Your child is losing weight or perhaps they are gaining weight.

They may be failing out or not even attending school.

Your child spends hours up at night yelling and screaming at their screen, frustrated with the game that’s not going their way. Or they’re laughing and engaging in toxic, sometimes misogynistic chat rooms. Your hear them saying things that actually shock you!!

Their poor or non-existing sleep schedule is close to one of someone who is being tortured, heavy bags under their eyes, they exhibit extreme irritability and conflict, and are plagued by chronic fatigue.

They no longer groom regularly, instead spend days at a time wearing the same filthy- smelling clothes.

By all accounts, your child seems miserable, unhealthy, and a shell of their former self.

And yet, they tell you that gaming online for hours upon hours, is the only thing that makes them happy, their only way to feel a sense of social connection, and the only activity that they believe they’re good at.

Gaming addiction denial by the compulsive user, is prevalent with most of the families who reach out to me for help.

As a coach, the most common question I hear from caregivers is, “How can I get my child to understand and admit that they have an addiction?”

It’s important for me to first ask “the why” of the gaming addiction. 

Is your child gaming to escape, avoid, or cope with an emotional struggle?

Do they play to feel a sense of achievement because their academic, social, and/or family life outside of gaming doesn’t feel successful?

Or both?

Number six of the nine signs of gaming addiction, is continued, excessive use of gaming despite the knowledge of psychosocial problems. The individual continues to play despite the negative impact.

Disordered, compulsive gamers are stuck in the pre-contemplation stage of addiction. This stage is the period where there is little or no consideration that the addicted person themself believes they have a problem. Change of their current pattern of behavior is not something they can even fathom. The idea that they have a “problem” is not even on their radar. In fact, their denial creates a sense of safety for them.

Needed in this stage is awareness of the need to realize their addiction. Their support system would work towards having them envision the possibility of change. 

My son, Jake believed that playing video games, in essence, temporarily alleviated his anxiety and fears. And he thought this compulsive engagement didn’t make him more nervous. 

However, by playing hours of games and not addressing his dilemma only compounded the problem. 

Chronic gaming placed Jake into a bubble of denial. 

While entertained in his virtual world, he didn’t have to think about his angst, but the act of playing games for up to sixteen hours at a time, with little breaks, certainly did create more distress. 

He was sitting in the same position for hours; he was eating very little food and hardly drinking any fluids, and he was battling with avatars on a screen, fighting to get the highest score possible. That, alone, would put his adrenals, nervous system, and brain chemistry into overdrive. His body would most certainly feel increased stress. 

The difference was that he was also receiving a high from the elevated, feel-good dopamine levels in his brain each time he succeeded in the game. 

So, he had a choice; sit still in his emotional pain and his terrifying thoughts or turn on his computer and sit in high-velocity, thrill-seeking video games until he exhausted himself and passed out. Those were the two times he could numb out the chaos – playing hours of video games and then sleeping, and then repeating the pattern. 

It’s easy to see why it is difficult to convince the compulsive gamer to see that their choice of coping strategy for their pain is a very unhealthy choice, indeed. For Jake, grappling with his difficult school issues, by immersing himself in hours of video gaming, was working, in the moment, so he saw no reason to stop.

I asked him more about this, so that I could understand how the addict’s brain compartmentalizes their painful mental health issues from the strong desire to escape into more gaming,

“So, when you recognized, in university, that things were not going well, that you were struggling in first year, second semester, and you came home that summer knowing there were issues you didn’t want to look at, what was your mind’s process as to why you wouldn’t ask for help and share it, but rather kept it to yourself and continued to play video games instead?”

I really appreciated Jake’s candor, in his reply,

“There’s probably a couple pieces there. I know that one of the driving factors was that I wanted to be able to solve my problem myself because I didn’t want to be seen as weak, I didn’t want to show that vulnerability. My self-esteem was built entirely around what others said of me, as opposed to what I found within myself. And that means that if I reveal that I have failed, then that means I’m a failure. And I couldn’t accept that. That was one of the components that really drove a lot of my decisions. I felt I needed to hide the things that were bad or hide the things that aren’t positive. I needed to make sure I kept those secrets tucked away to myself, because if I revealed them, they’d become me. 

The other piece was that if I revealed there was a problem, things would have to change. And change was a very terrifying concept. The thought of changing to stop playing video games was scary. I didn’t want to stop. That was the addiction talking in the back of my head; ‘I don’t want to stop playing video games’. But in general, I didn’t want to stop the behaviour, I didn’t want to change my way of life, because my way of life, no matter how twisted and awful it was in that moment, it was at least the one I knew, it was a safe space, it was that thing that I found happiness in. If I changed that, if I removed those components, would I still have that happiness, would things still be okay? ‘Probably not’, my brain said, and my anxiety screamed at me, ‘It won’t be okay, so don’t change. If you can avoid the change as much as possible, avoid the change, because you will be safe.”

This example is why it can be such a challenge to demonstrate that playing video games to excess and to the detriment of one’s health is a form of addiction. The person who is addicted cannot see it. In the Pre-contemplative stage of addiction, survival supersedes the recognition of unhealthy dependency and the refusal to consider it problematic.

When this sign of addiction is apparent, the belief that one cannot live without the addictive behaviour, it’s important to look at the source of discomfort that a child will continue to tolerate and/or run from in playing hours of video games. 

And sometimes, we must look as closely at home. 

It’s vital to look at your own relationship with your child and/or the relations between siblings. In your family, if you felt picked on or that you weren’t heard and/or didn’t seem to matter, would you want to spend time with family members? Or would you lock yourself in your bedroom with a distracting activity?

Finding any activity to escape constant stress in your household would seem more appealing. When this kind of isolation occurs, it might be time to find outside help, in a family therapist or coach. 

It may also be good to speak with teachers and ask questions about your child’s behaviour at school. 

Are they participating in the classroom? 

Are they struggling to make friends? Is there an issue with bullying at school or online? Could it be possible your child has gender confusion? 

Is your child missing school days to play video games? Are they complaining of headaches, stomach aches, or of just generally feeling unwell to get out of school, trips, sports, clubs, or family activities? 

Do they need to see the family physician to address a feeling of low mood or anxiety? Now is the time to turn over every stone and consider all possibilities. 

Look for “the why.”

Speaking about your child’s addictive behaviour as being problematic rather than as addictive may lead to a more open discussion. Using the word addiction may invoke a defensive response from a child. They may feel threatened by the idea of losing the opportunity to play video games ever again. 

But discussing where compulsive behaviour is problematic in the child’s life may help to at least open a doorway to discuss reducing some of their time playing video games. 

Jake closed down at the concept of addiction because to him it meant giving up gaming entirely and forever, and that was an absolutely frightening concept for him. Denial equaled safety, even though his addiction was doing anything but keeping him emotionally or physically safe.

However, with family support and digging deep with a therapist on what his core issues were, he was able to eventually see where his gaming was a barrier to him fulfilling his university degree goal.

Not every situation calls for complete detox. 

Gaming can be scaled back and regulated while the gamer works through the underlying issue that is manifesting as addiction. 

It’s important to understand what the best approach and strategy is, and this is where therapy and/or coaching can be beneficial. 

Any support you can find, will help in the process of leaning your gamer away from denial and towards recovery.