Today’s Ask Carolyn discusses reader’s questions regarding irritable children and video game violence watched by teens.
I think I am a good parent, but my 6-year-old is trying my patience. He is a rather irritable child, particularly if you ask him to do something he does not want to do when he is using his computer. He throws a tantrum. My son is fussy, edgy and unhappy most mornings. He throws his shoes at the dog. I tell him to stop and this just makes him angrier. I am going through a divorce from his father, but this seems to have started before the divorce. He has always been a fussy, irritable child. At the last parent-teacher conference, my son’s teacher reported that he was very irritable at school and prone to tantrums.
Now his father reports that he is fine at “his house.” I don’t believe this. His father takes his computer away and gives him “timeouts.” I think this is hurting my son’s self-esteem and causing more outbreaks of tantrums at my house.
We have a custody mediation coming up. What do I do?
Carolyn Answers …
There are several potential causes of your frustration, and unfortunately, these causes may be intertwined. The following four potential causes would be on my short list:
Inconsistent parenting styles between the two parents’ homes, lack of sleep, lack of proper nutrition or lack of proper exercise, misreading cues of anger and happiness of the adults around the child or symptoms of a developing mental issue with your child
Based on your letter, there are inconsistent parenting styles. You need to discuss discipline at the mediation. In my opinion, good parenting requires a parent to reinforce good behavior in a child and not to reinforce bad behavior. Giving in to a child having a temper tantrum over turning off his computer is not a good idea. Time out for an appropriate amount of time is acceptable. Rewarding the child when he turns off the computer immediately upon a parental directive is also helpful.
Another topic for your mediation is consistent sleep, nutrition and exercise for your child. If your child is going to be divided between both home, then both homes should have similar patterns of sleep, nutrition and exercise. Watch the sugar intake of your child. Include regular exercise in the child’s activities. If you and the father cannot agree, you should seek a pediatrician recommendation for both households and adhere to the advice.
Your child could also be misreading cues. Could the problem be that the child’s perception is that mom is angry? Could your child be reading your face and perhaps the teacher’ face as an angry face and responding accordingly. There is current research going on regarding irritable children and reading or misreading an angry face. In 2016, there was a study in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology that looked at what is going on in the brain and behavior of an irritable child. Before the study and after the study, the children were given brain scans. During the study, the children were shown on a computer happy faces, angry faces and ambiguous faces. The children were asked to push a button on whether the face was angry or happy. At first, the irritable children regarded the ambiguous faces as angry faces. Gradually, over several weeks the children were able to read the ambiguous faces as happy, rather than angry. The parents reported that these children were less irritable after the study. Don’t forget that your child may be responding to your anger.
Extreme and chronic irritability could be a sign of something more serious, such as the beginning of depression, bipolar disorder or oppositional defiance. The fact that the tantrums are happening at school is of concern. Early medical intervention with mental illness can be critical. I don’t necessarily see this in the fact pattern described in your letter, but I mention it as a cause if addressing the other three possibilities fails.
My grandson is 14 and quite talented in making videos and films. Some of the content concerns me, however. There is this film he made with some of his friends in a shopping center parking lot one night with guns were some of the friends were “killed.” I do not think the guns were real, and no one was injured, but this is the movie he proudly created. Also, I am not sure why he was in a parking lot at a shopping center so late. He showed me the video. He also said his parents saw it. I’d like to talk to his parents about it, as I considered the violent content to be hugely inappropriate. In light of school gun violence, this scares me. He also watches and plays violent content video games. What can I say to his parents?
Carolyn Answers …
Common sense says to me we become what we watch, much like “we are what we eat.”
I would share with his parents (presumably one of his parents is your child) the 2014 study based upon research at Dartmouth College that concludes that teens who watch adult content on risk-glorifying video games are more likely to adopt risky behavior as acceptable. That risky behavior may be risky sex, illegal alcohol, cigarette or drug use and other forms of delinquency.
The study used 5,000 teens over a four-year period and asked the teens a series of questions. Three of the violent video games discussed in the study were Grand Theft Auto, Manhunt and Spiderman. The well-respected study found that teens watching these violent videos were more likely to engage in risky behavior than their peers whose parents protected them from such materials.
“With respect to playing deviant video game characters, we feel it best to follow the admonition of Kurt Vonnegut in Mother Night: ‘We are what we pretend to be, so we much be careful about what we pretend to be,’” says Professor Jay Hull, the study’s lead author and chair of Dartmouth Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. The study was published in the American Psychological Association’s Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
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Note that answers are intended to provide general legal information and are not specific legal advice for your situation. The column also uses hypothetical questions. A subtle fact in your unique case may determine the legal advice you need. Also, please note that you are not creating an attorney-client relationship with Carolyn J. Woodruff by writing or having your question answered by Ask Carolyn.