By Andrea Wachter, LMFT
In a culture that has created a generation of screen surfers, I find myself treating more and more people who are addicted to video games. It starts out innocently enough; your kid gets a new game. They seem to enjoy their newfound pastime. You love when they seem to be enjoying something, and so everybody’s happy, right? What starts out as an innocent hobby can turn into a destructive habit that becomes extremely hard to break. So when does a fun hobby become an addictive habit?
By definition, an addiction is something that the user has no control over. They also continue the behavior even though there are negative consequences. Someone who has a fun hobby can do it or not do it. They can set out to play something for a half an hour or an hour and then stop without a problem. But when a hobby turns to a habit, stopping is not so simple or easy. Hours upon hours can go by without even an awareness of the time passing. Self-care and basic needs are often ignored. Daily responsibilities are often neglected. This is when gaming is no longer a game.
Is your child using a game control in moderation? Or have you lost control of your gaming child? Here are some tips to help you both if you suspect a gaming addiction is at play:
“Care-fronting” the problem– Confronting anyone about their addiction is likely to trigger defensiveness and denial. It helps to be as non-judgmental and understanding as possible when you speak to your child about their gaming. Let them know what you have been observing in regards to their gaming and the negative impact you have seen it take on their health, their relationships, their responsibilities and their life in general. See if they are willing to admit that there is a problem with their game usage. Explain to them that if they can participate and cooperate in making some healthy changes, it is likely to be a smoother and more successful process. If, however, they are in denial of having a problem or unwilling to make any positive changes, then you will have to take more control. If at any point in the process they want to give input and make suggestions that are healthy and reasonable, then by all means have them be part of the negotiating process.
Set clear limits and consequences– Create a moderate structure of time per day or week that they will be able to game. Decide ahead of time what these limits and consequences (if not kept) will be. For example, one client agreed with her son that, after homework is completed and family dinner is finished, he can play a game for one hour. If he stops after an hour without a fight, he can do the same thing the next day. If, however, it becomes a power struggle, then he loses the privilege to play the following day.
Be prepared for big feelings– Of course this is all easier said than done, particularly if your child is young, immature or seriously addicted. You might have to deal with withdrawals that are similar to any drug or substance withdrawal. When we are doing something that has been serving the purpose of avoiding feelings, then big feelings are going to come up when we stop doing that thing. See if you can empathize with how hard it is for them to stop and at the same time remain clear and kind about the limits you have set.
Find the hidden purpose– Have some discussions about what they like about their games. After all, they might not be all bad. You might be able to get some clues about the purpose that the excessiveness is serving. Some kids say it gives them something to do. So, they might need help with other ways to spend their time or deal with boredom and dissatisfaction. Some say they have nobody to hang out with and that their “virtual friends” are all they have. They might need help with social issues, social interacting and taking a look at how they may be doing things to push people away. Some kids say it gives them a break. They might need other ways to get a break where they end up feeling good about themselves and refreshed, rather than spaced out and tired.
Compare and contrast post-game feelings– See if they can agree that there is a different feeling after playing a sport or an instrument than there is after gaming for several hours. Most of my clients report feeling energized and good about themselves after a few hours of a sport they enjoy or playing an instrument or working on a creative project. This is in contrast to feeling zoned out after a few hours of gaming.
Create a list of alternative hobbies, interests and activities– Once you (hopefully) get their buy-in that there are positive reasons to do other things with their time sometimes, see if you can both create a list of ideas. Here are a few to get you started: Learning a new instrument, hiking or biking, playing a new or past sport, watching a movie, reading a good book, working on a puzzle together or playing a board game with you or the rest of the family. (Yes, this too is a game, but it entails real-life, social interaction and I have yet to see someone addicted to Monopoly!)
Help resolve the underlying issues– See if your child is willing to take a look at some of the underlying issues beneath their excessive gaming. (You can also take some guesses if they are not sure.) It might be an attempt to avoid depression, social challenges, low self-worth, family problems, difficulty dealing with emotions, fear and resistance about the future or all of the above. Either on your own, if you feel equipped, or with a professional, see if you can help your child deal with and heal some of these underlying, unresolved issues. See if your child would be willing to address some of the things they might be avoiding, either by talking to you or a professional counselor who understands gaming addiction.
Improve negative self-talk– We all have a soundtrack of internal messages playing in our head. In many cases it sounds like, “I’m not good enough, I’ll never be able to get a job, growing up is too hard, nobody likes me, I’m a loser.” When we play this internal recording and/or check out on games in an attempt to avoid it, it never gets to be challenged or replaced. So see if your child would be willing to talk to you about the way they feel about themselves and the way they speak to themselves. We canretrain our brain, but it takes support from the outside and willingness on the inside to upload new messages. Left to its own devices, our minds will replay what they have been playing, on a repeat loop. And for many kids, this recording is not very kind, hopeful, or helpful. The same brain that got them into this cannot get them out. They need new brains with new ideas to help them change!
Home safe home- Make sure your house is a safe place so that your child doesn’t have additional reasons to want to escape when they get home. Try to have peaceful times when everybody is pleasant and present. And of course, always try to role model healthy and balanced behavior. The most effective way to teach your kids how to be is to be that way yourself!