Five Strategies for ADHD and Video Games

One of the more fascinating observations that I have made in my 25 years as a child clinical psychologist is that most kids with diagnosed ADHD can, in fact, pay attention very well…as long as they are doing something that really interests them. While this idea may seem rather obvious, it lies at the heart of how parents can use their children’s areas of interest to improve their focus and attention in all areas of their life, especially when it comes to ADHD and Video Games.

There appear to be some commonalities in the areas that many children with ADHD find interesting. I refer to these areas of interest as the “Attentional Trinity.” Time and time again I have observed children who have ADHD, become easily engaged playing with LEGOs (or any type of construction-type toy where they use their hands and cannot readily make mistakes), watching television, and using digital technologies such as the Internet and video games.

One of my philosophies about how to treat ADHD is to steer children toward an interest that captures their attention. In particular, I encourage parents to find hands-on, physical activities that engage the brain and the body. Many children with ADHD enjoy activities that involve some physical risk, such as snowboarding, surfing, BMX bike riding, skateboarding, or riding dirt bikes. Video games and other digital media often provide a similar allure for children with ADHD and attentional problems.

The intense engagement that children with ADHD display while playing video games is a double-edged sword, fraught with both danger and great opportunity. Many children with ADHD want to spend far too much time playing video games. Others are drawn to the “risks” of violent video games and only want to play first-person shooter or M rated games. Others simply cannot stop playing when they are in the middle of a game, informing their parents that they need to “beat” a level before stopping and saving the game. Some children with ADHD display their emotional regulation difficulties, throwing controllers or getting out of control, when losing in a game.

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Conversely, video games practice many of the skills that children with ADHD need to master. Getting through the multiple levels, challenges, and ”bosses” of video games require intense focus and persistence. The best games are often “beat” by planning, not fast reaction time. Many of the most intense games require that players control their emotions if they are to be successful. Once players become aware of the Thinking Skills that they are using to master video games, they have an opportunity to begin applying them to their daily activities. It behooves parents and teachers to learn enough about how to use video games and other digital media so that they can also practice the skills that kids with ADHD need to master.

The following are general strategies that can help you make decisions about how to use video games with a child who has modest attentional problems or who is diagnosed with ADHD.

1. Be careful. Do not allow your child with ADHD to become overly focused on video game play. Considering the fact that ADHD is a disorder more related to intention rather than attention, we often find that children with ADHD struggle to shift their attentions away from playing video games to become engaged with more important responsibilities. If your child starts to neglect his other duties in favor of playing video games, you may need to cut back his screen time, or make playing games a reward for finishing other tasks.

2. Use video games as a tool for modifying behavior and enhancing learning.

3. It’s okay to use video games for your peace of mind…sometimes. While we do not subscribe to using video games as a babysitter for your ADHD child, there are certain occasions, (while taking a long car trip or when you’re trying to pay bills, for instance), when allowing your ADHD child to get involved in video game play may be best for everyone. As long as it isn’t a regular occurrence, you shouldn’t feel ashamed about allowing your child some extra game-time when you need to carve out some important time for yourself.

4. Encourage children to play sports-based video games. Research suggests that children who play sports games engage in more outdoor sporting activities than children who do not. Increasing an ADHD child’s exercise and time spent outdoors has also been demonstrated to improve the child’s focus and attention at many other tasks.

5. Use appropriate video games that can improve skills such as Working Memory, Focus, Self-Control, Time Management, and Planning: many ADHD children struggle with these skills in particular. There are many video games that LearningWorks for Kids can recommend which help children practice these particular skills. Keep in mind, that playing video games which practice a thinking skill or skills is the first step; getting your child to detect the thinking skills they are using, reflecting on how these skills might help them both in games and the real world, and connecting the game-based skills to real world activities, is what makes video games truly helpful for your child with ADHD.

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