If you’re a parent of an addicted gamer, you understand the emotional upheaval this can create in your home. Children often communicate their emotions through their behaviours. These emotions range from irritability or sadness, isolation or clinginess, to full on meltdowns or despondency. Sometimes the emotions are heightened while they play video games, and sometimes they become more emotional when asked to stop gaming, or both.

When a child’s key emotional needs are not being adequately met, they may turn to video gaming as a means of escape or fulfillment. Therefore, it’s important to look deeper than their addiction, and ask what need isn’t being met that has led your child to game in excess.

Video games provide a virtual world where gamers can experience a sense of control, accomplishment, and belonging that may be lacking in their real-life interactions. If a child feels insecure, disconnected, or lacking in recognition in their everyday life, the immersive and often rewarding nature of video games can become highly appealing. 

The instant gratification and sense of achievement provided by gaming can temporarily mask underlying emotional struggles and provide a distraction from feelings of loneliness or inadequacy. 

However, addictive gaming can lead to detrimental effects on social, academic, and physical well-being. It’s essential for caregivers to recognize and address the underlying emotional needs in order to address and approach management of disordered gaming..

Here are six emotional needs that might be underlying your child’s acting out behaviour: 

Security and Safety

Children need to feel safe and secure in their environment, both physically and emotionally. If they perceive threats to their safety or stability, they may exhibit behaviours like aggression or defiance. This can also show up as withdrawal or clinginess, sleep difficulty, avoidance of certain situations, regression in emotional maturity, and/or seeking excessive reassurance.

Providing a safe, consistent, and nurturing environment can help address this need; this may be more challenging if a child feels unsafe outside of their family home.

Connection and Belonging

Humans are social beings, and children crave connection and a sense of belonging. Acting out might be a way for a child to seek attention or validation from caregivers or peers. Other behaviours you may see are isolation, difficulty making friends, attention-seeking behaviour, expressing feelings of rejection, and/or copying behaviour of peers.

Spending quality time with the child, actively listening to them, and fostering positive relationships can fulfill this need.

Autonomy and Control

Children have a natural desire to exert control over their lives and decisions. When they feel powerless or restricted, they may act out to assert their autonomy. This may present itself with defiance or oppositional behaviour, meltdowns, refusal to cooperate, rigidity or inflexibility, and/or attempts at manipulating situations.

Offering age-appropriate choices and involving them in decision-making processes empowers them and reduces the likelihood of disruptive behaviours.

Recognition and Validation

Just like adults, children want to feel valued and understood. If they feel ignored or invalidated, they may resort to negative behaviours to gain attention, such as seeking attention, low self-esteem, copying behaviours, excessive apologizing, acting out for attention, and/or withdrawal or isolation.

Acknowledging their feelings, praising their efforts, and celebrating their achievements can boost their self-esteem and minimize acting out.

Competence and Mastery

Children thrive when they feel capable and competent in their abilities. If they constantly face challenges beyond their skill level or receive excessive criticism, they may become frustrated and act out. This may present as avoiding challenges, expressing frustration or anger, negative self-talk, seeking perfection, avoiding risk-taking, and/or copying others.

Encouraging their interests, providing opportunities for learning and growth, and offering constructive feedback can nurture their sense of competence.

Predictability and Routine

Predictable routines and structures provide children with a sense of stability and comfort. Changes or disruptions to their routines can trigger anxiety and lead to disruptive behaviours like anxiety or restlessness, resistance to change, difficulty transitioning, sleep disturbances, acting out or meltdowns, and or withdrawal and avoidance.

Establishing consistent daily routines and preparing them for transitions can help alleviate their stress and reduce acting out.

Decoding the emotional need behind the behaviour helps caregivers respond with empathy and patience, strengthening the parent-child bond and promoting a secure attachment. Caregivers can then create a nurturing environment where children feel understood, supported, and empowered to navigate their emotions in more constructive ways.

It’s essential to approach each child as an individual and tailor interventions based on their unique needs and circumstances. For more support and strategies, a coach or therapist can be helpful.