If this were my kid…

Advice-giving:  some therapists claim it should never be done; therapists-in-training are eager to leap in with advice before they know enough about a situation to offer it.  The stance on advice-giving has its roots in various philosophical approaches to therapy.

For those of a more psychoanalytic bent, it is the role of the therapist to push for deeper self-exploration and understanding, with that “a-ha!” process leading to more responsible, better-informed decision making.  Insight leading to action is a vital part of maturation; the alternative is an adulthood of adolescent reactivity and self-absorption.

Psychoanalytic insight may not do a frustrated parent any good at the moment they are figuring out how to handle the upside-bowl of cranberry sauce on the floor. Again.

In solution-focused brief therapy, the emphasis is on searching for times when a problem is absent or much reduced and breaking down the details of those situations, especially in regard to clients’ behaviors. This process empowers the client to realize that s/he is already equipped to deal with much of the situation(s) at hand and develop plans to do more of what already works.

This is a very helpful process, but sometimes people want a little more guidance.

Psychoeducation – teaching, basically – is different than telling a client specifically what to do. It provides information, refers to scientific data, often linking particular actions to help with problems.  Education is part of holistic counseling approaches to many concerns, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders, and problematic insomnia.

All of which brings us back to the question of advice.  I am not a new therapist, and people are not coming to see a therapist with 25+ years’ experience and some white hair so I can look vaguely concerned and steeple my fingers and murmur, “Hmmm, how do you feel about that?” when they express anger and shame over their inability to get a five year old to comply with bath and bed routines.

So, I am, at least for the moment, breaking the invisible fourth wall – the wall first broken in literature by Charlotte Bronte in the final chapter of Jane Eyre – and say, straight out, “If this were my kid…

“I would take away all electronics for at least six weeks.  Maybe longer.  Not even any television/movies unless a responsible adult is with them.”

Yes, they are going to be bored. They will be angry. If they have been playing video games, they may become aggressive and destructive – be prepared for this.  If they have been using pornography, it could be even worse. Fists and feet have gone through drywall over losing access to video games and phones.  If your child becomes hostile and aggressive (not just normally angry), it is evidence you are doing this late in a problematic process.  What are they going to do?  Play other games. Make art. Play the instrument that is gathering dust. Exercise. Do chores.  Read.  Libraries offer books, puzzles and games to borrow: no cost, little effort.  Try a family book club to introduce them to a broader range of reading.  Help them learn how to have a conversation in full sentences, complete with eye contact. The possibilities are boundless.

If they need a device for school, it can be carefully monitored and programs to limit access (such as Covenant Eyes) are available to try to control what is going on. 

“I would have them do chores.  No, ‘school is their job’ is not a good idea.  Do you want to be married to someone who goes to work, comes home, and expects to be waited on, because they did their job?”

By 13, an average, healthy child should be competent at all the basic skills of housekeeping. That means, able to clean any room without having to call in HazMat; sorting, washing, appropriately drying (read the tags), folding and putting away laundry (I give everyone a pass on fitted sheets, and yes, that reflects on my clumsiness); plan, execute, cheerfully serve and thoroughly clean up simple and nutritious meals; do most of the tasks of pet care; be able to handle trash, recycling and compost duties.  Would you want to be roommates or married to someone who can’t do these things as a young adult?  Your future daughter- or son-in-law will appreciate it.

“I would have them get an hour or two more of sleep, every night.”

According to the CDC, children age 6 to 12 need 9 to 12 hours of sleep per night. Teens need 8 to 10.  Odds are, your child is not getting enough sleep and you are already saying this is ridiculous and impossible; how are you supposed to do this?

Insufficient sleep has an almost immediate detrimental effect on brain structures and functions critical for focus, memory and mood:  factors that teachers and parents spend a lot of time complaining are deficient in children.  You know what you’re like when you don’t get enough sleep; foggy-brained, irritable and looking around for caffeine and sugar.  Your children are like that, too, except you are probably keeping the little ones away from triple-shot lattes.  If your teen has to be up for school by 6 AM, then they have to be in their room without electronics sometime between 8 and 10 pm.  The math is easy; accepting that something has to give is the hard part.  Make it an experiment to accompany the electronics question and see what child you meet after a few weeks.

“I would have them learn to use a planner.”

Unlike the early years of school, and even a lot of secondary classes, real life – adult life – requires strategic planning.  By middle school, students should be learning how to break down tasks into manageable, realistic chunks and follow those plans, adjusting as necessary.  That means writing down “Social studies test tomorrow” Thursday night is not good enough.  It means figuring out how much review needs to be done each night of the week to be adequately prepared, and adding that to Monday through Wednesday’s plans.  Even outside of school, the skill of planning is useful.

