Updated: Aug 24, 2019
It’s a parent's worst nightmare: realizing your child is engaging in addictive behaviors. Take hope in the fact that there are solutions. Whether your child is compulsively engaging in the Internet/gaming, alcohol, drugs or vaping, or even junk food, there are simple steps that a parent can take that can have a profound impact. Almost all of the time, addictive behaviors have an underlying cause that can be addressed. And sometimes, it’s just a simple cry for help. Remember that all children crave the guidance, love and connection that a parent can provide. Even when sometimes it doesn’t seem like it!
Try these steps:
1. Figure out the Function.
Every single behavior has a function or a motivating driver that feeds it. And every function falls into one of two categories: to obtain something or to avoid something. It is important to remember that there is nothing inherently wrong with functions of behavior. We all have them! We all want to get something or avoid something, and we all have either beneficial or destructive ways that we go about this. When you can figure out the function that’s driving your child’s addictive tendencies, you’ve unlocked the magic key. If your child is open to talking to you, simply ask these guiding questions. If your child is closed off to open communication, ask YOURSELF these questions. (Trust your intuition; you know the answer!)
These questions give you an idea of how to figure out if it’s a function of OBTAIN or AVOID?
“Honey, what is it about being on Fortnite/ Instagram/Snapchat, drinking alcohol with your friends or eating all that sugar that feels so good for you?
Do you feel like you get something from it? Friends’ approval?
A feeling that just feels good; something that makes you feel fulfilled in some way?”
If the answer is “yes” to the previous questions, chances are it’s a function of obtain.
Ask these questions to see if it’s avoidance behavior. “Sweetheart, when you play your video games or smoke your vape cigarettes (“Yes, I found it and you are not in trouble. I just want to ask some questions and see if we can figure out another way.”).
Does it help you forget about things that stress you out?
Does it help you feel like you’re escaping something that you don’t want to face?”
The power of figuring out the function first is that now you are armed with a proper way to address step number two. If we don’t know the function, sometimes we can actually reinforce the behavior. For instance, if a child is engaging in an addictive behavior in an effort to avoid a challenging or anxiety-producing situation and we punish by sending them to their room indefinitely, well, your consequence is enabling them to still avoid that challenging situation. Instead, we need to help them avoid the underlying fear, versus the situation. And then help them participate in the situation with less fear and more support.
2. Choose a Replacement Behavior.
Once you’ve uncovered the function driving the addictive behavior, you help the child disconnect from the addiction by introducing an alternate option that will help them fulfill their function that at some level feels more rewarding. Some key points: remember there’s nothing wrong with wanting to obtain or avoid. Functions are normal and neutral. It’s the way that we go about fulfilling the function that can become destructive. We need to empower children to find a way to obtain or even avoid that is more proactive and productive. Eat healthier foods in lieu of junk food. Find something else your kid can do with his or her hands or mouth when the urge to reach for a cigarette or a vape pen occurs as you support them through the withdrawal process (chew gum, chew on ice, munch on apple sticks, use the vape pen without the harmful ingredients). If your child is using addictive video gaming and isolation to address the function of avoiding social situations, sign him up for a coding class with peers versus playing on the Internet in isolation at home. The list could be endless and again this is where parents need to get creative. As much as possible engage your child in the process!
3. Encourage Use of the Replacement Behavior.
It’s one thing to establish an alternate behavior that satisfies the function and another thing to actually get your kid to use it. Working with your child on rewarding these replacement behaviors will not last forever. This is simply a shaping opportunity to create a new habit. And here’s where you get creative again, parents! The big key is to figure out what really motivates your child. With younger children, it’s usually easier because they are motivated by a more typical positive reinforcement charts/prizes. “Let’s limit the amount of junk food you eat each day, and see if we can have a contest on eating more fruits and vegetables. We made a chart and every time you can go all day with eating only two treats that are on our “good treat list,” you will get a point. And every time you eat a fruit or a vegetable, you will get another point. Once you receive 10 points, we will look on your Amazon wish list and go shopping!” This type of approach is really good for kids that are motivated by an obtain function. For an older child, it may be as simple as asking them what would be more enticing to get and would feel just as good or almost as good as the behavior they’re engaging in. If they’re trying to obtain peer approval, work with your child to find ways that they can engage with their peers in a leadership manner, a way that makes them even more cool than the targeted behavior. Can you help them host an epic party at your house? Can you help them find a structured social opportunity that is in line with another interest that they really excel in? What if it’s avoidant behavior? Most of the time avoidant behavior is driven by fear. If the child is engaging in drugs or alcohol, are they afraid of the stress and pressure around school? Are the copious amount of hours on the Internet a way to placate and avoid social anxiety? A “reward” plan could be as simple as empowering your child with additional supports to make school not so overwhelming or define ways to support the social anxiety which is causing avoidant behavior. Maybe you get a tutor or an executive function coach, whereby you are helping the child “avoid” the fear and stress of school through a healthier manner. Social anxiety? You can help your child “avoid” that by exploring something as simple as a mild disorder called pyroluria. It is marked by social anxiety and often ameliorated by putting your child on a supplementation protocol of B6 and zinc. In short, make a positive and proactive plan that reinforces an alternative. The whole point here is to be a partner with your child to help shape new habits. This approach works for adults also and we do it for ourselves all the time. First I work out, then I give myself a reward. It’s the horse and carrot approach and the research highly supports it.
4. Supplement with Tyrosine.
Tyrosine is the precursor to an important neurotransmitter call dopamine. Dopamine is in charge of our reward and pleasure centers and as well as motivation and focus. Dopamine is often low in individuals with addictive tendencies. We also see this often with kids with ADHD who have slower brain waves and lower levels of dopamine. They often hyperfocus in certain areas that make them feel good to compensate for their lack of the feel-good dopamine. This could easily become an area of addiction. When we engage in a perceived rewarding behavior (the hyperfocus), our body releases more dopamine which helps us stay motivated and engaged and feeds our reward and pleasure centers. If I had a dollar for each time a parent asks me, “Why can he spend hours concentrating on his video games, but can’t sit for 5 minutes doing homework?” Dopamine! This is also very common in the teenage brain. During adolescent years, the brain is pruning. Part of this process is a lower dopamine level. It’s why teenagers have to go 100 mph versus 60 to get the rush when driving a car. It’s why adolescents often times engage in more risky behavior. They are trying to get their body to release more dopamine and to create more pleasure. If you suspect that some of the addictive behavior is due to a low dopamine level, please contact a practitioner at Heights of Health.
5. Connect Before You Correct.
I borrowed this awesome notion from one of my favorite parenting educators, Dr. Laura Markham. I saved this hint for last to make a strong point. You will never ever be able to partner with your kid “against” her addiction if she doesn’t trust and feel safe around you. Connection is your superpower in this arena. They need to believe that you are going to help, not punish. Start by meeting them where they are. This may sound crazy, but take time to understand their addiction. Sit down and play a game of Fortnite with them, or take a bite of their favorite treat and make yummy noises. Of course, don’t drink or smoke with them, but do something to let them know you “get them.” Take your kid shopping, or go kick the soccer ball after work. Just connect. Let them know you see them and that you care about what they love—even the stuff they are obsessed with. Once you do this, you’ve created a relational environment that is ripe for transformation.
Heather M. Goodwin, MA, HHP