Screen time, brain damage, and other uplifting thoughts about parenting

You don’t have to look far to find literature warning of the dangers of excessive screen time on humans, and especially developing children.  This blog in Psychology Today reviews some of the literature around addiction to screen time and the impact on a developing brain. The term ‘electronic screen syndrome’ is described by the blogger as children who suffer from sensory overload, lack of restorative sleep and a hyperaroused nervous system resulting in children who are impulsive, moody, and can’t pay attention.  I have certainly seen this in varying degrees in all my children! 

Recently my mom shared a facebook post from another mom of a young boy who was addicted to screen time – specifically video games.  The child had video games taken away as a punishment for some undesirable behaviour, and the resulting temper tantrum and disrespectful behaviour in response to that consequence allowed the mom to realize just how addicted her son was and so she took video games away permanently.  In the post she was only about 8 days into the new world order in her house, but the outcomes were beyond positive.  Her child’s ability to pay attention, play on his own, sleep etc. were all vastly improved.  She was having conversations with her child again and getting to know him – after a long time of missed opportunities due to ‘face attached to screen’ syndrome (I made up that syndrome).  This resonated with me.

All of my kids enjoy their screen time. And I have limited it as much as I can using the screen time app that exists on apple products.  That has been largely successful, especially with the teen girls.  Their access to apps on their phones ends at 9:30pm and turns back on in the morning, and additionally they have a set amount of time that they can use social media and entertainment apps during the day – and at the end of that time, those apps are no longer available. img_2076Interestingly, my snapchat addicted teen is now not even coming close to using up the allotted time per day.  I’ve noticed with both of the girls that they talk to me more, spend more time outside of their bedrooms, interact with their siblings more, and even interactions with their friends are more often over FaceTime or on the phone, which in my opinion is a vast improvement over snapchat.  My younger daughter has not had access to social media apps (she did briefly but it didn’t work out for her) and so for the past 2+ years we just haven’t gone there again, and she’s mostly ok with it as it allows her to stay out of the constant swirl of teen drama that is going on at her school, and every other middle school in the world.  Without all the screen time she is back to reading a lot – actual paper books.  It didn’t solve the messy room issue though so it’s not a full miracle ;-).

About a week ago I decided that my son needed further limits as he was using his ‘phone’ under the allotted time per day, but then was still finding a way to play computer games and then his Nintendo switch.  The result was way too much screen time.  So we cut it out almost completely.  One hour of screen time total per day, and only in the  one hour after dinner each day (easier to manage how long he’s been using a screen if it’s a set time of day where one of us parents is typically home).  Day one he was not happy about it and let me know about it all day.  Day two he moved to total acceptance, and started playing again – and headed outside even though it was still quite cold out.  What I find the most interesting is that from day 2 on, he has not used his hour of screen time.  He has played Mario Kart for 15 minutes with his dad and sister one night.  Last night he used his 1 hour to watch Riverdale with his obsessed sister – and the two of them made fruit smoothies together as their treat to share while watching the show.   In the mornings where he used to wake up and after doing his morning ‘tasks’ would head directly to the computer to play some games before school, he now has a bath and then chats with me while he makes and eats his breakfast.

This morning he showed me (once again) just how insightful he is.  He told me that when he is allowed to have video games all the time he wants it more and more.  He went on to talk about how not having video games all the time allows him to enjoy other activities that he forgot he liked.  It was a fascinating conversation.  He can’t always express himself the way he intends to, but this morning he was incredibly articulate and pretty much summed up the exact reasons why too much screen time is a detriment.  I told him I was proud of him and so happy that he was enjoying spending his time doing other things.  And then he said, “I have a funny feeling we are going to do this forever now, right?”  And I laughed and said, “You got it Mister.”  He kind of rolled his eyes and then asked if we could build his new lego set tonight after school together and then finish reading his book about ‘Hello Neighbour’.

