the smartphone or the gamer not wanting to stop gaming.

So what do we do?

We Must Teach Our Kids About Persuasive Design

It helps adults to understand why our children feel such a strong pull to these devices. It stands to reason that our kids will also benefit from the understanding that their struggle is not some character flaw or weakness on their part.

We’ve got to talk to our children about how their brains are being manipulated by the very products they’re using.

Do not broach the topic when they have a device in their hands. Wait for a time without persuasive design influencing the discussion. Use the time to teach them why it’s so hard for their brains to stop scrolling or gaming. Give them details about why it’s so hard for them to get off the game.

I believe that when kids understand what’s going on, it’s easier for them to make different choices. At the very least, they can recognize the fight that they’re up against, which changes the conversation you can have with them when a meltdown is imminent.

Parents Have to Set Limits

As parents, we have to recognize that limit setting is really important. And it is our job as parents to set limits.

Parents ask me all the time, “Well, how much is too much screen time?”

And I give a very unhelpful answer, which is:

A little bit of screen time is OK, but a lot is too much.

What does that mean? Well, it depends on:

  • Your child’s age

  • Your family’s values

  • How much time they’re spending on screens for school (which might be a lot more than usual, especially because of the pandemic)

Pick Your Non-Negotiables

Pick one or two rules that are your “non-negotiables.” These are the things you care so deeply about that you know you will not cave in when the going gets rough.  These are the hard, fast rules that must be decided upon together as a family. If an older sibling or partner refuses to commit to the rule, you may want to start somewhere else.

Make your one or two non-negotiables what you focus on first. If you can stick to those one or two goals for two weeks, you will see some positive changes.

Be Consistent

When you choose your non-negotiables, check to make sure the rest of the family is on board with adhering to the rules themselves.

Getting a younger child to follow a rule the rest of the family willfully ignores is impossible. For example, if we have a family rule that there are no devices at the dinner table — but mom or dad or big brother is constantly breaking that rule — you’ve already lost the battle.

Children have to see the behavior modeled by their parents, older siblings and other family members.

One of the hardest things about setting limits when it comes to screen time is being consistent.

Navigating the Inevitable Meltdown

There is this feeling that if I give my kid a phone now, I’m buying myself some peace and quiet in the short term. This is true. And I get it. We’ve all been there.

Unfortunately, when your child’s time with the device is up, you’ll get a meltdown.

If we give in so we can have some peace, we should recognize that there are two sides to the bargain. We need to acknowledge that our kids will have a hard time and that a meltdown is inevitable. We need to tell our kids that we know they’re going to have a hard time, and we need to allocate the time for them to have that meltdown.

The price for a few moments of peace can be pretty steep.

When you know you’re heading for a meltdown, you can create a plan to manage it better:

1. Set a time limit before you hand over the device.

2. Empathize with your child’s difficulty giving the item up.

3. Remind them of your agreement to only use the device for X amount of time.

4. Set a timer so they know when to stop.

5. Create a plan for what to do with the energy that will come with setting down the device.

As an example, you may say to a young child:

“I know this is really hard for you. Your brain really likes the screen and wants you to keep playing, but our time is up. This is the agreement we made. So I’m going to give you a countdown. I’ll set a timer. When it goes off, I want you to do somersaults to burn off that extra energy that your body is going to have when you’re done.”

Celebrate Their Successes

When your child is done with their meltdown, celebrate the conclusion.

So often the kids hear criticisms of their behavior; less often do they hear our celebration of the small moments and victories. Even if the meltdown took 20 minutes to recover from, acknowledge that it did end and you noticed that. Even if they fight you on giving up the iPad, but eventually do, focus on the fact that they did, eventually, comply. We want our kids to know we see what they are capable of and that we believe in their ability to cope.

We can offer our reassurances and support if they want it (and some may not), but we also want to show them that we believe they can work through this.

For some children, excessive screen use can cause much bigger emotional reactions. If your child is engaging in self-harm or causing you physical harm or engages in other forms of destructive behavior, it may be time to get external help. Start with your pediatrician.

This post was previously published on The Screentime Consultant blog.

Editor’s note: Publication of an opinion piece does not mean Seattle’s Child or its staff endorses the views of the author.

More in Amplified:

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About the Author

Emily Cherkin

Emily empowers parents to understand and balance family screentime by inspiring a movement around becoming Tech-Intentional™. As a mother of two children and former teacher, she is intimately familiar with the daunting challenges facing families in today’s highly digitized world. Emily is the author of the book The Screentime Solution: A Judgment-Free Guide to Becoming a Tech-Intentional Family, released in 2024. Learn more at