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  • Dr. Rachel Kramer

January 23: Changing the Rules

Last week, I made a presentation to parents at a local school and was asked a question about screen time that brought up a lot of issues that seem particularly relevant right now. Here’s the question (I’m paraphrasing): "At our house we have a ‘no screen time during the school week’ policy (except as needed for homework). My child asked to be able to use an app to watch a show on weeknights with a few friends since it’s hard to socialize in person right now, and this feels like a way to keep up a social connection. Do you think I should change my family policy?"

Right now, so many parents I talk with are caught between wanting to provide structure and boundaries at home and feeling sad and worried that their children are once again being limited in their ability to meet friends and participate in activities due to worries about the Omicron variant. I have spoken before about the importance of setting limits on screen time, but this message is about a broader topic. In this parent's situation, I believe there is a great opportunity to model flexibility and to communicate about several important topics. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that every family should change their screen policy because of the Omicron surge. The scripts I’m offering relate to this specific example but can easily be tweaked to use in a variety of other situations in which children are asking you to change a rule.

  • If you are considering changing a family rule or policy based on a child’s request, first have a conversation in which you ask your child to be explicit about what they are asking for and why they think it is reasonable to request a change: “You want to use an app where you and your friends can all watch a show and talk about it while you’re watching? Tell me how that would work.”

  • Ask about specifics: which friends, what show, how often?

  • You may agree to none, part, or all of the request. No matter the outcome, you have given your child good practice verbalizing a need and self-advocating.

  • If you decide to change a family rule or policy, use language that makes it clear that you have heard your child’s request and decided to make a new plan. State clearly that you are responding to the logical reasons your child made the request (rather than merely caving into whining): “You made some really good points about how much you miss your friends and how fun it would be to watch this show with them.”

  • Be explicit about the fact that you are being flexible so that you communicate to your child that flexibility is valued in your family: “I have decided to be flexible. We’re going to change our rule about no screen time during the school week.”

  • Talk about logistics related to the change. In this example, you might require that homework and any evening chores will need to be completed prior to logging on to watch.

  • If your change in policy is related to temporary circumstances such as the Omicron surge, set clear boundaries around when the change in policy will end:

  • “I’ve decided we can change this rule between now and school vacation. After vacation, our plan is to go back to no screens during the school week.”

  • “I’m going to commit to this new plan for 3 weeks. When 3 weeks are up, we’ll have a conversation about what’s next.”

  • If you are planning on a temporary change of rules, talk with your child about how it will feel when things change back (in this example, when extra screen time ends). This situation provides a great opportunity to preview and problem solve together about managing disappointment:

  • “How do you think it will feel when we change back to our old rule?”

  • “I wonder if you’ll feel frustrated or disappointed? What will that be like?”

  • “What ideas do you have about how you’ll manage those tricky feelings?”

Finally, if you decide to make a COVID-related temporary change in screen time or some other family policy, I encourage you to do so with an open heart, without feeling guilty about the decision and without feeling resentful that your child is asking for more. Communicate to your child that you are making this change with a generous attitude in the spirit of family members being attuned to each other’s needs during this challenging time.

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