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How to Leverage Video Game Psychology to Improve Your Child’s Behavior

July 28, 2023

What can the appeal of video games teach us about what children need to thrive? A whole lot.

Ever wondered why your child can concentrate endlessly on a video game but can’t focus consistently on doing chores, behaving better, and tackling schoolwork? Here’s why: In the world of video games, players are alerted to each and every success. They are made to feel great during every moment of gameplay. Even when players break a game rule, they are only momentarily booted off before easily re-entering the experience of feeling great and successful. What’s more, they go back to the game determined not to break the rules again.

The structure and logic of video games is directly opposite to the structure and logic that most children experience in the real world, wherein conventional parenting methods will have us energetically alert children when they’re doing wrong, and practically ignore children every other time that they’re doing right. (Or, at best, we’ll exhibit low-key responses when our child’s behavioral successes rise to “sufficiently” noticeable levels.)

In my work, I try to help families undo the upside-down ‘energy’ of normal parenting techniques to align more with what’s happening in the world of video games, where everything is right side up. (Even though I don’t condone all video games, I’m well aware of the powerful pull they have over children and why.) My strategy — the Nurtured Heart Approach — works especially well for children who exhibit great intensity, which we know by many other names, including attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and “behavior problems.”

Conventional Parenting Techniques Energize Negativity

In the structure and logic of conventional parenting, our responses to the positive pale in comparison to the negative. As a result, our children learn to align themselves with the negative because it’s guaranteed to elicit a response. Refusing to energize or reward negativity is vitally important to transforming your child’s behaviors. It’s also Stand One in the Nurtured Heart Approach.

When things are going right (like when our children follow the rules) we might say, “Good job,” or, “Way to go,” or, “Thank you” — well-intended but vague, lackluster statements. Compare that to how explicit, loud, and energized we often get with our children when things go wrong (like when they break the rules): “If you curse at me one more time, you’ll be grounded for a week.”

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Our children are desperate to connect with us. The more intense the child, the more intense the craving for connection and relationship, even if they don’t currently show that directly. When our responses to the positive pale in comparison to the negative, we unintentionally show our children that they get more out of us through negativity. When we become more animated, compelling, and energized when things are going wrong, our children slowly learn to feel loved, valued, and celebrated in relation to problems. Children will learn to connect with us vis-a-vis negativity when we’ve consistently demonstrated that it sparks our attention.

That’s the opposite of what happens in video games, where children learn that there is no payoff at all to negativity (i.e., breaking the rules).

Video Games Energize Positivity and Success

Have you ever noticed all the bells and whistles — perhaps even shouts of “score!” — built into video games? During moment-to moment gameplay, as players work toward the game’s goals, the game is enthusiastically nudging them along. Even when nothing is seemingly happening, video games have a way of rewarding players just for tuning in. This is the same approach we need to bring to our children in the real world.

What would such a model look like? It would mean trying as hard as you can to see your child’s greatness in all its forms. Think about it: Every passing moment that your child isn’t breaking the rules — even when they seem on the verge of it — is a moment in which they are exercising their wisdom, power, and restraint. It is no small feat when things are quiet and going right with your child. Your child is directly responsible for this ideal state and must be recognized for it.

[Read: Don’t Mistake Your Child’s ADHD Symptoms for Bad Behavior]

Like a video game would, energetically call out your child when they exhibit greatness. Compliment them when problems aren’t happening. When your child is on the precipice of a flare up, say to them, with as much vigor and positivity as you can: “What you just did is handle your strong feelings well. You didn’t like getting told ‘no’ to a privilege you wanted, and I could see you were flaring up, but you didn’t. You didn’t argue, yell, name call, or blurt out any bad words. You used your power and your wisdom — those are great qualities I see in you.”

Show your child how much you appreciate their efforts to behave well and follow the rules. You can say, “I’ve been on the phone for the last 15 minutes, but I wanted to tell you how great it is that you’re playing and getting along with your sibling.”

This is what it looks like to relentlessly create, nurture, and energize experiences of positivity and success for your child — Stand Two in the Nurtured Heart Approach.

But what happens when your child breaks the rules?

Video Games Deliver Real Consequences

Don’t make the mistake of failing to set boundaries or enforce consequences in the name of energizing positivity. Limits, rules, and accountability are absolutely important here. The trick is in setting and enforcing them in an unenergized way — Stand Three of the Nurtured Heart Approach.

This is exactly what happens in video games, where rules are clear, predictable, and always enforced. You’ll never see a video game let rule-breaking go. (In fact, video games never tell players not to break the rules, only that there are immediate consequences if they do.) All consequences in video games translate to the same thing: a short, unceremonious, and grudge-free pause in the action before the player can return. This ingenious way of delivering consequences is extremely effective. How do we know? Because a few seconds away from the video game feels like an eternity, and when players return to the game, they are even more dedicated to following the rules to stay in on the action.

This is how video games compel kids to mastery and accomplishment. Video games have the right kind of structure and logic — ones that allow children to experience their greatness and flourish. With this structure in the real world, children can experience life with the same zeal and accomplishment they feel in video games.

When you’re enforcing consequences at home, try to follow the video game model. If your child is yelling at you — in clear violation of your no yelling rule — say “reset” aloud and in a neutral tone. Walk away and do not give any energy or attention to continued yells. Imagine yourself unplugging and disengaging completely. Remember: You only give out energy when things are going right.

When your child is no longer yelling, turn back and say, “Thank you for doing your reset.” Then, continue to recognize your child’s ongoing efforts to stick to the rules. Say, “You may still be mad at me or feeling tempted to melt down, but you aren’t. You are using your kindness and caring, and you are being responsible. You are handling your strong feelings so well.” (The absence of rule-breaking is what you wanted in the first place, so this is exactly the time to see the beauty in your child’s choices.)

This is how your child will learn that they have nothing to gain by breaking the rules. The big responses are now only for the positive things they do. Breaking a rule only results in a true consequence, not a payoff.

Question Your Family’s Energetic Alignment

In all, the Nurtured Heart Approach is about questioning the energy of your relationship with your child. It’s about questioning the parenting techniques that have been at our disposal for so long. When you shift your energetic connection right side up to align with positivity and disengage with negativity, everything will change for you and your child. You’ll come to see that the same intensity that causes problems and creates worries and frustration is the very fuel of your child’s greatness.

Video Game Psychology and Better Behavior: Next Steps

The content for this article was derived, in part, from the ADDitude ADHD Experts webinar titled, “The Nurtured Heart Approach: Positive Parenting and Teaching Strategies to Transform Problem Behaviors” [Video Replay & Podcast #448] with Howard Glasser, which was broadcast on March 29, 2023.

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