Now, this all sounds like sunshine and roses.  It’s not.  It’s been hard.  Setting boundaries for the kids is a constant challenge.  Sometimes I get home from work and I’m tired and I don’t want to build lego or listen to the stories of the day that can go on for an hour.  Sometimes I lose patience or ask for a timeout so I can go sit by myself in my room for 15 minutes.  Many times I have called my mom nearly in tears because the kids are mad at me for the boundaries I have set.  I often hear “But mom, the other kids are allowed…” and other similar reasons why I should allow for more screen time, or be less strict with other boundaries.   The irony is that while they complain from time to time, overall they seem happier, more grounded, and more engaged in life.  So, I’m sticking with it.  Surely they will thank me some day.   Until then Berrik and I are going to build this lego set.  He says we can put this together in about 3 hours.  Um….  what? Hoping this is at least a 2 day project.  Wish me luck.  While he is focusing on this project, I’ll be thinking about his frontal lobe continuing to develop normally….

Celebrate the little things, because the little things are BIG

When you have a child for whom learning the ‘traditional’ way is not effective, you really begin to appreciate the little things that many parents of neurotypical kids (myself included) take for granted.  Both of my daughters have had little to no struggle with school, and have thrived in a bilingual program with the added intensity of a second language alongside the three ‘R’s’.  When Berrik was born the girls were already in preschool and kindergarten and were progressing along the typical trajectory developmentally and academically.  I assumed Berrik would be the same.  But as you know, his trajectory has been considerably different, with ups and downs that can likely only be fully understood by others who have a similar journey.  While I would give anything to remove the struggles that Berrik has endured, I am able to see the value in how it has created a resilient, empathetic little boy, and how it has reminded me that success comes in many forms.  For someone as naturally competitive as I am, you can imagine that this is both a necessary and important lesson for me.  One of the many these kids have provided me with over the years.

This week Berrik turned 10.  It’s hard to wrap my head around that number.  And the fact that he will soon be taller than me, which will leave me as the shortest member of our family as the girls have already surpassed me.  It’s been a fantastic week of celebration and success for my boy.  While these are things that many would take for granted in their 10 year old children, for us it’s a week of celebrating the little things, that are in fact so big that I get tears every time I think about them.

Let’s start with the birthday party.  Berrik has struggled with reading.  It has been nothing short of hours, days, months and years of multiple strategies to get this boy reading.  Sound Connections, homeschooling, my mom (I cannot emphasize how instrumental my mom has been on this reading journey), the best teachers in the best school for Berrik, daily reading, flash cards, sight words, phonics, and any trick I can think of to make reading enjoyable rather than a chore (incidentally, we are not there yet but I have hope that one day he will love to read like I do!)  But I digress.  At Berrik’s party as he opened his gifts he (without being told to) read every word on every card.  And he did this with relative ease.  Because he wanted to.  I think it may be the first time outside of reading instructions on video games that Berrik has voluntarily read a significant amount of text with very little help and no prompting.  This is such a huge step for him, and it’s these moments when I know that his potential is unlimited and the future will be bright.  I can say with honesty I had trouble imagining a day where he would do this voluntarily.  img_0413

One of Berrik’s gifts were two ‘lego-ish’ building set of Hello Neighbor – a bizarre nasty neighbor character that exists on youtube and video games.  He was excited to put it together.  For context, these sets have 90ish small pieces that go together in a specific order to create a little scene.  Just like lego, although technically not lego-brand.  Berrik was able to do this on his own by reading the directions and following them.  The dexterity required for this task was the most challenging – developmental coordination disorder means his fine motor skills are a bit delayed – but the following directions was not an issue.  This takes attention, and sequencing, and reading comprehension, and dexterity.  For kids like Berrik, these can all be difficult tasks individually, but having to manage all of that at the same time, and to start and finish the project, is big.  So big.  img_0466

In the moments where I lay awake at night wondering about the future for my kids, and especially for my sweet boy, these are the moments I need to hold on to.  They are the very clear signs that he can do anything and that with the support of this great big team we have, he will do whatever it is he wants to do.  Currently he would like to be an engineer like dad, a policeman/superhero, and also invent time travel.  Can’t wait to see which direction he goes with that! (I’m hoping for time travel).

