Envision, for a moment, the unhealthy behaviours you have noticed with your child who appears to have a problematic or addictive gaming habit.
Are they digging in their heels with rebellion and skirting responsibilities with household chores or with school work, or both?
Are they speaking to you in a disrespectful manner, often using foul language and an elevated voice?
Do they play games for several more hours than allowed, sometimes late into the night or early morning hours?
Are they screaming and throwing tantrums when you try to discuss their gaming behaviour or when you ask them to stop gaming?
Does their present behavior remind you of the actions of a much younger child, but your child is actually older, perhaps even an adult?
Maturity can be stunted when the brain is kidnapped in addiction. While a child is constantly seeking pleasure and reward, while escaping emotional pain, they lack an opportunity to develop essential coping skills. The result leads to an inability to hold back or control their emotions, an increase in more risky, impulsive behaviour, and poor judgment.
“In one study, young adults with gaming disorder showed lower volumes of gray and white brain matter, associated with poor decision-making, impulse control, and emotion regulation.”
A child’s emotional regulation can get further out of control when a parent becomes so frustrated and exasperated that they also raise their voice and model similar erratic behaviour. The family home can literally become a battleground of childish outbursts and power struggles.
A parent in this situation is quite literally modeling the very same emotion. A child has a meltdown because they feel powerless. And as parents, you may not always know what to do or how to react, so you also feel powerless, and act accordingly.
But this power struggle is not what is needed at the moment. A child needs their parent to be reassuring, to be understanding, and to validate their feelings of powerlessness using empathetic language.
In my second book, Cyber Sober; A Caregiver’s Guide to Video Gaming Addiction, I asked Psychologist, Diane Wetzig to explain how early addictions in youth can delay their emotional maturity.
Here’s Dr. Wetzig’s response:
I usually answer this question with a story. So, Johnny and Mary start attending school. They are both in kindergarten. At the end of the first day, Johnny comes home and tells his mom that school was hard and that he felt scared and didn’t know what to do. So, his mom offers him a “happy pill” to cope with his school anxieties.
Mary returns home the same day and tells her mom that school was uncomfortable, and she felt scared. Mary’s mom takes Mary aside and sits down and talks about some good coping skills she can use to help her to socialize with the other children and manage her classroom time. They continue to check in regularly and discuss how Mary is doing. Johnny just continues to use his happy pill and develops no coping skills. His emotional maturity becomes arrested at this age, as a result.
For many young people today, that happy pill is playing video games.
In the brain, the neurocircuitry that governs emotional maturity in a child will have strengthened for Mary, as a result of her practicing the skills needed to deal with her anxiety, while Johnny’s brain will have not progressed, as he learned to rely on a source outside of himself to cope.
If your child is using gaming to avoid school, social activities, hygiene, and chores, and exhibiting emotional outbursts and a lack of gaming regulation, it can become frustrating and confusing as a parent. While you physically see your child in their biological age, you are, at the same time, witnessing the behaviours of a child with a much lower emotional age.
In my coaching practice, I often hear parents tell me that they just don’t understand why their child isn’t acting their age. It is because the child lacks resiliency and an ability to cope with stressors in their life, and using excessive gaming as a coping mechanism has stunted their maturity.
In this situation, a parent needs to step back and see their child at the age of immaturity they are exhibiting. For example, if your child is seventeen years old, but acting like a twelve year old, then consider what a child of that lower emotional age requires. A twelve year old still requires rules, structure, and guidance so they feel safe and secure. This is not the time to start letting go and allowing some teen-appropriate freedoms. The child is not emotionally ready to manage that kind of independence.
This is also a time to recognize that you, as their parent, are not powerless. With this new knowledge, you can provide the tools to help your child meet their emotional needs and help them in their journey towards maturity.
Although it will be challenging and a child will put up a lot of resistance, at first, it’s vitally important to take a stand and insist on a more supervised and regulated structure in the home.
Remain calm in heightened times and model appropriate behaviour of understanding and compassion
Validate your child’s feelings at the moment. Say things like, “I can see this is difficult for you.” or “I can see this has you feeling angry or frustrated or frightened” (whatever emotion fits at this time).
You can still be gentle while still remaining firm with rules. Aggression would look like you’re trying to overpower, while assertiveness would look like you are in control of your emotions and can still follow through with making sure the rules are followed.
Be sure to follow through with consequences to provide consistency and predictability in order to help your child to understand expectations and feel safe in their environment.
Create scenarios that can help your child to challenge themselves, problem-solve on their own, and work through their personal difficulties. Allow them to feel capable rather than relying on you for the answers or to rescue them. Resist providing any kind of happy pill to soothe them.
Allow your child to explore their options by acting as a sounding board and listening without judgment or without providing the solution. This will help your child to build the kind of resiliency that’s needed to move towards maturity.
If you are stuck on how to implement these strategies, perhaps seek the advice of a therapist or coach, like myself to help you better understand yourself and your own approach to parenting.
With diligence and consistency, over time, your child will emotionally mature and catch up with their biological age. The need to use video gaming as a coping mechanism may be replaced with healthier choices.