When Angry Gamers Become Violent Gamers

Posted by George Lynn, M.A., L.M.H.C., January 9, 2018

I recently received a call from a potential client, the mother of a 17 year-old boy, who wanted me to become her son’s psychotherapist.  She said he was not much motivated for therapy but needed help with his depression and anxiety.  She told me that she was the sole caregiver for her son who had dropped out of high school and spent most of his time home, while she worked, playing video games.

She said that her son had been diagnosed with depression because of his intensely irritable mood.  When he became angry he would rant, f-bomb her, and destroy things in their home.  He had kicked several holes in the wall and punched his monitor so hard a couple of years ago that he broke his hand.

Her call was similar to many I have received in the last couple of years that suggests to me that there is a new and more disturbing phenomenon connected with adolescent males who game too much.  That is they are beginning to actually enact aggressive control strategies toward their mothers, especially if they feel that their access to their screen media has been threatened.

Our research suggests that compulsive game play may lead to subtle changes in personality shown in a child’s tendency to be more impulsive and more irritable. This makes sense because the chronic low-level adrenaline rush that comes with game play (and to some extent with social media) does stress the brain.  When this stress is worsened by sleep deprivation, social isolation, and general failure in school, the child’s behavior may change from simply feeling aggressive or from enacting violence toward inanimate objects (such as punching or throwing electronics) to enactment of violence at home.

As a psychotherapist I am beginning to see a more frequent pattern involving screen-dependent children threatening their parents, especially single parents, who are usually mothers, with violence.  Sometimes the child will destroy things in the home to get his point across.  This behavior is not unlike that of many grown men who are currently being accused of violence toward women in the media.

This trend toward violence is disturbing.  What is more disturbing is that, in too many cases, single mothers of violent sons will give in to their tyrannical demands and not protect themselves by telling their sons that they will call for police intervention if the son threatens or enacts violence in their homes.  Many of these moms would rather make excuses for their sons than take action to protect themselves.

My experience as a psychotherapist for the past 35 or so years has taught me that parents make the situation worse by letting kids get away with this kind of behavior.  My experience has taught me that violence always gets worse if allowed to take root as a control strategy in a home.  Further that when mothers allow it, they are teaching their boy children that this is how men should relate to women–how men get their needs met in relation to women.  Many mothers believe that the worst thing possible is to call 911 because it will mean that a child might be taken into custody or to psychiatric evaluation for his behavior.

The worst thing actually is that a boy grows up thinking he can get away with this kind of behavior if he roars loud enough or f-bombs his mother enough times!   The fact is that children do not learn self-control on their own.  They need to be mentored.  And if dyscontrol is pushed by screen media dependence, not only does this dependence need to stop, but the child needs to learn that the world does not revolve around him.

As I consulted with the mother who called me in the above situation, I explained these facts to her and offered to go into consultation with her and her son so as to strengthen her control in the situation.  This would involve implementing a screen control plan and agreeing on certain norms of behavior that if violated might result in a 911 call.  This mom, like two-thirds or so of those who call me, did not want to “go this far.”  I assured her that despite her son’s threat to suicide if he did not get access to his media, it was highly unlikely that he would ever think of really hurting himself.   She did not want to hear my opinion that it was unlikely that her son’s behavior would change unless she created disincentives for it.  She wanted to hear me say that she could just send him to me twice a week so that I would use my skills to “cure” him of his depressive and violent temperament and get him back on track in his life.

My message to her, offered with great respect for her thankless role as the mother of a disturbed child, is that it is important to get on this kind of issue sooner than later.  That no amount of wistful thinking or self-assurance that “Really he’s a good kid!” makes any difference unless a parent is willing to back up her authority with action.  This is where the healing begins.