Thankful for our ‘team’

This past week we met with Berrik’s school and the psychologists to go over the results of his recent psychoeducational assessment.  I want to start by trying to express how incredibly stressful this process is – for me, and for Berrik.  While the psychologists do their best to make Berrik feel comfortable, he knows he’s being tested, and this creates anxiety.  And I’m sure all moms feel this – when your child is experiencing anxiety (or fear, sadness, joy, etc. etc.) it’s pretty tough not to feel it right along with them.  He is afraid of ‘failing.’  His experience in grade one has given him this context – and in spite of a very successful year in his new school last year, the impact of his past experiences live on and surface in these testing situations.

Fast forward to the results.  Thankfully this is a very collaborative process.  The psychologists came to the school and met with me, Berrik’s teacher, and the family-school liaison counselor.  Having the teacher and counselor there is so critical because they know Berrik and they know what he’s capable of and can (and did) speak to it, lending credence to what likely sounds like crazy, biased mom talk when I speak to it.  Not surprisingly, Berrik’s test results are all over the map.  Average in some areas, low in others.  This is not new, and not unexpected for a kid like Berrik.  The tests are really quite limited in what they can tell us about Berrik as there are so many factors that impact the ability to test different areas.  Berrik is a complex kid – one example would be processing speed.  This is a timed test that requires writing with a pencil.  Timed tests produce a huge amount of anxiety for Berrik – so much so that he almost shuts down completely.  He has developmental coordination disorder which impacts fine motor skills which means writing is difficult and an activity he does not enjoy.  So – the test results suggest a very slow processing speed.  But it isn’t reflective of what he’s capable of, so has limited value.  Is his processing speed lower than average?  I would say yes.  But does it have the severe impact that the number would suggest? No.  This is just one example of several that were discussed at the meeting and will show up in the report.

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Berrik and his two fabulous teachers

This leads me to where I start to get anxious.  In the context of Berrik’s school and his teachers, this information means very little and doesn’t concern me.  His IPP is totally reflective of where he is at, where we are going, and what accommodations are needed to get there.  The school team knows him, knows what to do to get him where he needs to go, and I trust them more than I have ever trusted anyone besides family when it comes to Berrik. But what if that report is in the hands of someone who doesn’t understand the limitations of the tests and therefore the limited value of the results?  The labels and the reports, produced by people who have known Berrik for a total of 2 hours each, but could potentially follow him for the rest of his life scares the bejeezus out of me.

I have written before about labels (Read about it here:  Labels are for Mabel) and I believe they have more of a system value than an individual value, especially for us.  This leads me to why I am feeling so thankful, this weekend and all days.  Berrik’s teachers know him well and spent the past year helping him regain his confidence, gaining his trust (and conversely, gaining my trust) and working on all of the skills that contribute to his ability to find success at school and in life.  They talk about Berrik’s availability for learning, which I just love.  The goals for Berrik (and all the kids) are not just academic.  The goals are to do what needs to be done with and for Berrik to increase his ‘availability for learning’, at which point the academics will follow.  Reminds me of this post Kids will do well…  I love this for so many reasons.  It is why Berrik is doing so well in school. If only this approach could be taken for all kids, everywhere.

I commented in the meeting that I have had times where I felt hopeless and I had such fear for Berrik’s future. But the school, the teachers, the team approach, and the full recognition of Berrik’s potential and the desire to figure out what makes him most available for learning has allowed me to trust, hope and dream once again.  I cried in that meeting.  I am crying again while typing this.  It’s hard to admit I lost hope at times, because that makes me feel like a bad mom.  I know that if we had not found this school, the trajectory of Berrik’s life would have looked very different and the thought of that brings me to tears.  It also leads me to think of all the kids who struggle like Berrik, who haven’t been as fortunate.  It’s heartbreaking.

All this to say that while the tests and reports and labels all serve a purpose, for Berrik they are almost inconsequential in terms of his schooling because he already has the support and resources he needs.  When I left the meeting, I walked out with Berrik’s teacher.  She gave me a hug and said, “We are on your team Chandra.”  I knew it, but it is always good to hear the reminder.

