Gamer Rage: Why Video Games Drive Kids Crazy and How To Handle It
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Video games should be fun, right?
Then why does your child or teen seem to get so upset while playing?
Today, most teens either own or have access to a game console dedicated to gameplay. In a 2018 Pew Research survey of young people ages 13-17, 84% of the respondents stated that they own a game console – and get this! – only 26% believe that they spend too much time using it. And can you believe that 22% actually stated that they believe they don’t spend enough time on video games?
With gaming so common in American households, it’s no surprise that this activity is so important to them. Some young people get so wrapped up in playing – and winning – their favorite game that they can get so emotionally involved in the game that they get upset to the point of yelling, crying, and breaking things when the game doesn’t go their way.
My household was no exception when my son was a teen. He owned both an X-Box and a PS4 and played single-player and multiplayer games. There were times when his emotions got the better of him, and I needed to use the same strategies that I’m going to tell you about in this article today.
My goal with this article is to provide you with the understanding needed to be empathetic to your young person’s struggle with gamer rage, the specific strategies to use to help your young person cope with their rage, and to inspire you that going to all the trouble of being consistent with these strategies will benefit both you and your child in the long run.
What is Gamer Rage And How To Identify It
There isn’t a formal definition of gamer rage in the dictionary or the DSM-5 (which is the diagnostic manual that all psychologists use to diagnose psychological disorders), but I define it as the state of a young person when they get so emotionally involved in a video game that they act out their anger by yelling, swearing, or breaking things.
Some young people get frustrated while playing a video game, but that’s different from gamer rage. When young people experience gamer rage, they often experience both verbal expressions of their anger and physical violence.
Some examples of verbal expression of anger can be:
- Saying disparaging things about themselves
- Threatening others (either other gamers or family members)
- Appearing unreasonable when you try to talk to them about their anger
* Using extreme language (‘I’m NEVER going to play this game again” or “They’re ALWAYS out to get me).
Some examples of physical violence during gaming include:
- Stomping feet or kicking items in the young persons’ general vicinity
- Beating their fist on nearby furniture
- Breaking items in the room
- Throwing items on hand, such as their gaming equipment
- Having difficulty turning off the game.
Younger kids with Gamer Rage might cry and yell more, while older teens might do more swearing, threatening, and breaking items.
What Causes Gamer Rage
So what causes gamer rage, and why do some kids rage while others don’t?
Many parents are aware that research into gaming has found an association between violent video games and aggression, but it’s not just using guns or participating in car chases that magically makes young people angry and aggressive. Newer research has begun diving into the specifics of gameplay and has found that the more competitive and fast-paced the game, the more angry and aggressive the player becomes. This behavior was observed in gamers who played both violent AND non-violent video games.
Essentially, the game triggers the player’s fight or flight response in the player: rapid heart rate and breathing, heightened alertness, trembling, etc. Physically, the gamer playing a fast-paced game with high-stakes competition builds up a lot of emotional energy inside, tipping the scales towards rage when the game doesn’t go their way.
So not only does the game itself influence gamer rage through pacing and tension, but factors within the game further take the young person down the path of rage. A recent study out of Finland provided a great snapshot into what it’s like to be a young gamer who rages. This study surveyed gamers in grades fifth through ninth, and it surprisingly shows that these young people have some pretty good insight into their own behavior.
When the researchers asked the young players what got them so upset with the game, most of the responses fit into three distinct categories: in-game failures, incompetent teammates, and out-of-game interruptions.
In-game failures were instances where the player didn’t perform the way they expected. Many young players want to win the game or advance to the next level right away, but many times, they need to gain skill in the game first before advancing. This disappointment was especially intense when the player reported losing to a newer player.
Incompetent Teammates are those online players who are supposed to help your child advance in the game, but due to their inability or uncooperative attitude, this doesn’t happen. What especially enraged players was when they perceived another online player as cheating or getting an unfair advantage.
