For most of us who are raising teens with ADHD, video games are a fact of life. Many kids would rather immerse themselves in a video game than spend time doing just about anything else.
As a result, many parents fear that their child is addicted to video games; others worry that their child is isolating himself. Many see the games as an unhealthy escape, and fear their child will lose motivation for “real world” interests. Some parents see their children unable to transition away from their video games, and envision their futures spent gaming 24/7, never becoming independent adults.
These are all valid concerns. But what if we considered the possibility that video games could play a positive role in our children’s’ lives? If they’re going to play them anyway, why not look for some benefits of our children’s’ engagement with gaming? Here are some ways that gaming could be a good thing:
- Spending focused time in areas of competency. For children who struggle to succeed in school or their social lives, playing a game at which they are competent can bring a genuine boost of confidence.
- Real social engagement. Gaming with friends can provide authentic social connection and relationships, and can be a safe way to experience healthy social dynamics and boundaries.
- Reducing stress. Like any de-stressing activity, gaming offers a way to blow off steam and cope with the stressors that children with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) experience in daily life.
- Giving us a window into our teens’ emotional lives. Parents can use their teen’s gaming as an access point for conversations about everything from values to emotions.
So in this perfect storm of teens’ attachment to games, parents’ worries about excess, and the pervasive role of technology in our lives, how can we proceed? Do arbitrary limits work, or do they just lead to more stress in the home? How can we make choices today that will lead to the personal development we hope to foster in our kids?
5 Positive Strategies for Video Gaming with ADHD
1. Co-create guidelines. As William Stixrud, Ph.D., and Ned Johnson say in their book, The Self-Driven Child, giving kids a sense of control over their lives supports the development of autonomy and motivation. Working with our kids to create guidelines (as opposed to adhering to hard and fast rules imposed by parents) for their gaming allows for more flexibility and less conflict. For example:
- No video games after dinner
- If a game regularly results in anger, frustration, or dysregulation, it’s time to stop playing it for a while
- Homework has to be done before gaming
- No video games before school
- Must exercise every day for at least one hour
2. Focus on “mentoring over monitoring.” Since our goal is to help our kids have healthy relationships with their screens and games, adopt a mentorship mindset and tap into your own experience to guide them. As Devorah Heitner, Ph.D., author of Screenwise: Helping Kids Thrive (and Survive) in Their Digital World, writes in her Mentorship Manifesto, “We, as mentors, recognize that being tech savvy is not the same as having wisdom. Our life experience is a critical factor in the equation. We believe in collaboration over control. Co-creating solutions with kids takes advantage of their creativity and builds trust at the same time.”
3. Play with them. Engaging in an epic Creeper battle, or vying for control of civilization, might not be your top choice for spending your free time, but showing interest in our children’s games pays off. If you can’t bear the thought of playing along, ask your child to explain what he’s doing, check on his progress, and look for opportunities to celebrate his victories and empathize with his defeats. You will have a better understanding of what he finds so engaging, but he will see that you respect the medium, which can shift the energy away from conflict.
4. Don’t tie screen time to schoolwork. Offering it as a reward (or withholding it as a consequence) might be effective in the short term, but it is flawed as a long-term strategy. Eric Lanigan, who runs an e-course called “Making Peace with Online Gaming,” says, “When we add this kind of reward and punishment to the playing of games, we are creating a dynamic in which we make schoolwork this thing no one would inherently want to do—but if you do this thing that you would never want to do, you get a reward. In my perspective, this ruins the desire to learn.”
5. Stay focused on the big-picture goal. Remember that the goal is not just to help our children develop a healthy relationship with gaming—it’s to guide them in knowing themselves better, understanding their emotions, and learning to make positive choices. Getting there won’t happen quickly, but it’s an attainable outcome.
Deborah Reber is a New York Times best-selling author, speaker, and the founder of TiLT Parenting, a website, podcast, and global online community for parents raising differently wired children. Her most recent book is Differently Wired: Raising an Exceptional Child in a Conventional World.