When a child is addicted to video games, they can become a different person – one a parent no longer recognizes. They may stop grooming, eat poorly, often while alone in their room, spend their nights in front of their screen, and sleep all day.
They may become belligerent when asked about their gaming habits, and can be disruptive or absent within the family dynamic. They can become physically violent.
Some drop out of school or stop working. They can also become withdrawn and difficult to communicate with, choosing to only interact with their online gaming peers.
For parents, this part of childrearing becomes unfamiliar territory. Gone are the days of enjoying time spent with their sweet, compliant, and fun child. Many tell me that they feel like they’ve lost their offspring to the virtual world, and they feel utter sadness and hopelessness in getting them back.
Having an addict in the family home is stressful and disruptive. Parents become exasperated, frustrated, annoyed, angry, and have no idea what to do to create change. While other parents feel like they’ve tried “everything possible”, with no success to convince their gamer they have an addiction issue and need to stop playing.
Childhood can come with its own exasperation and sense of hopelessness if there are emotional issues a child is too immature or ill-equipped to manage. Bullying, academic disappointments, friendship quarrels, stress in the home, loss and grief, romantic breakups. and even teenage hormonal changes such as acne, are some of the reasons for a child to look for ways to avoid uncomfortable feelings. For gamers, when this pain becomes unbearable they may find a temporary escape in gaming, an activity they love, and feel good playing.
And when this child finds no solution and the pain continues, playing endless hours of video games can become their familiar blanket of comfort.
But no child chooses to become addicted. Every child wants to make their parents proud, regardless of their age.
So why are they behaving like someone with the entire opposite goal?
What’s important to understand is that the unruly changes in your child’s behaviour is a result of the changes in their brain, due to addiction.
The brain releases dopamine when one is playing video games. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s reward and pleasure centers and the release of dopamine prompts the brain to crave more.
Excessive video gaming can then lead the brain to being revved up in a constant state of hyperarousal. This hyped up state can create difficulties with paying attention, managing emotions, controlling impulses, following directions and tolerating frustration.
Studies have shown that people diagnosed with gaming disorder are more likely to be aggressive, depressed, and anxious. Emotional regulation is no longer within their control.
Understanding that it is the excessive gaming that is now controlling your child’s brain, can take away that sense that their negative behaviour is somehow personal. They are not behaving badly to be hurtful. The addicted child cannot help themself or their behaviour without intervention and support.
While I can relate and understand angry and frustrated reactions from a parent, this sort of response will just send a child further down the rabbit hole of emotional pain and addiction.
Reacting in anger focuses on the problem – the addiction, and not on the child who is emotionally suffering. Their addicted brain has lost control. They need their parent to remain calm and in control in order to help them best.
While remaining calm and showing compassion, when one is full of resentment and frustration, is not an easy thing to do, it may be the key to eventually unlocking your child from their uncontrollable compulsion.
Patience is also of great value. No one becomes addicted overnight; having the compulsion to game for hours at a time, day after day, is a slow-to-develop craving and habit. It will take time and patience to unravel to create a safe space for a child to express themself, and to eventually examine their pattern of behaviour, and consider the potential for change.
The good news is that the brain can heal, and the warm and loving child you raised can eventually return to you.
This is not to say that while remaining empathetic, a parent can’t also implement firm boundaries and rules around gaming. In some cases, like with my own son, removing gaming altogether, while providing help and support for their emotional struggle is necessary. And in severe cases, a parent may need to implement an intervention and an outside rehabilitation center for their child.
But love, kindness, and understanding must always be coupled with these approaches.
Parents, if you are challenged and have lost control of your own emotions, please seek professional help, educate yourself on addictions, and also look for support within your family and friend circles.
As a family coach and a mother who rallied to get my own son to recovery, I can provide strategies to help guide parents through this difficult portion and look for ways to reconnect you with your child.