Advice for Parents

I really recommend reading the other sections of this site first if you haven’t already – some of the advice here will make a lot more sense if you’ve read that first. Secondly, I’ve mentioned it elsewhere but I feel it’s important to reiterate that unfortunately it is not possible to completely control someone else’s gaming or ensure that they do not develop a gaming addiction, even as a parent. This can be an incredibly frustrating position to be in as you can often see (and perhaps know from your own experience!) the problems that children’s behaviour can cause in the future – but although we can do everything in our power to try and support them to develop healthier alternatives, it’s not always possible to do so. That said, it’s my hope that some of the advice on this page can improve things in many cases and it is certainly a good starting point if you haven’t already tried these suggestions!

Model Appropriate Technology Use

Helping children develop good habits with technology use begins with our own behaviour. Children will see it is a lot more fair and reasonable if everyone in the household has the same expectations when it comes to the use of computers, gaming consoles, smart phones or the TV so it’s important for parents to model the behaviour they want their children to copy.

One thing that some parents have found helpful is to have a ‘technology curfew’ for the whole family, with no-one in the house allowed to use phones/TV/computers after a certain time of night. If that idea fills you with a certain amount of dread, then it might also be worth examining your own technology use before going further!

Equally significant is modelling engagement with other activities. Kids are much more likely to believe that other hobbies can be satisfying and enjoyable if they see their parents getting enjoyment from them so staying actively engaged in other interests yourself can be both a relief for you and good modelling for your children.

Be willing to talk, take an interest, and really listen

This one is really important. It might seem hard to do when gaming has already become a problem and the last thing you want to do is talk about ‘that stupid game’, but being curious and interested in what your kids are playing, what they’re getting out of it and why they are so invested can be crucial in working out what limits to put in place and what alternatives to support if you want them to reduce their gaming. If they’re open to it, sitting down with them while they’re playing and getting them to talk to you about what they’re doing can be a good place to start. Also helpful is asking questions about it – like ‘What do you enjoy about that particular game?’, or ‘Who do you play with?’, ‘Are you competing with the other players or working together?’ etc can all be a good way to start getting more of a sense about what they are getting out of their gaming. It’s important to ask these questions out of genuine curiosity and not judgement, and so if you’re feeling particularly frustrated about the issue that’s probably not the best time to initiate the conversation.

The second part of communicating about gaming is learning to really listen. Try and really hear from your kids what it is that they are getting out of the experience. This may take some patience – if gaming has been a topic that’s caused conflict in the past, then they may at first be reluctant to talk with you about it so it’s important to be persistent but not insistent.

If you are able to do this, then over time you’ll be able to get a much better sense of what gaming means to your kids and perhaps why they find it so hard to control or limit. Also, if they do start to recognise ways in which their gaming is causing problems for them, they are likely to feel much more able to come to you to talk about it and to seek support from you as they are more likely to feel that you will listen and understand where they are coming from.

Be consistent

Being consistent in how you approach the issue is also very important. This too may not be easy as you’ll likely go through periods of giving up or feeling resigned – ‘what’s the point of fighting it’, as well as periods of being angry and frustrated about it, and periods of being despairing. However, it’s crucial that how you approach it with your kids is as consistent as it can be. If you can be consistent then they will come to understand that how you respond to them is predictable and linked to their behaviour – that is, that it makes sense for them to try and stick within the limits you set because then they can reliably count on having a better relationship with you and getting more support and encouragement from you.

This relates a lot to setting boundaries, which I discuss below. In most cases the best way to manage the issue is to set firm boundaries and then enforce them without becoming angry or judgemental, but rather in a matter-of-fact manner.

The flip side to this is also being consistent about how you relate to them when they are acting within the boundaries that you’ve set. Even if you’d rather they didn’t play games at all, if you’ve set a limit of one hour per night then it’s important that you consistently respect their gaming during that time. This will help them feel respected and supported in their attempts to live with your rules and more likely to continue doing so. If instead they sense that you are being judgemental or disapproving of the time that they are allowed, then they’re likely to feel that there is little benefit in ‘playing by the rules’ as they end up feeling criticised or judged regardless

Set Firm Boundaries

Key to managing gaming with children and young people is setting firm and appropriate boundaries and limits on their behaviour – when they are allowed to game, for how long, what they need to do beforehand, how often they take breaks and so on. Only you can know what boundaries are appropriate for your child and your circumstances, but there are a few important things to note about setting boundaries.

  • Set boundaries that you can enforce, and have a plan in place for how you will do this. There is no point setting boundaries or limits that you cannot enforce. If your plan is to have no technology use after 9pm at night, then have a plan to disable the modem, or to only have computers available for use in public spaces (i.e. not in bedrooms) so that you are able to make sure that this happens. This will help with the above points about consistency and minimise the risk of having fights resulting from relying on them to stick to the rules (e.g. if you were relying on them voluntarily stopping their gaming at 9pm).
  • Set boundaries that you intend to enforce. Take boundaries seriously and bring them up when you are not feeling overly angry or upset. Threats that you don’t intend to enforce (such as ‘if you don’t stop I’m going to destroy that computer’) can lead to anger and make it harder to discuss and enforce the limits that you do want to put in place. Being clear and consistent about enforcing boundaries will help your kids understand what is and isn’t okay, and helps them come to accept boundaries that they might not agree with.
  • Be willing to talk and negotiate, but ultimately make a decision. It can be helpful to talk with your kids about what they think would be reasonable, and what limits on their gaming they would be comfortable with. Ask them for their reasoning, why they think it should/shouldn’t be that much. Be prepared to listen and change your starting position, but ultimately recognise that it is your decision to make. It can be helpful to explain when setting a limit that differs from what they wanted that you have heard their perspective but are deciding something different because you don’t agree with it.
  • Make them clear and simple. Whatever boundaries or limits you decide on, communicate these clearly to your kids and make sure they understand them.
  • Give it time. When establishing new limits and boundaries, it will typically create quite a bit of disruption and turmoil at first as everyone adapts to a new routine and works out how to live with and around these limits. This goes hand in hand with being consistent as mentioned above – the only way to make sure that a boundary is effective is to be consistent and persistent in applying it even if this might take weeks or months in some cases.

