As a psychotherapist, I have heard versions of the following question so many times: “Why can my child be so dang focused on his video games but not be a fraction as focused on the important stuff like his chores and his school assignments?”
I am not a fan of video games, but there is a secret to the programming of these games that seems to stir children to a level of greatness. Fortunately, that magic is completely transposable to our interactions with them. As you know, these kids don’t just play these games, they play like stars. They not only play to be the best in the world, but all they want to do is to achieve level after level of success, mastery, and accomplishment.
So, here’s what these games have in common that differs drastically from most of what children encounter from interactions with us adults in real life:
- Clear incentives and rewards. In video games, the incentives are crystal clear and timed precisely to always transmit the energy of success. All of these games have deliciously energized “time-ins” or as I now prefer to say, game-in/game-on. These games never forget to confront the player with the juicy energy of that child’s success. Score, score, score and he or she is rewarded with all the bells and whistles the game has to offer – and the game never misses an opportunity to sound off. These successes are always connected to discernable experiences that the child can link to events of a game well played.
- Immediate feedback. These games are always experienced in the moment… They are always supremely present and always deliver. The game never claims to be too busy to notice the player’s success. Success is the default setting. Even if a rule is broken, the negative consequences are brief and then the child is right back in the game. The game always resets to seeing and expressing the energy of success. It never holds a grudge about a rule that was broken in the past or for an anticipated rule break in the future.
- Clear rules and consequences. The rules and consequences of these games are super clear and super simple. When a child breaks a rule – even a little bit – the game’s programming never gives warnings, only a consequence. The game never looks the other way or cuts slack for the child who is just learning how to play or who is having a great game (not wanting to break the momentum). These consequences may seem drastic and punitive – heads rolling, blood spurting, bombs bursting – but look who’s back in the game in a second or two – even if the game is over! This process is so different from real life, where time-outs are only considered to “count” when they last one minute for each year of a child’s age. (Whose idea was that?) The child comes out of these ridiculously short time-outs ever more determined to never break that rule again and ever more inspired to go further into mastery and accomplishment of the game.
The secret to generating this level of motivation in a young person is that game-in/game-on is so powerfully energized that game-out/game-off feels like an eternity, even though it’s just a second or two. In the parlance of the Nurtured Heart Approach, we call this kind of time-out a reset. Even tough teens thrive with short resets as called for. The advantage is that because the reset is over so quickly, the adult can jump right back into the truth of the moments that follow and express gratitude that the very same rule is now not being broken.
Game-in/game-on simply translates to being radically appreciative when rules are being followed and appreciative for every kind of successful choice and value that can be called out in context of the truth of the following moments. Consider a child who is blasting her stereo while her brother struggles to do homework in the next room. When the noise softens, you the parent focus on the winning play:
“Sarah, that was so thoughtful how you turned your music down. That shows me how considerate you are. That kindness is helping your brother to concentrate to do his assignment. I appreciate how collaborative you are being. That is a great quality I see in you.”
The other secret is that by always delivering a consequence when a line is crossed, even a little bit, video games avoid the trap of giving energy to negativity. Instead, they come to a halt. In parenting, this principle translates to momentarily disconnecting: A little bit of arguing, a little bit of disrespect, a little bit of non-compliance all equal a broken rule and therefore result in a completely un-energized time-out. The child will feel even our extremely short reset as a consequence. Even a few seconds deprived of our positive attention, like in the video game, will feel like an eternity if our game-in/game-on is powerful and inspired enough.
Don’t believe me? Consider this: What if the normal and conventional approaches to parenting and discipline most people have at their disposal were actually doomed from the start? Intense kids crave intense relationships, and if we are primarily giving them attention for the wrong things (their misbehavior) we wind up being, in effect, an upside-down video game.
No one would purposely give a child a hundred-dollar bill for doing the wrong thing, but we inadvertently do this all the time by giving the lion’s share of our energy and connection to negativity. Meanwhile, we have pretty sparse ways of showing our appreciation when problems aren’t happening.