We have a big team.  The school, my friends who work ‘in the business’ who really ‘get it’ and let me vent and ask questions, my sister in law who is also ‘in the business’ and has been a source of so much support and information – all in the context of her love of Berrik, my brothers who just seem to ‘get’ Berrik and know how to make him feel special, my parents who build Berrik up in so many ways and support me as I try to advocate for him, my girls who show Berrik what unconditional love looks like – with all the joy and annoyance that exists in any sibling relationship, my friends who just listen, and all of our extended family.  I remember Kevin’s dad once commenting in the context of a conversation about Berrik and his ‘labels’ that he didn’t care about that.  “He’s my grandson and I just love him.”  Period.  One sentence to get right to the heart of it.

And while this week has been low on sleep and high on stress, I know that everything will be ok.  Because we have the best team.  And for that, I am thankful.

Just a few members of our team:

Working Mom vs. Stay at Home Mom

I have been a full-time working mom.  I have been a part-time working mom.  And I have been a stay-at-home mom.  The nomenclature is deceiving.  I think ‘staying at home’ was the most work I have ever done…and certainly the most challenging – particularly while homeschooling my boy.  But I digress.

As you are aware, Berrik started a new school in September.  It was really great right from the get-go, but I didn’t feel totally confident that the trend of happiness and low stress education would continue.  In October I applied for a few jobs, interviewed, and was given offers.  They were good jobs.  But once I was faced with the reality of going back to work the thought kept me up at night and made me feel anxious.  Clearly, I was not ready.  Or they weren’t the right jobs.  Or both.

So I stopped applying and started to think that maybe it was better if I stayed home.  Time is flying.  It’s nice to be home for the kids.  Our family time was easier because all the household ‘tasks’ were done while everyone was in school, so evenings and weekends were strictly family time (well, technically, strictly ‘drive all three kids all around the city like crazy people’ time).  But at least dinner was on the table, we could eat together, the fridge was full, the laundry clean etc.

In November I had a critical conversation with Berrik’s teachers.  It was the moment that I realized this trajectory of low stress education and happy children was not likely to change – that our new normal was all three of our children settled and happy in school and doing well.  Around this same time I saw a couple of jobs that interested me.  I applied for them both and ultimately was offered both of them.  Pretty incredible in this economy to be actually given a choice!  There was very little choice to be made, however, because one of the offers was one I knew without any doubt would be a job I would love.

Starting in January, I will be working as Manager for the Palliative Care Consult Service.  According to the job description, this means I will be responsible for the operational leadership and management of staff, teams and activities associated with the Palliative Care Consult Service across all sectors of care within the Calgary Zone.  Having worked in the palliative portfolio in the past, and having experienced the benefits of palliative care as a family member, I am beyond excited about being back in this area of the health care world.

These past two years have been life changing for me.  Leaving a job I really liked to be a stay-at-home, homeschooling mom was a major shift for me.  Realizing that being at home was exactly what I needed to be doing, and then even enjoying it (this surprised me) had me re-examining my goals – as a mom and in my career.  Experiencing both sides of the stay at home vs. working mom debate, the assumptions about what I do all day, the judgment about leaving work, going back to work, homeschooling, private school etc., was eye-opening.  There are definitely people in my life who were a bit judgey about it all.  The older I get the more I realize that those are the people that are maybe less secure about their own decisions, and I just step back from those relationships.  I have so many friends and family members who have supported every decision we have made, knowing that regardless of whether the decisions were the right ones, that I am trying my best to do the best for my family.

We are at such a good place right now.  Our kids are happy and healthy.  I am about to start a job that I know I will love, working with people I have so much respect for in an area of healthcare that I feel much passion for.  Kevin has a great job that he enjoys.  Our extended family is the best.  And I have a group of friends who lift me up when I need it, and give me a reality check when I need that too!  At a time of year when most of us are counting our blessings, I have too many to count.

img_1534SIDE NOTE: On the topic of life decisions and change, I got my nose pierced last week.  I have wanted to do it for 25 years.  Literally.  When I left my job a year and a half ago, I told myself that if life ever calmed down and if I ever got Berrik settled and on a good path, I would do it.  So.  I did it.  (Life isn’t super calm, but it’s sure less stressful!)  Bonus: My tween and teen think I’m super cool – or they did for a brief moment – which is perhaps the biggest win of all.

 

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