Parenting, simply put, is the way in which we socialize our children. And because children do not come into the world with any social and emotional skills, parents use discipline to teach and guide their kids. We all want our children to be respectful, resourceful and responsible. But how do children really learn these invaluable life skills? Especially as parenting has become much more complex with the significant shift in our culture that now includes mobile devices and digital screens that have crept into every aspect of a family’s life.

For a small child, this cultural shift can have devastating effects on their development. I am not exaggerating the negative impact that chronic ‘screen time’ has on the developing child. A number of recent studies have connected delayed cognitive development in children who have extended exposure to electronic media. Studies estimate that the average American child spends seven hours a day in front of electronic devices. I want you to think for a moment how this compares to what you were experiencing as a child. For those same seven hours a day, most of us were engaged in some form of play. Many of us were outside playing hide and seek, building forts, riding bikes or playing tag. If we were inside, we were playing with blocks, trucks or dolls, or with games like Monopoly, Sorry or Risk. This kind of interactive play strengthens every aspect of a child’s social, emotional and cognitive development. Why? Because experience is the architect of the brain – all of these interactive play experiences are shaping and reshaping the neural circuitry of the brain. In essence, laying the foundation for our ability to learn, regulate, adapt and maximize our learning potential.

One of the major challenges for children who have been over-exposed to technology and digital devices is that their young brains become addicted to the immediate gratification those devices offer and reinforce. Their brains have a ‘reward system’ that releases dopamine, giving them a feeling of pleasure, when they see the shapes, sounds, colors of each new screen or activity. This may seem innocent for small children but if ‘young brains’ get addicted to this feedback loop and immediate reward system, there is increased risk in adolescence for addictive tendencies with alcohol, drugs, sex and pornography.

With that said, we know that electronics are here to stay. Being able to utilize and incorporate what has been learned from the field of developmental Neuroscience, we know parents can and should minimize screen time. The more parents know about child development and their child’s developing brain, the more likely they will be to minimize screen time and maximize interactive play time. The first five years of life are supposed to be filled with loads of pleasure, fun and play. In fact, play is the language of children. Kids learn best through play. Interactive play helps facilitate a child’s social and emotional development. They are learning to read social and emotional cues as they give and receive pleasure, wait their turn, listen and attend, and manage their impulses – all under the guise of interactive play. Children with strengthened social and emotional skills are less ego-centric, impulsive and reactive.

Many ‘over-exposed’ children present with behavioral issues. They have a tendency to get easily distressed over minor stressors and are often more impulsive, demanding and narcissistic. What does the child’s behavior indicate that he or she needs? Understanding the root cause of the behavior is critical when developing effective parent intervention strategies. Is this behavioral issue related to a skill deficit? What is the underlying need? Has the child experienced a significant loss and/or trauma that is unresolved? Or is the behavioral issues related to poor social and emotional skills? Children are often stuck in a defensive pattern of emotional reactivity and do not have increased insight into what they need. What the child is saying he/she wants and what he/she needs are two very different things.

When parents use effective discipline and put limits and boundaries on technology and mobile devices, they are strengthening all aspects of their child’s pro-social development. The skills and competencies a young adult will need to be resilient, resourceful and cope with life’s stressors are social and emotional intelligence skills. These are not learned from a screen. These are modeled and learned through the primary attachment relationship (from parent to child) and through interactive social play.

Effective parents realize that while they are teaching, disciplining and guiding their child’s pro-social behavior – they are also strengthening their child’s on-going social and emotional development. Remember, discipline means to teach (actively ‘add’ to a child’s skill deficit).

Effective Discipline . . .
1. Helps children feel a sense of connection (we are social animals – hardwired to connect)
2. Is mutually respectful and encouraging
3. Is focused on the underlying need (skill deficit)
4. Teaches important social skills and life skills

Children won’t always remember what you said – but they’ll always remember how you made them feel!

Allison Davis Maxon, M.S., LMFT is a nationally recognized expert in the fields of child welfare and children’s mental health specializing in Attachment, Developmental Trauma and Permanency/Adoption. She is the Executive Director of the National Center on Adoption and Permanency and was the foster care consultant for the Paramount Pictures movie Instant Family. Allison was honored in 2017 with the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute ‘Angels in Adoption’ award and is the co-author of Seven Core Issues in Adoption and Permanency: A Guide to Promoting Understanding and Healing in Adoption, Foster Care, Kinship Families and Third Party Reproduction, Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019. 

 You can reach Allison at or or (949) 939-9016

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