Here’s an example: I do not know of anyone who would say they are opposed to respect. It’s a highly valued trait that seems to cut across all the world’s cultures, traditions, and roles. We tell children all the time that we want them to be respectful and we tell them that respect will carry them far in life. That said, when do we most commonly bring up the word respect? It’s not when respect is happening. It’s when things have gone awry.
We say we are busy, and we are, though we are seemingly never too busy to react to a problem. When disrespect happens, we not only show up, but we give it our all. Our best lectures, our best reprimands, and our best relationship. It’s the upside-down video game on steroids. In comparison, we have such measly ways of showing up when respect is happening. However, when even a little bit of disrespect happens, we give our kids the great gift of us.
Take a “Stand,” See the Change
The Nurtured Heart Approach turns all that around. It was designed precisely for the intense and challenging child (often those with an “ADHD” diagnosis) and it calls for parents to take three simple but essential stands that make all the difference in the world. These stands have been shown* to turn intensity around and channel it into greatness—children giving us their best selves. To stay with our analogy, what I’ll describe below turns the parenting “video game” back to fully aligned, motivating, and inspiring.
- Stand One is refusing to give the energies of relationship to a child when things are going wrong. The onus of proof is on us to show this is the new truth. Yes, there will be accountability, but no longer in the midst of the problem. We will simply refuse to engage.
- Stand Two is demonstrating that abundant relationship and energy are present when problems are not happening…when rules are not being broken…and when respect and responsibility and all other desired character traits are to any extent unfolding. This is a refusal to forget to go way beyond the superficial appreciation (“Good job, son”) to explaining why you are thankful. “Here’s what I meant by ‘good job’…” This is the equivalent of leveling up or hearing bells and whistles for a well-earned score in a video game.
- Stand Three is being in the truth of the moment. If you have clear rules like “no yelling” and “no bad words,” then if a line is crossed even a bit, simply declare the line-crossing by saying something that issues the consequence, like “Reset” or “Time for a reset” while doing a powerful combination of Stands One and Two. That is, offer no energy or relationship to the negativity, essentially unplugging the gift of you, while remaining appreciatively present to the truth of the next moment when the rule is no longer being broken.
Staying with the truth of the moment emulates the logic of these games. The power of the very short time-out is that now we have the ability to appreciatively acknowledge that new truth and build ever-greater Inner Wealth in our kids. By Inner Wealth, I mean a child’s sense of his or her own value, or self-worth.
Here’s how being in the truth of the moment might look:
“Billy, your reset is over. Thank you for getting that done even though you weren’t happy about it. I really appreciate that you are no longer yelling and name-calling. I see that you may still be upset, but what’s great is that you are handling your strong feelings beautifully. That’s your wisdom, your choice, your kindness showing.”
As you can see, by transposing the same logic of video games to our own lives, we can spare so many “difficult” kids from a life saddled with a psychiatric diagnosis and the deleterious effects of medications. The Nurtured Heart Approach supports the idea that the intensity we see in our children’s emotions and behaviors—intensity that drives people crazy and raises concerns that something is wrong with the child— is the very same energy that propels greatness. After all, that is what we witness when these kids rise to the occasion of playing video games. I have witnessed this turnaround to greatness over and over in my practice, and now that I teach others about the Nurtured Heart Approach, I hear story after story proving that parents, educators, and treatment professionals can have the same impact.
I’m convinced that all children can be Inner Wealth billionaires. That’s why the recognitions I recommend level up. They may seem overly lavish, but I am convinced they inspire on the soul level. It’s worth the extra words. After all, we are all poets when comes to talking about what’s wrong. This is just turning that same skill set around to serve the greater good within the child and within our family.
The great news is that turning a difficult child around is as easy as one, two, three. Go for the gold. Game-in/game-on!
* See this MIA summary of a randomized, controlled 2020 study of the Nurtured Heart Approach by researchers at the University of Arizona’s Zuckerman School of Public Health. It found that young children’s ADHD symptoms went from “strong” to “negligible” using an NHA-based intervention. For more information and to download the study, visit my website.
Editor’s Note: You can listen to the “Mad in the Family” podcast about the Nurtured Heart Approach here.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.