Rule-Breaking - How to Deal with Digital Break‑Downs

With increased device use and the need for firm restrictions, kids will inevitably make attempts to bypass parents' settings and rules. Here, we discuss how you can manage digital breakdowns at home.

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Written by Cyber Expert:

Jordan Foster

Clinical Child Psychologist

How do you handle it when your child pushes back on the online boundaries you’ve set - or out-and-out breaks the rules? 

It’s an important question because young people will test our limits, bend our rules, and attempt to bypass our settings. Instead of seeing these misbehaviors as failure - see them as opportunities to turn breakdowns into breakthroughs.  

So, why do kids break the rules?

This one is simple - because they don’t like them, don’t agree with them, or don’t understand them. Getting pushback on rule-setting is normal, and as frustrating as it is for parents, we know that testing the boundaries is a normal part of every child’s developmental sequence.

What do parents need to do when breakdowns happen?

When faced with resistance from our kids, it’s easy to succumb to the temptation to back down, or become lax about our boundaries. From a child development perspective, this is a significant misstep. The more you relax your boundaries when your children fight against them, the more likely they will be to try to railroad you.

Being “nice” will get you nowhere. Being fair and consistent, on the other hand, is the best way to nudge your kids in the direction of more mature, responsible behavior.

Young people NEED firm boundaries, and when they challenge us and violate the ones we’ve set, it’s imperative to remain steadfast in reinforcing them. (I know, easier said than done!) 

As an example, if your child bypasses or deletes the parental control tools you’ve placed on their device, the absolute worst response you can make is to suspend your rules. Parents who toss the whole issue of online safety into the too-hard bin because “they’ll always find a way to get past the system” miss the point entirely. 

The strategy or tool is not the problem. The rule-breaking is. We would never dream of abolishing speed limits just because people didn’t always stick to them. Instead, we set clear consequences for breaking the rules.  

The same principle applies to our kids. Research shows us that by reinforcing our rules, setting and communicating consequences, and being consistent, kids actually feel more nurtured and protected. The result? Negative behavior decreases.  

When kids ignore our rules, it’s useful to remember a simple formula: ‘Acknowledge the pause, but stick with the cause’.

From breakdown to breakthrough

So how do you proceed when faced with digital disobedience? Let’s take it one step at a time: 

Discuss what happened

Sit down with your child and let them know that you know that they’ve broken your rule (e.g., deleted the parental control tool that is fundamental to protecting them online, or changed the Screen Time settings you put on their Apple device). Give them the opportunity to explain to you why they did it. This shows respect and sets the tone for a mature, two-way dialogue. It may also yield some useful and/or surprising information. 

Restore the rules

Validate their reasons for their actions. Assuming they acted out of frustration, for example, you can convey that you do understand that hard and fast rules can be frustrating at times. It’s vital then that you explain WHY the rule was made in the first place. Be sure your child understands the purpose it serves - even if they don’t agree with it - and why it will continue to be enforced. 

Apply the consequences

“By seeking and blundering we learn,” observed Goethe. In other words, kids (and adults too) learn most effectively when they’ve transgressed a boundary and experienced an appropriate consequence.

Think of it this way: They’ve broken your rules. The fault is not with the rules, or the system that enforces them, but with the behavior. If you feel the action is a one-time incident, it’s fine to give a warning, explaining there will be consequences for rule-breaking in the future and identifying what these are, if you haven’t already.

Alternatively, you can go straight to behavioral consequences. My advice is to start with relatively mild consequences. Give your child a chance to do the right thing, but be sure they’re aware that consequences will escalate in severity with further rule-breaking.

You may be tempted to show you’re serious by imposing a harsh consequence at the start - grounding them for a month, for example. But think about it. An extreme reaction will not only create understandable resentment, but you’ll have nowhere to go in the event of a second violation. (What’s next? Solitary confinement?) 

Handling serious infractions

OK, but what about really serious misbehavior - actions that might cause significant harm to your child or someone else, or might even be illegal? 

Most experts agree that parents should avoid making on-the-spot decisions about disciplining for serious matters - or even in the immediate aftermath of an incident. 

In the wise words of one 17-year-old, “If your kid does something really wrong, you don’t have to have the ‘big talk’ right away. Wait until the next day when you’re both less upset.”

A good way to start - even with something serious - is simply “Tell me what happened.” (Keep in mind that your child will already know what they’ve done wrong, even if they make excuses or act like it’s not a big deal.) 

You have a right to express your anger or disappointment. But don’t lose sight of the fact that your feelings about the matter are not the point. What’s really important is holding your child accountable for their behavior. They need to be encouraged to see how their actions affect others and to experience empathy for the people who’ve been wronged. 

If there’s an external consequence - a fine, probation, school suspension, or social humiliation - support your child through the process. Equally important, if there’s something that can be done to make things right - whether apology, repair, community service, or any other way of making amends - insist that this be done as well.

Boundaries are like vitamins

As someone very wise once observed, boundaries are like vitamins - they can’t fix everything, but you can’t be healthy without them. 

Some parents struggle with enforcing boundaries - and I understand that. You don’t want your child to see you as “the enemy,” after all. But equally, you don’t want to be seen as a pushover. It’s better to have a temporarily disappointed child than a child who doesn’t respect you. 

Never lose sight of why you decided to enforce rules in the first place: namely, to maximize the benefit - and, let’s not forget, the fun - they get from their digital lives while minimizing the harm. In short: to help your child thrive. And that’s a goal worth sticking to.

Further information

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