Why does asking my child/teen to turn off their gaming console cause an explosion of anger?July 17, 2019
Ever wondered why your child’s Xbox or PlayStation 4 – their most favourite thing to do in the world – can also be a complete source of misery? Why do they explode into fits of rage when you finally get them to turn it off, and then, when the anger subsides, fall into a sluggish heap? What’s happening is a complex clash of brain chemicals and hormones that stimulate your child’s nervous system and make it literally impossible for them to think clearly and behave properly.
Gaming activates the brain’s reward system by releasing dopamine – a neurotransmitter designed to make us want to repeat behaviours that are essential for survival. This system makes us feel good when we do things like eat and socialise, but it can also be hijacked by distractions such as drugs, gambling and gaming. When the reward stimulus is removed – i.e. the console is turned off – the dopamine takes a dive and your child will do almost anything to start it up again. At the same time, the testosterone released while playing the game has built up and suddenly gets dispelled resulting in an all-out techno-tantrum. (Note: the more violent the game, the more testosterone is released). And then when the adrenalin subsides, they fall into a sluggish heap. I see many parents in my family therapy practice in Sydney CBD who desperately want to avoid these melt-downs but don’t know how to tackle the problem. Here are some of the things they ask and how I suggest they set healthy boundaries for “screen-agers”:
How long should my child be allowed to play? Limit gaming to Friday nights and weekends, for no longer than one hour each day. Never after dinner when children should be winding down. And always after they have done tasks for school and family chores first.
I’ve heard other parents sign contracts with their kids. Do these work? Yes, signing a written contract that states when and how long they can play is a good idea. If you want some wiggle room in the contract, agree that time can be negotiated during the school holidays. And remember a contract is only as strong as your willingness to stick to it.
What do I do if my child pleads to play to the next level before getting off? This is a stalling tactic. Video games are cleverly designed to induce a constant state of insufficiency, where players get into a flow and there is never an end point. It works best to give kids a count down to an end point rather than an abrupt end which leads to explosive behaviour e.g. “10 minutes to go, now 5 minutes to go, 2 minutes to go – time to get off please”.
What do we do if we suspect our child is playing as we sleep? Don’t allow the Xbox or PlayStation to be in your child’s bedroom. Sometimes you may need to disable the system to be sure.
My child tells me other parents let their children play more often for longer? All children and teens think others are getting more of what they want than they are. Stick to the rules in your home and don’t engage in a discussion about rules in other families’ homes – especially as a lot of the time what your child says is going on is not accurate.
Is violence okay in games? Games with high levels of violence are likely to make younger children more dysregulated because their brains aren’t mature enough to process what they’re seeing. Violence in gaming does impact behaviour and aggression at home. Avoid violent games.
Why does my child lash out so aggressively? Children have difficulty regulating their emotions because the prefrontal part of their brain is still developing. Setting a time or giving verbal count down warnings will greatly reduce this lashing out behaviour.
When they stop playing, they sit there like a zombie. Is this normal? Once the game is off, the brain chemicals need time to adjust so don’t expect immediate engagement. Arrange for some “green time” in the outdoors afterwards. This is the best way to recalibrate young nervous systems.
My son tells me the multi-player function on Fortnight means he is connecting with friends. Isn’t this the same as socialising? No, it’s not the same. Children do not learn social cues such as negotiation, communication and connecting emotionally unless they have face-to-face contact with other children and adults. Screen time shouldn’t occur when friends are over for playdates or sleep-overs. Encourage imaginative and social play during this time.
What about gaming on mobile phones? How can I set rules on these devices? We all agree that taking away their phone just isn’t practical during the day time. However, all phones and devices should be turned off and ideally put away a good 90 minutes before sleep. Some parents even lock them up. The key to this is routine to reduce aggressive backlash from having a device suddenly taken away. It is better to pick a mobile plan that limits their data and therefore reduces play time. Be prepared to turn off your internet or their data if they do not abide by the rules.
Lastly, I also talk to parents about modelling good screen habits themselves. If your child is spending time away from screens, you should too. This is the time to practice the art of conversation together.
Want to read more? Try this new book: The Tech Diet for your Child & Teen by Brad Marshall.
All the Therapists at the Sydney Couple and Family Specialists are qualified to help you navigate these sometimes difficult interactions with your children, and give you the tools and the confidence to set healthy boundaries. Allowing poor habits to persist will delay your child’s ability to reach important developmental milestones. So make an appointment today on 02 8968 9397.
Jacqueline has been in private practice for more than two decades, helping individuals, couples and families. She has extensive experience in couple and family therapy and is considered a specialist in these areas. In her clinical practice, she has helped people deal with complex trauma, affairs, complex mental health issues, eating disorders, adolescent behavioural problems (including self-harm and suicidal ideation), behavioural issues in young children which are impacting parents and families, relationship issues and post-separation work.
Jacqueline works with many different dynamics: couples, parents, families with young children, same-sex couples, foster/adopted families, families with teenagers and also adult families. She is particularly interested in helping parents of children with behavioural issues, or with diagnosed conditions such as anxiety, ADHD, ASD and so on.
Although Jacqueline’s work is supportive and friendly, she will challenge her couples and families to make the necessary behavioural changes, to repair relationships and to move towards healthier communication styles in the future.
Jacqueline’s style is direct and fast paced and she is known for quickly getting to the heart of the matter. Clients report that they feel safe and understood with Jacqueline.
Qualifications and Professional Membership
Jacqueline has a Masters in Couple and Family Therapy (UNSW). She has a Bachelor degree in Counselling and Human Change, and a Diploma in Psychotherapy and Counselling.
Jacqueline is a Clinical Supervisor for Counsellors and Therapists. She lectures in couple and family therapy at Masters and Post Graduate level, and is currently Head Lecturer for the Couple and Family Therapy course (Masters) at the Jansen Newman Institute. She has been a Lecturer at the University of Western Sydney and Sydney University, and continues to guest lecture at other tertiary institutions.
Jacqueline is also the Director of the Couple and Family Training Centre where she runs regular professional development workshops and seminars for Therapists, Counsellors, Psychologists, Social Workers and Health Industry Workers who are looking to gain skills in this specialist area.
“Thank you for seeing me today. Your help with all our family issues and all your advice has been invaluable. I don’t know how other families do it, without a Jacqueline in their lives.” – Anna (43) step-mum and mum to four children.