Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Elimination Series

The Elimination Diet No One is Talking About

Video and Game Lovers
I like my screen technology. I enjoy watching TV. The clever games on my iPad are wildly entertaining. I have vivid memories of Disney movies from my childhood. So, in the name of introducing my children to all the fun things in the world, I didn't hesitate to show them TV shows, iPad games, YouTube videos, etc. We have learned the names and jobs of more working trucks than I new existed (thank you 20trucks.com and Mighty Machines), we have watched Curious George's and Tinkerbell's engineering process, and we have played Toca Boca and Duck Duck Moose games until we were blue in the face. Needless to say, we have had our fair share of screen time. It came to a crashing halt about two weeks ago and I cannot believe the results.

In the Beginning
Over the course of three years I have been weaning my son from more than two hours of screen time per day (that was when he was only ~3 years old) to about 30 minutes per day. We have changed house rules from watching/playing only after dinner to never watching after dinner. Each child would get one pick - either one short episode (Curious George, Octonauts) or 15 minutes of a movie or longer program. Sometimes my son would get the first pick and sometimes my daughter. There was always some level of negotiating with them about when they could watch, what they could watch, and who got the first pick. But I hit my limit a few weeks ago.

Necessary Evolution of Parenting
I don't know if it was just the bickering that comes with a five year old and a three year old. Or the fact that my three year old is exploring her identity in that threenager sort of way. Those things combined with the persistence of a child with Aspergers pushed me right past my limit. It was the weekend, a time when I usually relax my rules a little. I had agreed to TV right after breakfast and we had sailed right past the 30 minute mark, which, I thought, would have been well-received. But it wasn't. More was requested. When I said, "no" my kids turned the TV back on. They both came at me complaining, calling me names, and generally being rude.

Setting Limits and Enforcing Natural Consequences 
Complaining was becoming normal. Name-calling was being brought home from preschool. I had warned them over the course of the week that I was not going to let them be rude. If we were going to argue daily about when they got to watch TV and how much they got to watch then I would just get rid of the TV. They knew that I liked watching TV with them. So I think they thought I was bluffing. Until I wasn't.

I unplugged the TV and carried it out of the house.

Unprecedented Sleep Success
I had to watch the new season of House of Cards on my computer screen. That was a little disappointing. But it was a small price to pay for the amazing things that have happened in our home. My son, who had NEVER slept the recommended number of hours (he typically slept 9-10 per night and acted like it) suddenly started sleeping more than 11 hours per night. My daughter who slept 11 hours per night started sleeping deeper and longer. When she used to collapse once or twice a week in a nap, she is a delightful three year old all day every day...with, perhaps, a little more spunk.

Good Sleep = Good Days
Since my son is sleeping more every night (though still waking us a couple times for some mid-night comfort), we are having beautiful days. When he used to lose his temper on a dime and lash out a physical attack, he let's things roll off his back. When he used to almost fall asleep on his dinner plate, he is now gobbling up dinner and running back outside for some almost-springtime after dinner play. As a result, I am running out of patience less. And, the most important thing to me, he is reconnecting with friends.

Good Days = Better (and Renewed) Relationships
Mikey has been going through the growing pains of having moved to a new state in September. He oozes charisma and children tend to like him off the bat. But his bossy, impulsive and aggressive behavior would then scare them off. Ten days after taking the TV away (the iPad was already shelved), his first friend in Colorado re-approached him. The boy had been Mikey's first friend, had come to our house to play after school, and met us at the park. But he stopped asking to play outside of school and his mother had told me a few months ago that he was afraid of Mikey. So, sadly, I let it go and hoped they would reconnect some day or that Mikey would find a new friend. No longer! Mikey's first Colorado friend cannot get enough play dates outside of their preschool. He, too, must have recognized the change.

Why Didn't It Happen Sooner?
We have had HUGE successes around here and it begs the question: why didn't it happen sooner? We were told to eliminate gluten and casein and possibly eggs and peanuts from his diet. We were warned to control screen time and keep it to less than two hours per day (so I thought I was good). But no one ever suggested doing an elimination diet of screens.

Reaping Rewards
Both of my children, one special needs and one neurotypical, have reaped rewards from eliminating screens. We read more books; we build more contraptions; and, we spin more original stories than I ever thought imaginable. We are all more happy more of the time. I like it this way.

Update on Screen-free Diet

It has been seven weeks since we began our screen-free diet. I had been curious what a screen-free diet would look like in our house. I wondered if there would be any positive effect on our lives. And I was determined to try...all I needed was an opportunity that could be seen as "fair" - a natural consequence of losing the TV (we had already shelved gaming devices). Inevitably, I said "if you cannot agree to the rules of watching TV then I will take the TV out of the house." And, inevitably, the persistent arguing that comes from a child with Aspergers and a threenager made that consequence come to fruition. The results of the screen-free living have been profound.

Sustenance from Sleep Success
The most amazing change has been a drastic reduction in nighttime parenting. After three weeks of screen-free living my son began sleeping long and uninterrupted. He now falls asleep between 7:30 and 8PM and sleeps to -almost- 6AM WITHOUT coming to our room or calling for our support...usually.

