The Summer of Withdrawal

“Hey. What would hurt more: Sliding down a giant razor blade into a pool of rubbing alcohol, or lighting all your toes on fire for one minute?”

“I’d say either way, you’re gonna feel a bit of a burning sensation.” Hysterical laughing by two silly- and bored- 14 year-old best friends commences.

It was the summer of 1989, and a fantastic time to be a kid. Before Netflix, YouTube Instagram, texting… heck… practically before email! All I did with my best friend for several summers in my tween and teenage years was jump from one activity to another with the sole purpose of avoiding boredom. All you who were born before, say, 1980 know exactly what I’m talking about.

To avoid boredom, by bestie and I would find things to do like:

Walk around the neighborhood, or…

Cook the grossest food we could think of, and dare the other to eat it, or…

Choreograph the silliest synchronized swimming routine in the neighborhood pool, memorize it, and perform it over and over and over again, or…

Make up imaginary languages, or…

Design and sew our Halloween costumes, or…

See who could write the best poem in 5 minutes, or…

Try to harmonize songs, or…

Cut each other’s hair (sometimes that one did not end well), or…

Take a nap, or…

Hone our problem-solving skills (Aka, figuring out how to break rules without getting caught. I did not say we were angels.) or…

If things got really bad, we would just sit and stare in silence until we thought of something to talk about or do, or…

or… or… I could go on and on with the list of activities we came up with to avoid boredom. The funny thing was that avoiding boredom was SO. MUCH. FUN. We were designing and writing and singing and talking and thinking and resting and sewing and cooking and choreographing and imagining and walking and conniving, er… I mean… problem solving. All of these silly, seemingly pointless, time-wasting activities made us the inventive, thoughtful, life-long learners and bonded friends we are today. I can’t stand the thought of what I would be like now had grown up with YouTube in my face all day.

I’m worried, y’all. More than worried. You can call me crazy- it’s fine, but I truly think we have a catastrophe on our hands. Kids don’t do those things any more. They don’t. Look around. Anywhere and everywhere. All what you’ll see is kids looking, totally mindlessly, at their screens! It scares me. I mean, truly keeps-me-up-at-night scares me.

This is becoming the norm. Wait. Who am I kidding? It IS the norm. How on earth is this OK? What is our society going to look like in 30 years when my 14 year-old son is my age? Don’t think I’m a blameless parent, here. I am not. I admit to loving those blissful silent times in the day when my kids are in screen world and not talking to me or wanting something or whining or fighting or asking me to explain something. To a weary parent who needs some time to herself, it’s lovely. We all need a little zone-out time here and there. But can we be honest here? It goes far beyond “a little time here and there”, doesn’t it? The worst, though, is when I’M in screen world and my littlest asks me to play with her. It’s jarring and confusing because when that happens, her little voice speaks to my heart, but the problem is that in screen world there are no feelings, no imagination, no interaction, no thinking, no reality, no sense of time, and the mind has trouble returning to the world of the living. Screen world is where our children spend much of their time. If we’re still being honest, it’s often the same for adults. Maybe even worse. I’ll ask again… what will life look like in 30 years?

As a health and wellness-obsessed mother and educator, if I were pressed to say one thing that is the largest contributor to our current state of unwellness, I would say it is our addiction to screen world.

I am in the trenches with you. It is a battle and I get it. Overcoming addiction is never easy, and in the summer when kids are home, overcoming this particular addiction can feel like an intervention is occurring about every 3 hours. So what do we we do? It’s a scary concept, but I’m throwing it out there, anyway. Brace yourself, because here it comes.

MAKE YOUR KIDS GET OFF THEIR SCREENS!

Yes. You can do this. First, there’s something you need to know. Hear this so that it doesn’t throw you off course. Your child will become the devil for roughly 30 minutes after you break the news that it’s time to find something to do that does not involve a screen. The docile, quiet child in screen world just moments before will suddenly develop strange symptoms as screen withdrawal begins. Take heart, though! As with most childhood issues, it is more painful for the parent to experience than it is for the child. I’ll share my experience with my kids’ screen withdrawal and walk you through step-by-step to help you prepare for screen withdrawal with your child.

Meet Jack. My smart, charming, big-hearted 14-year old son.

Isn’t he sweet? Just look at how he loves his mom at his 8th grade graduation. Awwwwwwww!

That sweet, intelligent boy suffers profound side-effects when told that he must walk away from the screen and find something else to do. For the first 3-5 minutes, he becomes unable to speak and cannot look directly at light or any living things. He also loses all muscle control and falls to the ground.

My friends, I give you screen withdrawal scenes that I have captured over the past couple years.

