Gaming: Understanding Emotional Arousal

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Gaming can really wind kids up, and let’s face it, some adolescents don’t need any help on this front. What with the raging hormones and social dramas, lots of teens teeter on the verge of  emotional outbursts every day—or so it seems.

But why is it that kids get so surly when they’re gaming?

Mum: It’s time to set the table for dinner.

Son: Mmm …. mm … Yeah, yeah…

Ten minutes later

Mum: Have you set the table yet?

Son: Ah geez! Can’t you just leave me alone? MAN! All you do is nag! Geez!

So many parents lament this Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde thing that happens when their kids are gaming. Their normally sweet boy instantly arcs up, becomes surly and rude, and expresses outrage at having his gaming session interrupted for “trivial matters” (eating, chores, sleep).

Are video games making my son a brute?”

Video games demand incredible focus and intensity—and lots of time. A whole session’s worth of gains and points can be lost with one small mistake, leaving some players frustrated to the point of rage. The sedentary nature of gaming compounds the problem: there’s no physical release of all that emotional arousal.

Brain Chemistry 101

Previous articles on e-Quipped (see links at the bottom) scratched the surface of the neurochemicals that come into play in gaming. It’s a huge, complex science, but we lay people can gain some benefit by understanding the basics. The following is a primer (and, admittedly, a huge over-simplification) of the brain’s reward centre.brain-954823_640

By design, computer games (and social media, to a certain extent) exploit the brain’s reward centre, stimulating the release of dopamine, a powerful neurotransmitter that results in a heightened state of alertness and a sense of pleasure or euphoria. The high can be followed by irritability, nervousness, and in some cases, even paranoia.

The release of dopamine is completely normal and natural. It’s triggered by the age-old, everyday activities of eating and procreating. And yes, while we’re pointing fingers, narcotics trigger its release as well—in a super-exaggerated way. I’m talking about cocaine, meth, and other drugs.

The point is this: when a young person is fully engaged in a gaming session, a wild concoction of hormones is sloshing around his system like spirits in a cocktail shaker. Tension escalates with every near miss, adding adrenaline and cortisol to the mix.

A sneaky attack … A taste of victory … A stupid mistake … A scary encounter with an axe-wielding orc … Some bad luck … Lose all those hard-won points! ARRRGH!

This gaming kid is emotionally aroused to the n-th degree. Talk about wound up! If he had a spring, he’d boing.

While he’s super engrossed in gaming, family life is ambling along. Mum says it’s time to do homework or eat dinner or take out the rubbish. Gaming son blows up! He gives Mum some cheek. Dad chimes in about respect …

Next thing you know, you have a clash of the clan … in your own home.

Managing Emotional Arousal

Make sure your gaming child has a physical outlet for those unwieldy teenage emotions that he’s working up. Balance is critical. If he’s getting too aroused and is showing signs that he’s not managing it properly, talk to him about.

But NOT when he’s emotionally aroused. Wait. Feed him. Let him sleep it off. Then talk.

Something like this could work…

“Last night when we asked you to wrap up your game, your response was disrespectful and has us worried. Calling your mother a hell-wench/punching the wall/swearing at the cat/ [insert excessive behaviour] is never appropriate in our home.

We know you were wound up from the game, but we need you to moderate your behaviour. If you’re getting too emotional, you need to pull out or take a break. Let’s talk about how you can recognise if you’re getting too wound up…”

Coaching for Awareness & Self-Regulation

What your gamer needs is a coach, someone who can help them get in touch with the physical and mental signs of emotional arousal. Help him recognise the feelings of tension in his body: clenched jaw, whirring thoughts, and so forth. Teach him to see these as red flags signalling time for a break.

Deep focus can be tricky too. Any adult with a hobby knows this. If someone interrupts you while you’re building a model, working on a puzzle, sewing, writing, scrapbooking—whatever—it can be hard to shift gears from deep focus to a more relational, open mindset. If it’s hard for hobbyist adults, I guarantee it’s tricky for teens, tweens, or kids. Give them some grace and understanding, and teach them how to  “exit the Zone” without being a snagglepuss.

Tips for Exiting the Zone

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  1. Refocus your eyes from close to distant. Look across the room or across the street.
  2. Stretch and loosen muscles, particularly shoulders and neck.
  3. Reset your mindset: step outside for a moment and look at the sky, the trees, and nature.
  4. Take a few deep breaths.
  5. Smile inwardly and outwardly.

It’s All About Balance

Insist on a good balance of computing and physical activity. And by physical, we’re talking sustained heavy breathing, elevated-heart-rate physical. (Texting and thumb-twiddling around a hand-held device don’t count.) Here are a couple physical outlets for him (or her) to pick from:

  • 20 minutes on a trampoline
  • 30 minutes of jogging or running
  • 15 minutes on a punching bag
  • Skipping rope
  • One-on-one basketball

Make screentime (especially emotionally arousing games) dependent upon having done some physical activity.

Spillage into Social Circles

If your son is harping on about a friend’s failure in the game, talk it through and help him be empathic and forgiving. If you don’t, chances are the friend’s disappointing performance will be an issue on the playground the next day at school. Some kids have a hard time separating gaming escapades from real life—or letting go of a big gaming disappointment, and this may lead to instances that resemble (or are) bullying or cyberbullying.

Remember, that your child might be the one who let the team down. Is he sullen? Does he seem cut off? Is he receiving mean texts or instant messages? His teammates, guild members, or clan members may be giving him a hard time about some “grave error” he made in the heat of battle. Give your child strategies to bounce back and to deal with friends who are over-stimulated and too intense.

Time for a Breather?

joystick-23234_640Balance is so important. If your son’s behaviour is aggressive, relentlessly surly, or negatively impacting studies and relationships, he may need a little breather from gaming.

Don’t “blame the game” or curse technology. Those rants merely build a wedge and make you lose credibility with your kid. Assure your child you want to help him find balance and regain the pleasant person you know he is. Be sure to make the break temporary and, if possible, limit only the emotionally arousing games; let the others stand. Remember, some good can come from limited, monitored gaming. Stress relief, for one!

While he’s on the break, be sure to notice his calmness, pleasant behaviour, self-control, etc. Doing so may help him make some good choices about his later gaming activities.

More for Parents of Gamers

The following links will take you to more articles you may find helpful.

Extreme Cyber-Parenting: Combatting Gaming Addiction

4 Ways to Avoid Gaming Addiction

Online Gaming and Gambling Primer

Do Violent Computer Games Affect Brain Function?

Five Things You (Probably) Didn’t Know About Minecraft

What Teens Really Want From Their Parents

NB: Again, my choice to refer mostly to “boys” in this article is not intended to discriminate. It merely reflects what I’ve seen in my experience as a school counsellor, and makes it more readable. Girls are gamers too, and some experience gaming-related issues, including aggression.