Easier Transitions
There has been a trickle-down effect as a result of his improved sleep habits. We, his parents, are better rested and can be more patient with the challenges of the day. And he is better rested and can also be more patient and more flexible with the challenges of his day. 

Don't get me wrong. He still has Aspergers and the challenging behaviors that come along with it. His persistence and his single-mindedness that accounts for his giftedness is still evident every day. But when I say, "enough for now" he is able to shelf his concerns for later and redirect himself to some other interesting thing. 

Less Aggressive Play
His sensory-seeking repetitive physical needs are still there -- jumping, running, flapping his arms and spinning in circles remain a part of our daily play. But they are less likely to be used aggressively; propeller arms are now part of dance instead of used as weapons and jumping is joyful instead of launching himself as a cannon ball. Everyone is noticing these improvements - from his friends to his teachers.

Gradual Re-introduction
However, like any elimination diet, there has to be a gradual re-introduction of the eliminated substance. Plus, I really like watching TV with them so I would love to have a little back in my own life. By reintroducing screens into our lives we will be looking for short term as well as long term effects. If sleep deteriorates again then I will have to find a way to remove it again...but so far, so good.

Our first reintroduction was not our doing. Mikey was invited to our neighbor's house to play with the big kids. They were in the "man cave" watching TV. I was nervous for several reasons. First, I was concerned that the coming night would be full of wakings and lots of nighttime parenting. Second, I was curious about what, exactly, the boys were watching. Was it age-appropriate for my son? Last, I was worried that I wouldn't be able to peel Mikey away when it was time for dinner. It turned out that there were no short-term effects from that first reintroduction and so we proceeded with caution.

Our New Rules
Next, the new rules would be that we would only watch TV on Saturday mornings. I think part of the problem before was the daily doses of screen time. Even being within the limits recommended by the American Pediatric Association, was too much. I'm convinced that Mikey and Anna's sensitive little brains and bodies were having some sort of addictive reaction to watching TV and there was some cumulative effect going on.

Part of Our Lives, Not Ruling Our Lives
We had our first Saturday morning cartoons last week and, for now, it seems to be perfect. There were no immediate problems. Behavior didn't change drastically and sleep remained excellent. I am determined to remain vigilant. I want the TV and other screen-based media to be part of our lives but I don't want it to rules our lives.

Go Screen-free in Two Steps

I have written about the process I have been going through to reduce screen time for my children. Our problems with screens started when I introduced it to my 1 year old. It escalated. I changed some things. It escalated again. I eliminated them. I reintroduced screens. And now I am vigilant about regulating the time my children spend in front of TV programming or our iPad.

I have seen the "conversation" on Facebook and other social media about whether or not to control screen time for young children. How some children seem fine with a daily dose. How some children are terrified of the things the see. How some parents have come to rely on that peace and quiet that comes when your children are engrossed in a TV show or game. Some of it is judgmental and some of it isn't. I am not writing this post to prattle on about recommendations for development or anything like that. I am writing to encourage you to look at your life and take control of it.

Step 1: Determine if you have a problem and, if so, what it is. 
We had daily disputes over screens. The first problem was the immediate craziness that happened directly after turning the TV off. The bickering. The inability to go play by themselves. It was driving us all crazy. Things escalated and the arguing was turned away from each other and they focused their energies on me! The 30 minutes of quiet was not enough to compensate for all the stress after turning it off. So I determined that we had a problem.

What I didn't realize is that our problem extended into nighttime. My five year old had never slept through the night. He required nighttime parenting his entire life, usually two times per night. We tried EVERYTHING but the vomit-inducing/self-infliction-to-bloodiness anxiety was more than we were willing to deal with in traditional, commonly recommended ways. After 10 days of screen-free life he was sleeping from 7:30PM-6AM without interruption. No other change was happening concurrently with our screen elimination so I say with full confidence that the screen was responsible for my son's sleep problems.

So, do you have a screen-related problem? If yes, what is it?

Step 2: Do something about it. 
Maybe you want to reduce your child's screen time. Maybe you want to change the time of day he or she is allowed to play or watch. Maybe you want to eliminate it entirely. No matter what you want to do, the change will require some plan. Decide if you want to discuss it with your child and have them help make the change. Maybe you want to be a dictator and say "we're doing this now." I have done all of these things! Each time required some change to our day, our routine, our flow. It wasn't easy but it was worth it.

You might want to leverage summer time and plan to be outside during the time of day when you would otherwise be screening. Get take-out and have a picnic dinner. Go to a playground. Send your child into your back yard and find one rock. Have them draw a picture or color something for you. Let them play in the sink while you're preparing dinner. There are whole websites dedicated to helping you come up with creative ways to occupy your child (I'm partial to The Artful Parentand Tinkerlab). You will know how much you will have to do to "entertain" your child and help them with a new routine. If you're like me then you will also have to prepare yourself as well. Build in a little extra time and patience for your kids and yourself when you embark on a big and possibly contentious game-changer.

So...what's your plan?


For more on TV time I love Janet Lansbury's stuff:
A Creative Alternative to Baby TV Time
How to Break Your Toddler's TV Habit

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