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.
Cherie specialises in family and relationship counselling in the areas of anxiety, grief, life transitions, separations, trauma, child behaviour and complex adolescent issues.
Cherie is a reflective, insightful therapist. She is fair and supportive, and works hard to help her clients find solutions. Clients say Cherie is gentle but firm when she needs to be and they feel safe with her.
Cherie brings years of experience to her clinical practice. She has a particular professional interest in blended families, foster/adopted families, rainbow families, single parents, and those with teenagers presenting with worrying behaviours such as self-harm, suicide ideation, eating disorders, gaming/social media addictions, and mental health diagnoses.
She has extensive experience with child access and Family Court matters.
“People are often anxious about what is going to be discussed or revealed in therapy sessions. That’s completely understandable. Please know that it’s my job to provide the necessary structure to ensure safety and respect throughout the sessions. Therapy is not about laying blame. It’s about bringing information out into the open and being able to see it differently. With the right support, you can move through what might feel ‘stuck’ right now; you can experience your relationships differently.”.
Families and couples who come to see Cherie can expect to leave sessions with a deeper understanding of relationship dynamics, tools to improve communication and the confidence to move forward.
Qualifications and Professional Membership
Cherie holds a Masters in Psychotherapy and Counselling (WSU), a Diploma in Counselling (WSU) and a Bachelor degree in Communications (CSU).
She is an accredited group facilitator for the Melbourne University’s Tuning into Teens parenting program, and the Jacaranda Project for adult survivors of child abuse. Cherie is a committee member of the Children and Adolescent Sexual Assault Counsellors’ network and was a former editor of Breaking Free – the monthly newsletter of the Blue Knot Foundation, the peak body supporting survivors with complex trauma.
Cherie is a Clinical Member of the Psychotherapy and Counselling Federation of Australia (PACFA).
“We saw a number of psychologists and they all wanted to pathologise our daughter — calling her resistant and disordered. Cherie was different. She listened and validated us. She guided us as a family to speak in new ways and express our needs. We feel like we’ve got our daughter back.” Susan (48) mother to two teenage daughters aged 13 and 17, and dad Leon (53) who saw Cherie Marriott for family therapy.
“Our family fights could get pretty heated but this didn’t seem to faze Cherie. She stayed calm and stepped in to cool things down. Everyone felt heard. In the end, something just changed and we stopped spinning our wheels. I think it was Cherie’s belief in our strengths that made all the difference.” David (47) father of two children and step-dad to 15-year-old son Josh, and Josh’s mum Lucy (45) who saw Cherie Marriott for blended family work.