image: shutter stock/Dmitry Naumov
Often therapists hear from parents, “I just don’t know what to do about my kid’s addiction to video games. Please help!” The role presence of video games and electronic devices in the everyday lives of kids has become a major concern for parents, researchers, and clinicians in the mental health field. If you are the parent of a child who has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyper-Activity Disorder (whether inattentive, hyperactive, or combined types) you may have noticed particular challenges regulating your child’s video game use. If you’ve ever experienced frequent arguments over video games that often last for hours until they end up in either a “melt down” or the threat to take video games for ever then you’re not alone. Below you’ll find some suggested strategies to help you regulate video game use with your children but first it may be helpful to understand how video games work for the ADHD brain.
The Lure of Video Games
Video games lure us with the promise of instant gratification. The ADHD brain craves instant gratification. It’s one of the common traits seen in children with ADHD. In neurological research, it is shown that video games activate that area of the brain known as the “pleasure center” of the brain. The pleasure center produces that satisfaction feeling that we all crave. Video game manufacturers know this, so they keep the player’s interest by enticing the player to continue to play in order to get more rewards the longer one plays or with each new level that is achieved. If a game is too challenging for the player, then the player can use collected coins to get an advantage in a game. Or, a game might encourage a player to just pay $1 to get an advantage, prize, or power. This is the appeal of what might be called “epic games.” These are story-based games with continuous levels of play that can go on for months or even years.
Video Games and the ADHD Brain
Considering the way manufacturers have designed video games it’s easy to see how kids with ADHD get into what clinicians have called the “hyper-focus” state. Hyper-focus is not a clinical term used in the official diagnostic criteria for ADHD but it has been frequently observed by parents and clinicians for years. This hyper-focus can be confusing for parents who don’t understand the nature of ADHD and how hyper-focus works. And, this can lead to the assumption that a child is lazy and undisciplined. A parent might think, “Well, if my kid can play video games for hours then there’s nothing wrong with him. He can focus on his school work just as easily.” This might also lead parents to believe that since their child can hyper-focus on a video game then there isn’t a sign of hyperactivity. On the contrary, what’s happening in the ADHD brain is that instant gratification is constantly satisfied with each new prize earned. This instant gratification is the opposite from the delayed gratification one might experience from completing a multi-step project and making a good grade on it.
Video Games, Anxiety, Procrastination, and ADHD
Anxiety is often a secondary diagnosis that accompanies ADHD. This affects kids of all ages. If a child with ADHD has performance and social anxiety due to their symptoms of ADHD, then video games can serve as a way to fail safely. In his mind a child might be saying to himself, “If I fail to do well then I fail privately.” If I don’t have satisfactory relationships on the playground or if I’m not good at sports, then I can make friends through social gaming.” Video games can also be a mechanism for procrastinating performance anxiety. Often parents find themselves embroiled in battle of the wills to motivate their child to complete schoolwork or other projects. Adults know that it’s easier to do something they enjoy instead of something they don’t like. It’s easy to put off a project when there is a more favorable task or project that feeds our self-esteem and helps us feel good that we have accomplished something. The same is true for children with ADHD. The difference is that kids with ADHD have not learned how to regulate their procrastination and performance anxiety. Then when the anxiety finally builds to a point that the child has to meet a project deadline, the anxiety fuels the blast of energy to rush through the project. Consequently, if the child does not complete an important project due to procrastination then this can lead to further injury to the child’s self-esteem. This often leads parents to report, “He fails to live up to his potential. If he would just apply himself, he could do so much better in school than he does.”
Here are some strategies for parents who are trying to regulate the use of video games with their children who are diagnosed with ADHD.
Understand the cultural role of videos and don’t completely ban them. Video games are a part of your child’s culture and the last thing any parent wants is for their child to feel like they are different from their friends.
Use video games as a motivation. Likewise avoid threatening to take games for poor behavior and avoid taking games for an indefinite period of time. This reinforces the idea that a child has to comply just long enough to earn the game back.
Be structured with time. Use timers to give warnings that video game time is almost up. Many video games have built in timers or remote applications parents can use on their phones to limit video game play. Then use a daily structure of how a child can earn video game time. Offer extra game time for completed projects and maybe a more flexible and negotiable schedule on weekends.
Develop reading skills by encourage child to read about a book about the video game between play times.
Find age appropriate learning games and exercise games.
Work with your partner on setting limits and rules and work together on time management. Whatever you agree to stick to it. Avoid providing an opportunity for your child to “divide and conquer.”
Adopt a “no screens at dinner” policy. Research has consistently proved the value of family eating time, especially the conversations that take place during a meal. Ensure that adults abide by the same policy.
Don’t allow too much “unstructured” time especially during a summer break. Refrain from using screen time and video games as “off time” for the parents. In some cases, you may have to place the game system in an unreachable location. In others you might be able to teach your child responsibility by allowing the game system to be accessible until it becomes a problem. Move all screens such as game systems, phones, tablets, and TVs to public areas in the home where use (and content) can be monitored.
Provide visual aids such as reward charts as reminders of how to “earn” the game time. Set up a schedule and house rules to allow natural consequences to shape your child’s use of time. Remind your child that he is learning life skills.
Learn about the video game. Discuss it with your child. Become a partner with what your child in his interest. This can be a relationship builder and can help parents understand what their child is interested in and why. This may become a way to find other interests for your child outside of the game.
Find a passion. School breaks tend to become large gaps of unstructured time. Find a weekly topic surrounding a summer camp theme. Discuss with your child something he might be interested in like music, science, animals etc. For younger children, sit down and write a short paragraph or two about what was learned or encourage your child to tell you what they learned. Discuss how they will learn it. Maybe they can go to a museum. Learning experiences tend to have the most significant impact on the learner. If you can participate then that’s even better. Kids love to have their parents’ time and attention.
If you need help addressing your child’s game use and bringing balance back to your family’s life see Jim Workman at Olive Branch Family Therapy. Jim uses practical interventions and exercises in therapy to help families find the best way to manage their time together so that you and your family can be healthy, happy, and successful in all areas of life.
Blog Author: James L. Machado Workman is a License Marriage & Family Therapist and Board Certified Chaplain.