Are Your Kids Only Calm When They’re In Front of a Screen?

Are your kids only calm when they’re in front of a screen?

A lot of parents will come to me and say that their kids are only ever calm when they’re watching TV. If they aren’t in front of the TV they’re getting into things, destroying things, constantly asking for snacks, jumping off the furniture, etc. etc. etc. 

You’re complaining that they can’t play by themselves. 

They’ll never just “go play.” The only time they get out of your face is if you put them in front of screen. You want them to be able to play by themselves without destroying the house or constantly demanding food or whining. 

Especially right now, with working from home, and childcare and school being so up in the air in the coming months, you really need them to be able to play independently. And you feel like your only option is to stick them in front of a screen because at least then, they’re calm, right?

They’re not calm. They are quiet. 

There is a difference. To be calm means to that your nervous system is running “just right.” We’re talking about your arousal level here. There is hyper-aroused – which means that your nervous system is running too fast, and there is hypo-aroused, which means that your nervous system is being too sluggish. 

When you’re hyper-aroused, you’re generally worked up. You’re on high alert. Physically, your heart is beating fast. Your mind is running a mile a minute! You’re ready to ACT! Everybody knows what this feels like. That means that your body is so used to being hyper-aroused that that’s what feels SAFEST. Chances are that if you start to feel yourself coming out of that state, that you force yourself back into it.

You will get yourself worked up again. 

Your body isn’t used to being calm, so it will start to read the feeling of calming down as potentially dangerous! This happens with our kids too! 

Many parents will tell me “well it’s almost like when he starts to calm down he tries to get himself worked up again!” YUP! That’s a thing! 

The opposite is also true. When you’re hypo-aroused you feel lethargic. Sluggish. You are not relaxed. Relaxation is actually a calm state. You know when you feel like, “I just can’t do anything. I can’t get out of bed, I can’t get up the energy to do even simple things, I’m just heavy-feeling” – that’s hypo-aroused. Just like hyper-arousal, you can get stuck in hypo-arousal. This can become your baseline for long enough that you forget what calm feels like, and you will unconsciously force yourself to stay in that state because it’s familiar and safe.

Calm is that “just right” feeling. 

You are alert, engaged, and relaxed. You feel capable of responding to anything that comes your way. This is where we want our kids to hang out.

Now, some kids have extreme difficulties with this. If your child has never been calm before, you can go check that out. But for most people, we develop strategies to keep ourselves in that ‘just right’ state. And those strategies don’t always look zen!  

They can look really active and messy. And generally they have a heavy sensory component to it. That might mean taking a run, jumping, hanging upside down, punching things, listening to loud music, it can be so many “not calm” things, but after it’s done you will find yourself in that “just right” space.

Quiet does not mean calm!

Quiet is just, quiet. You can be quiet and hyper or hypo-aroused. So when I hear “…but he’s only calm when he’s watching TV, and as soon as we turn it off he’s through the roof again…” That means he is not calm while watching TV. That means he is quiet while watching TV. 

TV requires our brain to constantly be catching up and paying attention. 

I challenge you to watch any children’s show that was made after 1995 and count to 30 before there’s a camera angle change. Before 1995, we tended to film children’s shows from a single angle for an entire scene, now we’re constantly changing them multiple times in a minute. And that takes a lot of brainpower! Not to mention having to keep up with the plot lines, process all the visual information and audio information. 

TV is not a good activity for children who are hyper-aroused because it does not calm their nervous system, it stimulates it! 

All it does it make them quiet. And yes, sometimes that’s exactly what you need – just for them to be still and quiet.

Quiet is not to be confused with calm.

Once you can separate out those two – quiet vs. calm – it’s going to get a lot easier to recognize what your children actually need.

I had a parent in ParentAbility recently say that after she was able to figure out what her child’s calming things were and she began weaving them into her daily life more. Her daughter began having less emotional outbursts, she wasn’t having difficulty with screen time anymore, she was participating more in her virtual school calls, and bedtimes and mealtimes had become a lot easier. 

That’s A LOT of positive change just from separating out quiet and calm. 

Now, I know that this can be difficult to figure out. It is not always easy to pick out the things that calm them down vs. make them just be quiet and still. It takes a ton of observation and acceptance that what your child finds calming might not be what you consider calming. There can be a lot of tension there when what your child finds calming makes you hyper-aroused. 

I promise it’s worth looking for it, recognizing, and giving them more of it, because when you do you’ll notice that your child can then go play for long periods of time without any issues. They can watch a few episodes of TV and they won’t dissolve into a screaming, distraught mess when you turn it off. You’ll be able to get through meal times without it becoming a huge fight, because they will actually be calm.

So does that sound doable? Something, you can start paying attention to?
If you need help figuring that out, I invite you to come to continue the conversation with us in the Parenting Posse. Our members can help you brainstorm and identifying those calming things.

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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