Calming tantrums without electronics

A cuddly toy can be used to teach emotional coping skills Credit: Shutterstock: Africa Studio

In today’s digital world, the occasional use of digital devices to occupy young children is both expected and realistic.

However, two independent studies have found a significant link between using electronic devices to soothe tantrums and the potential development of long-term challenges in young children’s ability to manage feelings of anger and frustration.

The studies were conducted with parents of children aged 3 to 5. Jam Paediatrics published the first in December 2022, and Frontiers in Child and Adolescent Psychiatry published the second this month.

They both concluded that while parental digital emotion regulation (PDER) can be effective in the short term, it may hinder emotional development in the longer term, resulting in difficulty controlling emotional responses to feeling angry or frustrated.

The lead author of the earlier study, Dr Jenny Radesky, specialising in behavioural paediatrics and a mother herself, said, “Using an electronic device as a distraction doesn’t teach a skill; it stops the child from acknowledging how they are feeling.”

Coping with tantrums without electronic devices

Instead, she proposes switching to solutions that help children better understand themselves and become more competent at managing their feelings. “It takes repetition by a caregiver who also needs to try to stay calm and not overreact to the child’s emotions, but it helps build emotional regulation skills that last a lifetime,” she said.

As a behavioural paediatrician, Dr Radesky encourages parents and caregivers to try out sensory and colour coding as alternative methods for emotional regulation.  Sensory techniques could be, for example, hugging, swinging or even jumping on a trampoline.

Colour coding involves creating a visual guide of colours that a child can associate with their feelings (blue for bored, yellow for anxious, green for calm, red for angry, etc.). This can help them paint a mental picture of the emotions they are experiencing. It can also work in the reverse, where parents use colours to encourage children to return to a ‘calmer’ colour.

One suggestion for easing tech-related tantrums is for parents to set timers, giving children clear expectations of when and for how long devices can be used. She also proposes avoiding giving them access to apps or videos that auto-play or allow continuous scrolling.

Once a child has calmed down, Dr Radesky recommends using this opportunity to teach emotional coping skills through playful discussion that will resonate. For example, talking about how a favourite cuddly toy might be feeling and how they handle big emotions in order to calm down.

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Written by

Donna Williams

Marketer, copywriter, storyteller and President of Samaritans in Spain. They say variety is the spice of life and I am definitely loving life!

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