Out-of-Game Interruptions, such as an unstable internet connection causing the game to go down, parents wanting the player to stop playing and do chores or homework, or the noise or commotion of siblings were all cited as reasons that were beyond the gamer’s control that contributed to gamer rage.
So the game itself – whether that game is violent or not – can trigger the physical experience of the fight or flight response in your child. This makes them feel like the game is more serious than it actually is, but is there anything you can do about it? Do you need to take gaming away from your child altogether?
What Parents Can Do About Gamer Rage
You don’t have to take video games away from your child or teen entirely, and there are strategies that you can use to help your child avoid the point of rage when playing. My goal for any parenting strategy is to keep in mind the life lesson that you want your child to learn when using that strategy. In this case, the goal is for your child or teen to learn the life lesson of appropriately regulating their own emotions and behavior in a healthy way.
In order to better explain the way Gamer Rage works, imagine that your child or teen has an imaginary thermometer constantly taking their emotional temperature while gaming. This thermometer has three sections: the Safety Zone, the Danger Zone, and the Rage Zone (see the illustration below).
Each zone in the Rage Thermometer represents an emotional state corresponding to related emotional intensity and coping strategies.
Let’s review each zone now.
Safety Zone: Setting Your Child or Teen Up For Successful Game Play
The Safety Zone is where most young people can play video games comfortably. They might experience some frustration, anger, or disappointment, but these emotions aren’t too uncomfortable or intense and their behavior remains calm.
It’s best to ensure that your child or teen starts their video game session in the Safety Zone because if they start playing when they’re already emotional (and in the Danger Zone), they’ll escalate to the Rage Zone way too quickly.
Addressing any predispositions to emotional energy that your child or teen might have before they begin playing can go a long way in keeping them in the Safety Zone. A predisposition is any factor that can cause your child or teen to be easily vulnerable to anger or rage. If you address and eliminate these predispositions, your child or teen won’t be as vulnerable to escalating to the Rage Zone.
Let’s talk about those predispositions now.
The first and easiest strategy to use is to address the individual factors within your child and the environmental factors within your home to reduce your young person’s fight or flight experience. The goal here is to make sure you’re doing all you can to ensure your child’s negative emotional level isn’t already elevated.
If your child or teen begins a gaming session in the Danger Zone instead of in the Safety Zone, then any little problem within the game will quickly elevate them to the Rage Zone.
If your young person starts the game physically compromised, they’ll get to the rage state much faster.
What do I mean by physically compromised?
If your child has unmet HALTS needs, they are physically set up to rage.
HALTS stands for Hungry, Angry, Lonely, Tired, and Stressed.
- Hungry – ensure your young person has access to a snack when they’re hungry. Your child’s mood is directly influenced by the foods they eat, so ensure they’re eating meals with a few snacks (instead of snacking throughout the day) and that these meals and snacks are mostly healthy.
- Angry – address any non-game frustration or anger your child might be experiencing. This could be due to family or peer relationships, schoolwork, or other areas.
- Lonely – Many young people turn to tech to avoid feeling lonely or disliked, and then tech becomes their whole world. You can ensure that your child doesn’t feel lonely by intentionally spending positive time with them each day to connect with them. This should be a time when you don’t discuss emotional topics such as grades, behavior, or other sensitive topics. This time should be spent just focusing on your connection with them.
- Tired – So many kids and teens that come into the MPS office have a really unhealthy sleep schedule – and this inconsistent sleep schedule directly impacts their mood, concentration, and grades! Help your young person begin their gaming session feeling well rested and in a good mood by ensuring they have a regular bedtime and wake time.
- Stressed – You can’t take away all your child or teen’s stressors, but you can partner with them to help them manage them. For example, if your child is worried about an upcoming test, allow them to talk about their stress, offer to help them study or review for the test, and project a positive and empowering attitude about it. Allowing your child to work through their stress in other areas will allow them to start their gaming time in the Safety Zone.
