I started as a pediatrician in Silicon Valley before we had smartphones in our pockets and before tablets were in kids’ hands. At the time, recreational screen time for my pediatric patients meant watching a DVD or live television, often with other family members or friends. Kids were carrying Harry Potter books into our waiting rooms – it was an incredible experience to see young kids be that excited to read or to have someone read to them. The social connection that that engendered was amazing.

As books were replaced with smartphones, I saw kids starting to dive incessantly into their screens. At every opportunity for a pause, you would see them gravitate towards their parents’ tablet or smartphone. Eventually this grew into kids having their own devices – the time to be idle had disappeared.

To most of my patients, being bored now means spacing out into the depths of their personal screens, mindlessly scrolling memes, messages, and video clips. The natural pauses of childhood are now filled with our small screens. With the dominance of these screens – a distraction from the discomfort of the organic pauses in our days – our tolerance for natural boredom has waned.

Most kids don’t experience the kind of boredom that today’s adults found commonplace in their own childhood. The mundane task of waiting in a long line, for instance, offered generations of children the motivation to explore their immediate surroundings or inspired a game amongst those waiting beside them. Childhood development experts know it is these in-person opportunities for unscripted social exchange that provide the fabric for community. Childhood development depends on exactly this sort of spontaneous social give and take. Something is lost for our children when these opportunities become consumed by the fleeting interest our tiny screens offer as they flicker in front of us.

The ever-present flow of passive entertainment has affected kids’ mood and their ability to connect. Phones have become a coping mechanism not just for boredom, but for discomfort. If a child has to do something uncomfortable, we bring out the screens to distract them. We even see this pattern on a smaller scale: groups of children sitting together texting instead of looking each other in the eyes.

When we turn away from real life and go into online life, we get a hit of dopamine that is an intense, but fleeting reward: a middle schooler avoiding an awkward moment of eye contact by checking a text inadvertently gets rewarded by that dopamine hit instead of staying present in that awkward moment. Over time, kids learn to avoid these minor difficulties and seek out the easy reward. Each small hit of dopamine teaches kids to keep avoiding the discomfort. And when the phone – the coping mechanism – is taken away, kids are left without a way to deal with the discomfort. That is when anxiety can get very high.

Having the skill to sit with discomfort is a core human ability. Being able to pause and reflect in difficult times actually helps us connect to ourselves and with others. Those human connections ultimately decrease the discomfort as we learn to tolerate our feelings. This tolerance, in turn, allows us to experience future pauses in life without reaching for our screens. Resiliency brings greater resiliency.

By offering younger kids – even in elementary school – skills for mindfulness, we offer a way for them to engage with themselves, with those around them, and with their environment. We can build up their toolkit to sit with discomfort and boredom. They’ll be less likely to want to turn to a screen to avoid the natural pauses in their lives and be more prepared for human connection.

The stress meter exercise

Helping kids cope with stress gives them the language and the tools to calm the body down before an outburst starts. In Teaching Kids to Pause, Cope, and Connect, we look at stress by imagining a meter that helps kids separate emotions from bodily sensations as well as identify how intense each of these might be at any given moment. Practicing this helps alert them (and others) when things might be getting too intense.

Kids like structure, and around the holidays our schedules can become unpredictable with travel and extended family visits. The deviation from routine can be disruptive to young kids, causing them to act out. Recognizing how this stress happens and how your children hold that stress in their bodies can help them calm down. Working with the stress meter worksheetfrom the book will build up kids’ toolkit of emotional and bodily awareness.

Start by asking your child, what does stress mean? It can be an open-ended discussion about the feelings that come up and bodily tension that happens with stress. Be very curious; there is no right or wrong in these answers so just explore what your child feels. As they describe it, you can help them identify the physical sensations of their body and the emotions behind those sensations. Many kids may not be able to separate their experiences into these two categories (i.e. how is a clenched jaw different from fear of being left out of an activity?). Developing this language with them and using the visual meter helps kids see how one can separate out emotions from bodily sensations and mild experiences from overwhelming ones.

Remember, stress is additive – it has a lot of sources. So starting with the extremes can be helpful: What does it feel like when you’re completely calm? What does it feel like when you’re so stressed that you lose control? Then start to fill in the middle, being mindful to separate the emotions from the bodily sensation (i.e. afraid vs. tense shoulders).

Depending on your shared experiences this exercise might take three minutes, or it might take 15 minutes. So, it is best introduced when kids are calm and then redone when kids are more stressed, acknowledging that it is difficult for anyone to learn new skills when they are overwhelmed. If a family develops this skill as a coping tool for their household and repeats the exercise, it can take as little as 15 seconds for your child to recognize the feeling (pause) and begin to calm the stress (cope).

The goal of teaching these skills to young children is to hone their ability to engage with themselves through mindful practice. Helping your child take time with these building blocks can be a great investment. Building coping skills before kids are exposed to all the distractions of social media will create an environment for deeper connection later in childhood and in later life. Let’s welcome the pauses life has to offer!