Q: I fear that my 12-year-old son, who has attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, is addicted to video games. He obsesses over winning prizes and getting to the next level. It dominates his conversations at home and with friends, which is annoying to most. I limit his tech time, but he spends more and more time in his room.
I also fear that his obsession is alienating him from other children. A neighbor never wants to play with him anymore. The kid that sat next to him at lunch asked to move. In this pandemic environment, how do I encourage him to get out and try other activities without nagging?
A: Thank you for your question. You are not alone when it comes to worrying about your preteen and his video game use. This issue seems to have become even more pronounced after two years of the pandemic and, in most cases, virtual school. The obsessions of “winning prizes and getting to the next level,” while annoying, are not uncommon for many 12-year-olds, especially boys. Games are created to keep users coming back, and this is one of the ways to do that. This can be distressing for many parents, who report that outside interests seem to drop and that their boys’ sleep is affected.
You have also noted the drop in your son’s friendships in the neighborhood and in school, but I am not sure whether this is correlated with his video game use.
To begin, I have a request that may make you uncomfortable: Befriend the video games. Bad-mouthing them, taking them away as punishment or hiding them will only hurt your relationship with your son. The best way to get your son on your side is to value what he values. It is clear that the games aren’t going away, so do your best to enter his world. Get curious about the games, see whether you can play with him and ask him to teach you about their intricacies. I know you may rather watch paint dry, but showing true interest will go a long way in gaining your son’s trust, which leads to good communication (a must for every parent/preteen relationship). We befriend the video games, because we want to help him live with a sort of balance.
Another suggestion: You mention he stays in his room. If his gaming system is in his bedroom, this is only going to increase his isolation and “addiction.” Find a way, if you can, to move it into a common area, which will help you connect with him as he plays. This will also keep his room as a place to sleep and rest, and he won’t be tempted by screens when he should be resting. Twelve is a young age to have video games in one’s room, when preteens can’t control their impulses to keep playing. As much as possible, bring the tech out of his room cooperatively. If you take it out while he’s not there, that is like an act of war in your relationship. Slow and steady is the better way through.
We must also acknowledge that ADHD plays a pretty big role in his tendencies to hyper-focus and obsess. Studies have shown that children with ADHD game at a higher rate than their peers, so although gaming doesn’t cause ADHD, children with ADHD tend to have a harder time breaking away from games.
“An ADHD label suggests that he is prone to hyper-focusing on the interests that he finds most stimulating, which is most likely a game designed to pull for attention. Add in less awareness of the social impacts if he is missing and/or misinterpreting cues from friends, … all common factors for adolescents identified with ADHD,” says my friend Adam Pletter, a child psychologist and a tech and children expert.
Therefore, we must address your son’s ADHD at the same time as we tackle the gaming; his brain’s differences are not willpower issues, and they are not a sign of lazy parenting. His brain makes him feel good when he’s gaming, so he needs extra support. See your psychiatrist, therapist and pediatrician for a reassessment, and be honest with them about his gaming and friendships.
As for gaming at home, we know that ripping the console away from him and creating arbitrary rules will not work. Pletter recommends watching the “Teenage Brain” episode of Netflix’s “The Mind, Explained” with your son as a conversation starter. It’s relatively short and appropriate for parents to watch with preteens. Use the language from the episode, which explains that teens have an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex as part of their normal development. (This part of the brain is used for focusing, shifting attention, regulating emotions and more.) The show suggests that parents often need to act as a teen’s prefrontal cortex to help with decision-making, including how they spend their time, and making judgment calls.
You can then begin to problem-solve with your son in a way that is cooperative and not just about what you want. You can both have a better understanding of the teen brain, and you can have more empathy for what he is going through.
Finally, I say this often, but I want you to pick up “Raising Human Beings” by Ross Greene. Yes, there are addiction-like behaviors going on and, yes, you may have a bit of a bumpy road ahead, but I suggest Greene’s work because of its practicality and application to almost any family problem. Greene’s collaborative and proactive solutions approach is effective, because it suggests parents focus on one problem at a time, attune to the child’s point of view, and find a solution that satisfies both parent and child. Greene’s books guide parents through a step-by-step process for this, and although the path isn’t always fast or simple, it is clear. Because gaming can be such a fraught issue with children, it is best to work with a model that has both parent and child feeling safe and heard.
As you start to place boundaries around your son’s gaming, you can also assess how to help him with his friendships. With more time and interests, he may naturally fall into new friendships, but this will need to be something you watch for. And don’t discount the friends your son meets in his gaming worlds; these are real friendships! Acknowledge and celebrate that while you chip away at this issue. Good luck!
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