Holiday break screen withdrawal:

Summer break screen withdrawal:

And my personal favorite, titled, “Withdrawal at the Park”:

Yes. Oscar-worthy performances that are so convincing that, to the untrained eye, could be mistaken as child abuse. Luckily, you will know what is happening and will remain strong and calm. My hope is that you will also be able to explain to others this bizarre, but natural phenomenon. This is just the first of three stages, but it’s the most intense and frightening. Thankfully, it is the shortest stage.

You will know that stage two has begun once the ability to speak and hold an upright position returns, and loud moaning, pacing, and a general state of confusion begins. This is the longest stage and **WARNING** when the parent is at most risk of caving and returning the screen to the child to stop the agony. Don’t do it! Stay with me, here. At this point, I feel the most humane thing to do is to sequester the child to their (screen-free) bedroom (offering assistance if the use of limbs is lost again… or suggesting that they crawl, if they are able) where they will feel more comfortable detoxing. This second stage generally takes about 30 minutes, but in severe cases or if this is the child’s first withdrawal, it can take several hours. You must stay strong! I suggest finding an enjoyable non-screen related activity for yourself to focus on while this is going down. The good news is that the duration of subsequent withdrawals are much shorter. I’d say my kids’ withdrawals from start (loss of muscle control) to finish (finding something non-screen related to do) are now around 5-15 minutes. I find that a 10 minute, then a 5 minute warning before the dreaded announcement is made helps with the intensity and duration of the withdrawal (and the parent gets the opportunity to be impressed by their darlings’ incredible negotiation skills for “just one more minute… PLEASE!!!!!“).

Stage three is a magical time at which, even after living through 11 zagillion screen withdrawals between my three kids, I am always amazed we arrive. This is when the child accepts his/her fate, finds something to do, and you have triumphed through the deep, dark valley of your child’s screen withdrawal!

One last word to the wise: While it is exciting to discover what your child has chosen to do, resist the urge to offer help or suggestions, make comments, or supplement what your child has chosen to do. This undermines their ability to feel that they have conquered their withdrawal on their own, will make them (and you) believe that they need your help, and will squash what may be unfolding (thank you, Maria Montessori). Here’s a case in point…

After a particularly intense withdrawal a few summers ago, Jack was working through withdrawal stage two in the comfort of his bedroom, when suddenly there came an abrupt and disturbing end to his moaning. My husband, Ben, went to check and see that Jack was still alive and found him sitting on the floor staring into a box fan. Ben came back to report to me what he had found Jack doing and, while we were a bit concerned and perplexed, we didn’t say a word or do anything to change his “activity” of choice. Some time later, I went to check on him again- purely out of curiosity. I found him writing and illustrating a short story. Had we deemed the weird box fan-staring “activity” an unworthy choice, we would have screwed up the whole process and that short story would never have been written. Just curiously watch how things unfold in stage three. It’s fascinating.

Now getting ready to begin high school, Jack rarely has long withdrawals. He’s used to getting kicked off the screen and has an immediate transition/go-to activity: shooting hoops outside. If he has a rare struggle in stage two, however, we will remind him that his box fan is ready and waiting for him in his room. A few times he has actually repeated the box fan “activity”, and generally afterwards has done something quiet and creative, or comes and asks us deep questions about life for which we have no answers.

I get a glimpse from my childhood of staring into nothingness with my bestie until a thought pops up that one of us wants to discuss, and know that Jack has learned how to live outside of screen world.

The screen is incredibly addictive. You already know that, as we adults struggle with it, too. But we’ve lived longer out of screen world than in it. The problem is that our kids have never not had access to screens. So, you need to show and teach them that life outside of screens exists. The sparkle in your child’s eye, and proof that she is a creative, imaginative individual with interests and talents will come to life.

Just to be clear- Caroline and Julianna experience screen withdrawal, too. It’s not just Jack. Sometimes I wonder if it’s worse for boys than girls, though. Regardless, screen withdrawal is crazy. Kids are literally out of their minds as they detox, and though I jest (it’s how I’ve coped!), it’s actually a very sad phenomenon.

So… what will it be?

This?

Or this?

This? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Or this?

This? . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Or this?

Parents, we can do this. Start this week and make this the Summer of Screen Withdrawal! Feel free to share pictures of your children’s withdrawal symptoms if you’d like. We need to support each other through it, and if snickering at their symptoms helps, then so be it! But mostly, I would love to hear about the activity your child chose in stage three. After all, that’s the whole point of all of this.

During this process, also notice the the difference between how you as parents feel when your kids are glued to their screens all day and when they’re not. How might it affect your wellness?

Kids can’t discover their interests and talents when their brains are numbed all day by a screen 6 inches from their face… and it’s very difficult to be happy and well when we don’t feel we are interesting and talented. Teach your children wellness.

Let me know how it goes!

Go forth and be well,

Heather

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