For example, many people get into power struggles/arguments/endless debates over dinner. The frequency with which this particular power struggle erupts in therapy would astound non-therapists.  I do not understand the surprise that dinner must be had.  Name a date in the future – any date – and if I am not deceased, unconscious or doing colonoscopy prep, I will expect to eat.  The need for a meal at night will never catch me by surprise.  Yet this recurring surprise is apparently part of the annoying texture of life for many families. Model the benefits of planning.  Get the week’s meals worked out, and streamline evenings.  There is an immediate benefit: instead of arguing about “what to do” and wasting two hours around it, have a quick, planned meal and then have time to do something fun, like watch a parent-approved movie together, fold that pesky laundry, and push around more pieces on the 2000-piece puzzle of a Tiffany window that seemed like such a great idea at the time.

I’d make some good memories, I’d say, if this were my kid.

Internet Gaming Disorder? Is that a thing?

Yes, it’s a thing.

Are you (or someone you love) hooked on internet gaming?

An excellent recent article on parenting in Real Simple, “Parenting Against the Internet,” cited a statistic that the average adolescent male spends 20 hours a week playing internet games, and the average adolescent female spends 10 hours a week.

The internet can be great: I can look up all sorts of research, read the news, check the weather, contact family and friends around the world, find obscure used books in a mom-and-pop used book store somewhere across the country…

But for some people, the something good turns into a real problem. The American Psychiatric Association, in its 2013 update on diagnoses, the DSM-5, named Internet Gaming Disorder as a “condition for further study,” rather than an official diagnosis with its own billing code. Tune in within a few years; no doubt, that will change.

Twenty hours a week is a lot of time to spend doing something that teaches little, if any, useful knowledge; isolates a person from contact with real people and real life; is sedentary; and creates a world that is not real but full of very real gratification in terms of the brain’s dopamine system. That’s the average; that means for some people, there’s little or none and for some, it’s the equivalent of a full-time job, absorbing time, energy and mental space that could be dedicated to learning real-life skills, creativity, and other parts of life. Please don’t bother emailing me with examples of games where prosocial behavior is rewarded or you have to know useful stuff to be successful; I know. I also know that at some point it’s unhealthy to live in an artificial land of make-believe, instead of taking that pro-social behavior and useful knowledge and using it to make the world, and yourself, better.

What are the warning signs of this disorder that warrants further expert study? Persistent preoccupation; withdrawal symptoms such as irritability when the games are taken away; tolerance (more time playing games as time goes by); unsuccessful attempts to control the amount of time playing (for example, promising to cut back now that school has begun and sliding right back into excess); losing interest in other activities; continued excessive use of games in spite of problems in relationships, job, school, etc.; lying about how much time is spent playing; using games to deal with other problems (the game is a drug to feel better at this point); jeopardizing or already lost significant relationship, job, educational or career opportunities because of involvement in playing internet games (American Psychiatric Association, 2013). Note that these are games – gambling on the internet is already an official diagnosis when carried too far.

Most people can easily see the degree to which these signs are awfully similar to what we would use to assess a problem with alcohol or drugs: preoccupied with drinking? Cranky or shaky when they can’t get their “fix?” Unable to cut back; getting behind in life in all sorts of areas; lying about how much is used…so why are parents apparently turning a blind eye to how much time their kids spend in this world?

Some theories:

  1. Some parents are as active in gaming as their children and have convinced themselves that those excessive hours are better than other things their child might do. Well, yeah; I suppose you could also argue that it’s better for your child to get drunk than to inject heroin, but that doesn’t make getting drunk a desirable behavior.
  2. Some parents are unaware. They do not realize what their kids are doing in their rooms, on their phones, half the night, or when they’re supposedly doing homework, or when they are in a college classroom, not paying attention.
  3. Some parents think it will be outgrown…although the social skills deficits these young addicts have will often interfere with their ability to successfully navigate college, trade schools and work.

Of course, it’s not just teens. There are adults who sometimes work full time, or part-time, and spent 30+ hours gaming each week. They tend to have marital problems, job problems, or both. Perhaps they have neither a relationship nor a job, but do have angry parents who want very much to be empty-nesters, any decade now.

Don’t think this applies to your child, or to you? Try cutting it off for a week. A week’s not that long. No exceptions. Notice what happens. If you’re afraid to even bring it up because you “don’t want to deal with it,” you have just told yourself something very powerful, and somewhat frightening, about your confidence as a parent and your child’s relationship with gaming.

Dr. Lori Puterbaugh, LMHC, LMFT, NCC

© 2016

Posts are for information and entertainment purposes only and should not be construed to be therapeutic advice. If you are in need of mental health assistance, please contact a licensed professional in your area.