Hey, parents: We know screen time is a touchy subject. This post doesn’t argue the pros and cons of screen time, and it doesn’t offer suggestions on usage limits. Instead, we have just one, glorious goal: If you allow screen time in your home, we want to help you prevent and manage meltdowns when it’s time to say “BYE BYE ELMO.”
You can find the American Academy of Pediatrics’ recommendations for screen time in the Families section of their Media and Young Minds report.
It’s 5:23 pm. You’ve been rushing to get dinner together while your toddler’s enjoying a little screen time. You hear the closing credits rolling on the show. You walk over to let your little one know screen time is over aaaaaaaand:
“Nooooo. NOOOOOOOOO. NO ALL DONE!!!!!”
You pause. You REALLY don’t have it in you to weather another meltdown today. Plus, you could really use a few more minutes to get dinner together. Sooooo… maybe just this once…
WAIT! STOP! We feel you, weary parents. We really do. But as you’ll learn from this post,when it comes to giving more screen time in response to a tantrum, there’s really no such thing as “just this once.”
We’ll get to that in a second. First? Let’s talk about PREVENTING screen time tantrums.
Your #1 line of defense against screen time-induced chaos is a strategy called PREP. We explain PREP in detail in our online course, Winning the Toddler Stage, but the basic idea is this: When toddlers are in-the-know about what’s coming next, they’re less likely to flip out when it happens. Using PREP gives your toddler age-appropriate 411 so they’re not blindsided by unpleasant news—in this case, the end of screen time.
As the grown-up in charge, you decide the length of every screen time session and you communicate that to your kiddo so they know the plan. It might sound something like:
We’ll watch two episodes of Elmo. One, two. That’s right! Then we’ll say “Bye-bye, iPad all done!” and go outside to play bubbles.
Now, here’s the trick: Your toddler LOVES power and control. So, put them in charge of something! Let THEM be the one to push the off button on the iPad, or let THEM decide between two toys to play with when screen time has ended.
In a perfect world, following PREP always results in a battle-free transition. But sometimes our toddlers miss the memo. Even though they’ve been perfectly prepped, they just aren’t ready to let it goooooooo.
So, what do you do? Read on, friend!
First of all, keep in mind, it’s totally normal for toddlers to melt down. When they can’t have what they want RIGHT THIS MINUTE, they experience a rush of unpleasant feelings. And since their brains are still under construction, they can’t yet connect the feelings they’re experiencing to the language they need to describe those feelings. So, instead of saying, “Hey, that makes me feel kinda mad, Mom,” they use their bodies to express themselves. Hellooooooo BIG feelings—crying, screaming, and flailing on the ground!
To tame that screen time battle, follow these three simple steps.
Notice we didn’t say accept their behavior. At no point is aggressive behavior like hitting or throwing the iPad okay. But the big feelings underneath all that are okay. And by saying so, your little one will feel seen and heard—which will help them begin to calm down.
Think about it: When you’re really upset about something, doesn’t it feel great when a friend says, “OHMYGOSH! That sounds awful! No wonder you’re so mad!” That’s WAY better than, “Aren’t you overreacting? I mean you knew that was coming.”
The same is true for your toddler! So when they’re having a big reaction to the end of screen time, get eye-level with them, and with a calm face and a calm voice say something like:
Saying bye-bye to Elsa and the iPad is hard. It’s okay to feel upset.
Now we’re going to hold the boundary that screen time is done—the one you set when you prepped them. That boundary is going to stay in place and you’re going to stick to it.
The five-minute timer went off, so screen time is over until tomorrow.
Holding the boundary is a biiiiig deal.
Think about it: When you give in that ONE time (“FINE! JUST ONE MORE EPISODE!), you’re only inviting waaaaayyyy more tantrums. And more intense ones, too! Why? Because your toddler just learned this: tantrum = more screen time.
Now you’re going to help your toddler manage their big feelings by giving them something to look forward to, instead of focusing on what’s wrecking them in the moment.
“It’s time to go outside now. Do you want to do bubbles or sandbox?”
By giving your toddler a choice of what activity to do next, they feel large and in charge—like they’re part of the decision-making, rather than just having orders barked at them all day. This can often shift them away from power struggle mode, right into collaboration mode.
Real talk: Sometimes, these steps work like a charm. But some days, your kiddo just won’t get themselves together. That’s okay! We’re all about progress over perfection.
By consistently prepping your toddler and holding boundaries EVERY single time (and ooooooh we know it’s hard), screen time power struggles will happen less often and with less intensity, because your toddler will learn that the tantrum isn’t the thing that’s going to get them MORE screentime. When Mom says she’s all done, we’re all done. Simple as that.
We know screen time is likely just one of many hot topics you’d love to have help with. Our online course, Winning the Toddler Stage, gives you complete, step-by-step plans for allllllll the hard parts of parenting toddlers and preschoolers aged 1-6: bathtime, bedtime, new baby time, and so much more.
Calm the chaos and bring back all the happy! Check out Winning the Toddler Stage.