Wednesday, January 11, 2017

12 yr old loses it playing video games

Hi Dr. Dave,

Unfortunately, our 12 year old son has had a disappointment trigger for several years which causes intense rage. When he was younger (around 5 to 8 years old), it was tied to arcade claw games. When a prize wasn't grabbed and won, he'd throw a huge tantrum.

He's conquered that situation now that he's older, but now it occurs while playing a video game and something unexpected happens - usually tied to his perception of fairness (i.e. someone is thought to be cheating, loses when a win appears imminent, spends a great deal of time collecting materials within the game but is lost, etc).

Rage is almost instantaneous, not appropriate in terms of severity of the situation and can last for an hour or two if we don't distract him with something else. He often tries to break items around the house and appears to be unable to think rationally during these episodes.

His mother is bi-polar, but he doesn't display the same symptoms as her - except for the actions described above in very specific situations. Otherwise, he's a great kid that makes friends easily and does well in school. Also, I can only recall that he's displayed this behavior in front of someone other than family once, typically happens just in front of his parents, if that helps.

In short, what do you feel is the cause and what can we do to greatly reduce or eliminate this negative behavior?

Hi, What you describe sounds like anger overload--your child' has an angry outburst when he feels a something happens that is unfair in a video game. Many children are very excited and invested in the outcome of video games.  One approach you are already using is distraction.  While distraction can help in some situations, the problem with this approach with video games is that video games are so exciting (captivating for many youth) and your child's disappointment is so strong, that it will be hard to come up with a distraction that will capture his attention and change his emotional state. 

With video games, what I usually recommend to parents is to come up with a mantra that you repeat many times over the course of a month or more that describes the "unfairness" of video games. For example, one idea for a mantra is to explain that video games are made so that you will lose most of the time.  They want you to lose so that you will feel challenged to play again.  The game purposely leads you down blind alleys, or suddenly makes something happen to frustrate you.  If the game were always fair, you would win most of the time, and you would lose interest in the game.  Now the hard part is putting that idea into a succinct mantra.  You want it short and memorable so your child is more likely to remember it at the point he loses the game.  Practice explaining the issue when he is calm and ask him to help you come up with a sentence that he likes and that will help him remember when he plays that he is going to lose most of the time, because that is way the games are made.

Then each time he is about to play, you want to repeat the mantra in front of him, or ask him to remember what the mantra  is.  It is important for him to recall the mantra before he gets upset, while he is thinking rationally. The more often he repeats it over time, the more likely it will help.  It may take a month or more to have an impact, and it may work sometimes more than other times.  But you will see a gradual decrease in excessive outbursts if your child uses the mantra each time he plays.

Another approach some parents use is to specify certain unacceptable behaviors, like breaking or throwing things, and also specify more acceptable behaviors, like saying "this game can be so unfair" or "this game can be a pain." Then you explain while everyone is calm that if your child exhibits an unacceptable behavior during a game, he loses video game privileges for 24 hours, or some amount of time that is not endless!  You do not have to enforce the limit while he is raging, but later that day, explain that the 24 hour limit will start some time that day (whenever you have decided).  Sometimes this behavior modification (incentives or consequences) approach can help when used in conjunction with a mantra.  The potential consequence helps motivate a child, while the mantra helps a child learn what to expect when playing a video game.  

I lean more heavily toward the mantra approach, but each child is different, so you want to try different approaches until you find one (or a combination) that works best for your child. If you want to read more about devising mantras, check out other blog posts or my parent's manuals and my workbook for older children and teens.  There is a section about mantras in the workbook as well as in volume two of my parent's manuals:  "Anger Overload in Children: Additional Strategies for Parents and Teachers,"

Take care, Dr. Dave Gottlieb

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