Screens to Soothe Tantrums?

Your toddler has that tell-tale pout and scowl, his face is getting red, and you can tell he’s just minutes away from a meltdown. You’re in a crowded restaurant or visiting friends, or maybe even in your home with lots of items on your to-do list for the day. You hand him your phone or iPad to distract him, or plop him down in front of the TV and put on some cartoons. 

It’s a natural reaction. You’ve distracted your child long enough to avoid the full-scale tantrum, and there’s nothing wrong with a little screen time, right? A recent study suggests that this might not be the best plan. 

Long-term effects

When you pass over your phone to head off a hissy fit, you may not be thinking about the potential long-term effects of using screens to soothe tantrums. But researchers at the University of Michigan followed 422 children aged 3 to 6 years and gained some insights into the problems this practice can cause.

“[I]ncreased use of mobile devices for calming children aged 3 to 5 years was found to be associated with decreased executive functioning and increased emotional reactivity,” they concluded. What does that mean?

Decreased executive functioning

Executive functioning is the term for what we might think of as brain administration. Planning, managing emotions, and organizing thoughts are all part of executive functioning. Medically, executive functioning can be affected by mood disorders, dementia, and ADHD, among other things. 

Small children are still developing these skills, and we don’t expect 3-year-olds to be able to manage their emotions as older children and adults can. But it turns out that distracting kids with screen time can keep them from learning how to manage their emotions as well as they could if other approaches to tantrum control are used. 

Extra screen time to distract kids from tantrums seem to keep them from learning how to cope with the strong emotions that bring on tantrums.

Increased emotional reactivity

Being triggered by an event and reacting with impulsive behavior is called emotional reactivity. A five-year-old might experience this if she doesn’t get the extra cookie she asked for, but many adults can relate to that. Even adults can lash out or find themselves experiencing a fight-or-flight response that may be out of proportion to the trigger. 

Three months and six months after the beginning of the study, children whose parents often used screens to soothe their tantrums showed higher levels of emotional reactivity than those who had gotten the chance to learn strategies for managing their emotions.

Some children more than others

Researchers found that the effects they noticed were stronger in boys than in girls. But they also saw greater effects in kids of either sex who were high in surgency. 

Surgency is a description of a personality that is impulsive, extraverted, highly sociable, and reward-seeking. These children are likely to be intense and high energy. These characteristics often show up in adults as leadership, charisma, and spontaneity.

The researchers stressed that finding other ways of calming tantrums was particularly important for boys and surgent children. But screen time is probably not the best go-to solution for tantrums for any child. 

Alternative strategies

Preschool tantrums are a common occurrence and can be distressing for both the child and the parent. It can help to understand that tantrums are a normal part of a child’s development and can be caused by various factors, including frustration, hunger, fatigue, or feeling overwhelmed.

There are several strategies that you can use to soothe preschool tantrums:

  • Stay calm: Tantrums can be stressful, but it is important to remain calm and composed. Your child will pick up on your emotions, and if you become angry or frustrated, it can escalate the situation.
  • Validate their feelings: Acknowledge your child’s emotions and let them know it’s okay to feel upset or frustrated. Use phrases like “I understand you are upset” or “It’s okay to feel angry.”
  • Use a calm voice: Speak in a soft and soothing tone to help your child feel calm and secure. Avoid raising your voice or using aggressive language.
  • Ask them to take some deep breaths with you. Show them how taking big breaths in and out can help you both calm down. 
  • Distract them: Once you’ve acknowledged their emotions, a change of scenery or activity can help your child manage the tantrum. Try offering a toy or book, or suggesting a fun activity to redirect their attention.
  • Use positive reinforcement: Praise your child when they calm down and display positive behavior. This can help encourage good behavior in the future.
  • Offer choices: Giving your child choices can help them feel empowered and in control. For example, offer them a choice between two snacks or activities.
  • Be consistent: Establish clear boundaries and consequences for unacceptable behavior. For example, it might be okay to cry but not to hit. This can help your child understand what is expected. It can also be a way to help your child develop alternative ways to manage emotions. 

Talk with your pediatrician about your child’s tantrums if you need some support or ideas on how to manage them. Children outgrow the tendency toward tantrums as they develop skills for managing their emotions. 


Image courtesy of Adobe