technology and children

Post Pandemic Parenting: Sugar, Screens and Routines – Skip the Shortcuts

Peace at Home June 1, 2023 | Ruth Freeman

Does it feel like you don’t have the time and energy to get everything done? Are you burning the candle at both ends? The pandemic may be in the past, but the stress among working parents and families continues with no end in sight. Take a moment to celebrate your amazing capacity to hang in there against all odds. 

In the process of surviving the pandemic (when parents were simultaneously working and teaching from home) many of us developed habits of gradually increasing access to sugary and highly processed foods, more screen time, and often skipping routines to beat the clock. These shortcuts allowed us to feel like we had some sense of control over what seemed like an impossible situation. And you did it! And here we all are – now what? How do we roll back these shortcuts and get back on track to protect our children’s mental health and really help them thrive? 

Tempting shortcuts (which are now habits) may seem like they make life easier, but they are likely doing the exact opposite. 

Let’s start with the increase of sugar in our children’s diets. Pediatric endocrinologist, Dr. Robert Lustig points out that breakfast cereals and other processed foods include heavy doses of sugar. He adds that any food is a dessert if a form of sugar is one of the first three ingredients. Dr. Lustig warns:

“We, and especially our kids, are eating and drinking dessert all day long. It captivates our brain’s reward center, similar to drugs, so kids get hooked on sugar early.”

Sugar is proven to be addictive in some people, particularly children, and deprives the energy that the brain needs to function properly. Studies have linked high sugar intake to increased risk of obesity, diabetes, and other health problems. Additionally, sugary foods and drinks can displace nutrient-dense options, leading to deficiencies in important vitamins and minerals. In turn, this can impact cognitive function, behavior, and academic performance. Highly processed foods, those with more than 5 ingredients, have similar harmful effects. 

Screen time is a huge problem, especially social media and gaming.  Extended screen time gives the kids (and adults) frequent releases of dopamine, resulting in an increased need over time for the same dose. Thus, screen time tends to increase incrementally in order to give the same chemical release in the brain. Similar to sugar, the constant stimulation provided by technology contributes to addiction with prolonged and repeated use. 

Further risks of too much screen time include the disruption of healthy brain development in the areas of attention, impulse control and decision making. Sleep disturbances are common from blue light exposure, which can drastically impact cognitive and emotional functioning. Too much sugar and screen time alike may lead to impaired academic performance and increased risk of obesity. 

Routines, doing daily activities in a predictable order, helps improve cooperation and calms the brain. From time to time skipping a part of your family routine is no problem, but when this happens on a regular basis, kids’ can feel more anxious and may tend to cooperate less. Creating routines together with our family and following them helps our brains relax. We know what to expect and routines help children complete tasks with less prompting. 

The risks and downsides of too much sugar and screens and too few routines are plenty—so why are parents turning to these solutions? It may feel like your only choice. Many struggle to get through the workday because of your own mental health issues, unreasonable expectations or chronic exhaustion. After work you may struggle to make it through the evening routine when your kids are craving our attention. Stress rises in a negative feedback loop, and the quickest solution almost always wins. 

So what can parents do? The answer isn’t zero sugar or zero screen time or a rigid schedule. Instead take a few moments to become educated about the risks versus benefits of each of these shortcuts, and gradually lean toward a balance that works for your family. In a perfect world, eliminating sugar and screen time would work. But in today’s world, it’s just not possible for most of us, and that’s okay. Remember, lean into progress not perfection.

Consider some of these strategies when it comes to sugar, screens and routines:

  • Offer whole foods as often as possible. When packaged foods are necessary, be conscious of food labels, offering those with less than 5 ingredients whenever possible and not including any form of sugar in the first 3 ingredients. 
  • Encourage children to eat slowly and savor their food, which can help them feel fuller and reduce cravings. Modeling this behavior will help as well. 
  • Focus on family time. Family meals benefit parents and children, by encouraging more nutritious choices, providing a sense of stability and routine, reducing stress and promoting good mental health among many other benefits. This may be the single thing to focus on if all other changes feel unrealistic for your family. Regular family meals are associated with better school performance, more positive behavior and fewer risky behaviors in teens.
  • Meet together as a family to plan daily routines that include limited screen time. Make a plan together that includes screen free zones in your house (dining table, bathroom, bedroom after bedtime) and screen free times of day or days each week (Saturday afternoon, Sunday morning, Friday night, after bedtime, or whatever works for you). Strongly consider eliminating all screens from meal times, especially during times when the family is eating together. 
  • Encourage other activities such as outdoor time and imaginative play as much as possible and model these for your kids.
  • Work together with your family to ensure that necessary screen time is both age appropriate and good quality when possible.
  • Take a good, hard look at how you are modeling your relationship with screens, make a plan to adjust if needed. Ask for support in this process.
  • Create your daily routines as a family and be prepared to revise them weekly or monthly as you discover what does and doesn’t work. Improvising on a daily basis is a good way to invite distress in the family and oppositional behavior from your kids

For more parenting support, join us for an Upcoming Live Workshop, browse our Libraries of Quick Video Solutions and check out our podcasts and other resources.  Questions? Email us at Solutions@Peaceathomeparenting.com or learn more about our Corporate, School and NonProfit programs.

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