Approach From A Position of Curiosity and Concern

There’s a lot of hyperbole and exaggeration around gaming issues, and kids are generally pretty aware of this. News articles that claim it is causing a ‘crisis of masculinity’, or that games are responsible for violent crimes. There are plenty of potential problems that arise from gaming but equally a lot of exaggerated claims made about it as well (“Games will destroy your life”, “They’re rotting your brain”, “They’re nothing but a waste of time”). Depending on what generation you’re from yourself you probably remember some of the over-the-top claims that were made about rock music, marijuana, TV, premarital sex etc and likely know yourself how much time you had for listening to the people making those claims! Consequently kids are much more likely to want to discuss the issue with you and be willing to engage around it if you can approach it from a position of concerned realism.

It's helpful to approach the issue with kids from a position of concern rather than one of judgement or criticism. One thing games do very well is provide an escape from negative feelings and experiences, and so if their experience outside of gaming involves a lot of criticism and hostility then it is more than likely to make gaming seem like an increasingly appealing option. For this reason it’s more helpful to say something like “I feel really worried that you won’t have many options available to you after high school because of your gaming” than “You’re messing up your life” or “You’re going to end up as a drop-out in a dead-end job if you don’t quit”.

Although kids won’t necessarily believe that you have their best interests in mind (or if they do, might not think you’re going about it the right way!) they’ll still be more likely to respect your limits if they feel that you are engaging them from a position of understanding and concern rather than criticism.

Provide and Support Alternatives

If you’ve read the other parts of this site you’ll know that one of the things that keeps a gaming addiction going is the fact that it meets a lot of important psychological needs. In order for someone to get away from the games, they will need to be able to meet those needs in other ways. Unfortunately they will often be ill-equipped and not very motivated to seek other ways to meet those needs so long as the gaming is available. If a kid is having a hard time making friends at school but has a great set of friends online, they won’t have much incentive to seek out other social activities.

This is also why it’s so important to understand why your child games, and what specifically they enjoy about it. Without understanding that, it will be hard to know what sort of alternatives to offer and support. Once you do know that, then you can start to think about what other ways they might be able to meet the same needs. If they are lacking social connections outside of gaming are there other social hobbies or clubs they might take part in? If gaming gives them a sense of purpose and meaning, are there other meaningful causes or activities that they might be able to get involved in? If gaming is about a sense of accomplishment and achievement, are there other projects or goals that you could work towards together or support them to work towards?

Expect that at first they will not be very open to new suggestions – after all, the gaming is providing them with everything they need from their perspective. Combining alternatives with setting limits can be a good way to go about this. For example, you might decide to make one evening per week a ‘technology free’ evening, and could then provide an alternative such as agreeing to take them to an evening hobby course, social activity, or work on a crafts or hobby project together. When considering these alternatives it’s important to consider both what need they would be meeting through the activity but also how they might want to go about it and what might make it easier for them to engage with it. Would they prefer to do it on their own, with you, or with a friend? Would they prefer to research and choose a new hobby or club (with direction from you if relevant) or would they rather be presented with a list of options? Are there friends doing anything that they might be interested in trying out as well?

Again, patience and persistence is important here. Most activities at first will seem a lot less immediately gratifying than gaming and can take time to become enjoyable.

Give Room to Make Changes

This is particularly relevant for teenagers, but most kids (and many adults!) will do nearly anything to avoid having to admit being wrong. What this means is that if you’ve been fighting with them about something for a while, there will be a point where even if they have internally started to agree with you, they will not want to show this. It’s crucially important if you don’t want to undo any positive progress that you give kids room to make changes without them needing to admit being wrong, and without acknowledging too much the changes they have made.

What this means is that it’s important that if things do start to change, that you don’t require them to acknowledge that they were wrong or that they have changed their mind. Although you may have been incredibly frustrated and are feeling vindicated if they do start to make positive changes, statements like “I’m glad you’re finally starting to see things my way”, or “I told you could do so much better at school if you quit the gaming” or even “Isn’t this (other activity) so much better than gaming?” all frame things in terms of right and wrong – specifically, that you’re right and they’re wrong – which makes it a lot harder for them to have the space to change their mind and really think about what they do believe, and is likely to make them want to revert to their original behaviour.

Instead, it is more useful to acknowledge positive changes through small statements that recognise the change without requiring an acknowledegment that a change has been made. Things like “I’m really glad you came out for a walk with me” or “Thanks for sticking to the rule about getting your homework done before gaming” or “You did an awesome job on that school project” are all that is needed.

Get Family Therapy

If things are not working out or if you are having trouble implementing some of the suggestions here, then I strongly encourage families to meet with a family therapist to discuss the situation. Family therapists are trained and experienced at helping parents model appropriate behaviour, set boundaries and identify patterns within a family system that might be helping or hindering a particular issue. You can find a list of some of the family therapists available around New Zealand here.

Other Resources

Families Managing Media has some useful articles and advice for parents on managing many forms of digital media including gaming. Well worth checking out for more info and ideas.

The OLGANON help for parents forum has stories and advice from other parents who have struggled with children overusing video games and can be a helpful place to find information and support.