In addition to ensuring your child or teen’s HALT stressors are kept in check, addressing their mindset when it comes to gaming will also go a long way in reducing their Gamer Rage. Do they believe that everyone else is out to get them, that the game is directly related to their self-worth?
Work to reframe video gameplay as a fun way to relax while enjoying downtime, rather than making it the focus of their life.
Developmentally, young people often find it difficult to separate the online world from the real world.
The online world feels so real to a young person because it contains familiar feelings and situations: wins, losses, friends, enemies, responsibilities, and fun. The problem is that while the online world produces feelings that seem familiar, the time spent on the game doesn’t produce actual accomplishments.
Ensuring that your child has a good online/offline balance is key in this situation. Create a household routine that sets a tone for your child or teen that includes both online activities and offline ones. I’ve talked about healthy family routines before, as well as the dangers of not having a correct balance, and I believe that a good weekday routine involves homework time, chore time, family time, hobby/interest/extracurricular time, AND online time.
By paying close attention to your child or teen’s online/offline balance, you’re ensuring that they produce actual accomplishments and reach real-life goals instead of fictional ones in the game.
Another predisposition that could start your child’s game session in the danger zone is not addressing your child’s desire to avoid tough stuff in real life.
Some kids and teens (and even adults!) use video games to avoid thinking about – and feeling the associated feelings – of disappointing or uncomfortable situations.
Many young people turn to video games to avoid:
- Academic stress
- Difficulties with parents
- Self-esteem problems
- Social skills problems.
If you believe your child is using video games to avoid working on an area of their life that seems out of control, this is your cue to dive in and address this area with them. Some possible ways to get involved could be:
- Address your child or teen’s low self-esteem by getting them involved in an extracurricular activity
- If your child struggles with social skills, set up opportunities for them to interact with kids their age
- If your child has difficulties with a parent or seems more anxious or depressed than other kids their age, contact a therapist for an evaluation.
Setting your child or teen up for success BEFORE they start a gaming session goes a long way in avoiding Gamer Rage; however, escalation to the Danger Zone can still happen – but you have strategies to use in this stage too.
Danger Zone: Using Coping Skills
The Danger Zone is when the young person’s emotional level begins to rise to a point where they begin to feel uncomfortable levels of negative emotions such as anger, resentment, disappointment, and frustration. If your child or teen gets to this emotional level, you need to step in and utilize the strategies discussed below.
If your child’s emotional level rises to the Danger Zone, implementing coping skills will help them return to the Safety Zone.
There are three categories of coping skills to use. When I work with young patients in my office, I teach them all three categories and let them try out which category (and skills) work best for them. I encourage them to continue using the skills that work for them and ignore those that don’t. It takes some time to try out the different coping skills, but once your child develops their go-to coping skills, they’ll be able to manage their uncomfortable emotions for life.
Now, let’s review the three categories (and their associated coping skills).
Relaxation coping skills are designed to reduce the physical sensations of the fight or flight response that gets triggered when your child plays the game. These skills aim to reduce rapid breathing and heart rate and help your child feel more relaxed.
Tons of relaxation skills can be found by searching Google, but I’ve found some of the most popular relaxation skills that my young patients use are Controlled Breathing skills (Box Breathing, Five Finger Breathing), Stress-Reducing Coping Skills (coloring, Listening to music, taking a walk), and Guided Imagery (where the child or teen focuses on positive imagery scenarios).
Distraction coping skills are just that – a distraction from the thing that is triggering your child or teen’s anger.
Encourage your child or teen to take a break from the game and participate in a hobby, read a book or comic, eat a snack, write in a journal, throw the basketball around outside, or do any other enjoyable activity that could possibly take their mind off the game for a little while.
