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Digital defiance: How to keep your cool when kids break the rules

December 8, 2020

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Digital rules are a bit like smartphone screens. Sooner or later, they’re going to get smashed. The important thing is how you handle the repairs.

What’s the right way to react when your child pushes back on the online boundaries you’ve set - or completely defies your screen-time rules?

It’s a situation virtually every digital family will sooner or later face. Why? Because kids of every age are hardwired to test limits.

Think about the bedtime rules, meal- and snack-time rules, the rules around courtesy and respect you’ve set in your family. It’s taken you years and many, many repetitions and reinforcements to make these rules stick. And even so, backsliding happens. Inevitably and probably fairly often.

Digital boundaries are no different.

The point is, there’s simply no such thing as one-and-done when it comes to gaining cooperation and compliance from children (if it were, parenting would be little more than a pleasant pastime.)

As parents, what really matters is the way we manage transgressions - not the fact that they have occurred.

"Rule-breaking is not evidence of 'failure,' either on your part or your child’s", notes child and adolescent psychologist, Jordan Foster. Instead, she advises, "we need to see misbehaviors as opportunities, a way to turn breakdowns into breakthroughs."

But how? We sat down with Jordan - the founder and Managing Director of award-winning digital safety education provider ySafe - to get some answers.

Why do kids break the rules?

This one is simple - because they don’t like them, don’t agree with them, or don’t understand them. Also because that's just the way kids are wired. Testing boundaries is what they do. Getting pushback on rule-setting is normal, and as frustrating as it is for parents, we know that testing the boundaries is a normal part of every child’s developmental sequence.

What are the common mistakes parents make?

When faced with resistance from our kids, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to back down, or become lax about our boundaries. From a child development perspective, this is a significant misstep. The more you relax your boundaries when your children fight against them, the more likely they will be to try to railroad you.

Being “nice” will get you nowhere. Being fair and consistent, on the other hand, is the best way to nudge your kids in the direction of more mature, responsible behavior.

Young people NEED firm boundaries, and when they challenge us and violate the ones we’ve set, it’s imperative to remain steadfast in reinforcing them (easier said than done!)

As an example, if your child bypasses or deletes the Family Zone app you’ve placed on their device, the absolute worst response you can make is to suspend your rules. Parents who toss the whole issue of online safety into the too-hard bin because “they’ll always find a way to get past the system” miss the point entirely.

OK, but then what?

Remember that the strategy or tool is not the problem. The rule-breaking is. We would never dream of abolishing speed limits just because people didn’t always stick to them. Instead, we set clear consequences for breaking the rules.

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Remember, the strategy or rule isn't the problem. The transgression is.

The same principle applies to our kids. Research shows us that by reinforcing our rules, setting and communicating consequences, and being consistent, kids actually feel more nurtured and protected. The result? Negative behavior decreases.

When kids ignore our rules, it’s useful to remember a simple formula: ‘Acknowledge the pause, but stick with the cause’.

Good advice - but can you take us step-by-step through the process?

DISCUSS WHAT HAPPENED: Sit down with your child and let them know that you know that they’ve broken your rule. Give them the opportunity to explain to you why they did it. This shows respect and sets the tone for a mature, two-way dialogue. It may also yield some useful and/or surprising information.

RESTORE THE RULES: Validate their reasons for their actions. Assuming they acted out of frustration, for example, you can convey that you do understand that hard and fast rules can be frustrating at times. It’s vital then that you explain WHY the rule was made in the first place. Be sure your child understands the purpose it serves - even if they don’t agree with it - and why it will continue to be enforced.

APPLY THE CONSEQUENCES: “By seeking and blundering we learn,” observed Goethe. In other words, kids (and adults too) learn most effectively when they’ve transgressed a boundary and experienced an appropriate consequence.

If you feel the action is a one-time incident, it’s fine to give a warning, explaining there will be consequences for rule-breaking in the future and identifying what these are, if you haven’t already.

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In the case of multiple rule-breaks, behavioral consequences may apply. My advice is to start with relatively mild consequences. Give your child a chance to do the right thing, but be sure they’re aware that consequences will escalate in severity with further rule-breaking.

You may be tempted to show you’re serious by imposing a harsh consequence at the start - grounding them for a month, for example. But think about it. An extreme reaction will not only create understandable resentment, but you’ll have nowhere to go in the event of a second rule-break incident.

Remain calm, and apply reasonable consequences that are in line with the severity or frequency of the event.

Rinse - and repeat!

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Topics: Parental Controls, Screen Time, Digital Parenting, Social Media, Online Gaming

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