I am not one to make judgments about how other parents raise their children. Child rearing is, by far, the most difficult and demanding task that anyone can choose to take on. Regardless of how diligent you are about teaching your child manners, how attentive you are during their times of need, or how vigilant you commit to being while trying to keep them safe; at some point your child is going to lose his cool, and at some point you may too. These are often those times when we reach for the ‘iPad’ or device of convenience. This especially tends to happen in public when a child becomes disruptive around others.
Allowing a child to view a device is not always a terrible solution. Nor is it something to be frowned upon when used as a sparing technique. Many times over the years I have found myself inviting ‘Elmo’ to join us at the restaurant, when my daughters made it impossible for us to have a meal in public. I also shamelessly admit that both of my children have learned many songs and games while playing with a tablet. Controlled screen exposure can also contribute to a child’s healthy social development with peers. A child who completely lacks exposure to technology may find himself unable to relate to others his age. He may also find himself feeling ostracized or alienated without any experience or knowledge of these gadgets. Sadly, this is part of the world we live in.
However, I do write to share what I believe to be crucial information on how excessive use of these devices can alter healthy brain development. As we grow and learn to process emotions during stressful situations, our brains learn and grow with us. Many individuals give the brain a little too much credit for it’s strength, and forget that it is an engine that requires fine-tuning just like all of the other organs in our bodies.
The brain needs experience to learn techniques just as our muscles do when we acquire a new skill. Without practice, perfection cannot be exist. Nor can gain. When a child experiences frustrating emotions in their early years, or encounters a psychological challenge for the first time, their brain is also learning (for the first time) how to cope with the situation. Handling this with the destruction of a device can hinder this learning.
When it comes to temper tantrums, although the child appears to struggle in these instances, it is sometimes a necessary occurrence. While overwhelming for the parent, the child is learning to face her frustrations. We see our child flailing wildly on the floor, and find ourselves sweating at the sound of their cries, but on the inside of the child’s brain ignites an electrical storm of neuron firing.
Simultaneously while this phenomenon occurs, the neurons in the child’s emotional centers of the brain (known as the amygdala and the hippocampus) are forming patterns. These patterns act like train tracks for an express train. Without the tracks, a high-speed train would have no rails to follow, causing catastrophic disaster. The brain works similarly. Each time a child must cope with an emotion, the brain creates a ‘track.’ This is so that the next time a high-speed train of emotions comes racing in, there is a ‘track’ or pattern to follow. Over time and with some help from caretakers, the child can more and more easily operate under pressing circumstances. When a child is instead distracted each time with a screen, the brain takes a detour, and never completes the path necessary to imprint a track. This is why allowing a range of emotions to occur, with the guidance of a caretaker is invaluable.
I mention the aid of caretakers because while at times I believe we must patiently wait out a tantrum, teaching children adaptive coping skills is essential to their development. Suggesting they take a deep breath, count to ten, engage in a hug, or whatever your choice of healthy coping skills may be; we most certainly should assist in the cultivation of these patterns, by offering a safe and supportive environment.
Many variables contribute to promoting positive coping skills. No child is exactly alike. A lot of children have developmental challenges that are out of our reach. In these circumstances the intervention of a professional is key!
We all run out of steam sometimes and rely on a treat that we allow our kids. Once in a while a tablet is a reasonable choice, but never a tool we should heavily rely on. Pack your bags with play doh, pipe cleaners, anything they can put their hands to work with! Have family songs, riddles, guessing games (ones they can play without you), stick them in a supervised bathtub! But, try to hold off on the tablets when possible.
It is inevitably going to feel daunting the first few times if you have a screen addict (I know from experience with a two-year-old that LOVES screen time), but you can do it. So, the next time you pull out the crayons or throw on some tunes instead of sitting your little one in front of a screen, realize that you are assisting them with the development of a life-long set of coping skills they can keep for their lifetime.