If you notice that your child or teen has slipped into the Danger Zone, insist that they take a break from the game to practice a coping skill. Once they have been successful with the coping skill and are back into the Safety Zone, then allow them to continue playing. This provides good practice for your child to regulate their own uncomfortable emotions.
I’ve given you just a small overview of anger management coping skills, but there are a TON out there. In my experience, it could take a while to find the right coping skills for your child or teen (and I always recommend having a handful of go-to coping skills ready to use), so take the time to figure out what works for your child. And then insist they use these skills to get back to the Safety Zone.
The important thing is to work with your child or teen to use coping skills to get back to the Safety Zone, but until they master using these skills, they might still escalate to the Rage Zone.
Rage Zone: Empathetic and Consistent Boundaries
The Rage Zone is the emotional level that includes all the rage behaviors: screaming, crying, swearing, breaking things, hurting self/others, etc.
The next area to address is boundaries. Sometimes, kids and teens still get into the Rage Zone even though you’ve addressed their predispositions and encouraged them to use coping skills. When this happens, it’s up to you to set boundaries with their rage behavior.
Before I go on, I want to remind you to always take on an empathetic mindset when addressing this issue with your child. Developmentally, they’re still figuring out how to manage their anger, which is a big deal – some adults haven’t even figured this out.
One way to look at Gamer Rage is to compare it to Road Rage in adults. Some adults are predisposed to Road Rage (they leave a stressful day at work or didn’t get to have lunch that day so they’re hungry, etc.), and they can’t control the crazy drivers around them so their rage gets triggered so easily.
If adults can get caught up in Road Rage, then it makes sense that your child could get caught up in Gamer rage, too, right?
So have a little understanding when setting boundaries with Gamer Rage. Your child will respond so much better when you show this understanding.
Step 1: Know what you expect from your child’s behavior.
What do you think when your child yells? Swears? Intimidates others online? Hits or throws things? Be clear on what is acceptable behavior and what isn’t.
Step 2: Know what the consequences will be for unacceptable Rage behavior.
Some possible consequences could be:
- Taking a voluntary Break: You suggest – and your child chooses – to take a break from the game. This may be hard to do, but it can actually help your child’s gameplay. A psychological technique called The Incubation Effect might be a good way to explain this phenomenon to your child. This is when your mind subconsciously solves a problem while you rest. This phenomenon was initially observed in musicians learning new instruments, but the premise is the same for any skill you wish to learn.
- Taking an enforced break. You insist they take a break. This can be for a short time, the whole day, or the whole week.
- Insist your child or teen turn off the game, and use their coping skills. They can’t go back to the game until you’ve seen that they are back in their Safety Zone.
- Develop decompression strategies. Ask them to talk about their gameplay when they are done playing. Processing their thoughts can be viewed as a way of letting out their frustrations.
Step 3: Communicate your Gamer Rage Boundaries to your child
They can’t read your mind, so make sure they know what you expect. Talk to them about the Gamer Rage thermometer and how to manage their rage using coping skills and addressing predispositions.
Once they know what kind of behavior you expect, let them know how you will support them in learning to manage their rage – and you do this by implementing consequences. Tell them what the consequences will be and that these are not punishments but ways for you to teach them to better regulate their uncomfortable emotions and behavior.
Be clear and specific, and be prepared to repeat yourself many times before your child gets it. This is normal.
Step 4: Follow through with the consequences and BE CONSISTENT.
Parenting strategies only work if you follow through with them and are CONSISTENT.
Take Home Message
Ok. So now you know what Gamer Rage is, what causes it, how to measure Gamer Rage intensity using the Rage Thermometer, and how to address your child or teen’s uncomfortable emotions in each stage of the Rage Thermometer.
Ok. What should you do next? There’s a lot of information involved with Gamer Rage so I created a guide for you that contains ALL the strategies and tips that I talked about today. Go to modernparentingsolutions.org/episode20 to download the Game Rage Guide today – and then begin working with your child or teen on eliminating Gamer Rage for your household once and for all.
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