When Preteens Break Your Video Game Rules

Dr. Laura,

I'd love to know your opinion on a situation that happened yesterday in our house! It's kind of long, but please stick with it, we are really struggling with our 6th grader!

Parent challenge 3,476,321 of the year... My day yesterday involved the following scenario...

My oldest (middle school), sent me a text that he wasn't feeling well at school. I told him to basically tough it out or if he was really sick he could go to the nurses office and they would call me if he was actually sick. I threw in there "but don't think you'll come home and play fortnight". A couple hours later, I get a call from his school saying he is sick and really doesn't look well...no fever, but is flushed and that 13 other kids from his school went home sick today too so they think something is going around (awesome!).

WELL, my youngest (preschool) was FINALLY taking a nap (he'd been asleep for like 10 minutes), and he NEVER naps...like ever...it was a feeling of the angels singing in my house! BUT, despite that, I loaded him up in the car, which of course woke him up (and no, he never went back to sleep).

Anyway, I make the 25 minute trek down to pick up oldest child (50 minutes round trip). We chat on the way home, and he legitimately seems sick, but I remind him NO fortnight.

When we get home, I say again, absolutely NO fortnight. I remind him again that if he is too sick to be at school, he is too sick to play video games period. He says OK mom...

I go to check on him (he's in the basement playroom), and guess what he's doing...PLAYING FORTNIGHT!! I was so mad...needless to say he lost XBOX privileges for awhile.

That being said, I'm currently reading Peaceful Parent, Happy kids, and LOVE it, but I'm stuck on what to do with my oldest, specially in this scenario.

Should I not have that "rule" (too sick for school, too sick for video games) to begin with, should his consequence be "natural" as in I won't believe him next time he says he is sick, what would you do? 

12 year olds can be tough! Their brains are rewiring so they can be volatile. And suddenly their peers are very important to them, and we are less important to them, so we have less influence. That's why maintaining a really good relationship with a child as they head into the preteen and teen years is so important, even as it can be tough to do.

You say that you "are really struggling with our 6th grader" and that this is "Parent challenge 3,476,321 of the year" which tells me that your relationship with your son is not as strong as it needs to be. So this incident seems like a perfect example of your relationship with your son not being strong enough for him to resist breaking your rule. You said that your son called and told you he was sick, and you told him to "tough it out." It sounds like you didn't believe your son when he told you how bad he felt. That raises alarm bells for me. Why would you not believe your own child? That says to me that he has lied to you in the past, which again is a symptom of a relationship issue. 

So in this situation, your 6th grader was apparently actually sick (as corroborated by the school nurse) and had to be picked up at school to come home early, at some inconvenience to you and to the detriment of the preschooler. You told him no video games. Which, btw, I commend you on. I think is a very good rule -- if he is home sick, he can sleep or read or hang out on the couch talking with you or doodle with markers -- but no screens. Otherwise, it is too enticing for kids to fake illness. And if you follow my work, you know I don't think kids should be using screens during the week anyway.

Your son understood and agreed to your no games rule, but then went behind your back to play video games. Ouch! No wonder you're furious. You feel betrayed. You WERE betrayed.

BUT, you knew he would want to do this. You had warned him several times. So it's a hard truth to hear, but since you knew this, it was on you to keep him near you, rather than letting him hang out near the XBOX in the basement playroom. I know it is tough to acknowledge, but the makers of video games purposely make them addictive. Your son's pulse races when he even THINKS about Fortnite. So you can't really expect him to hang out near his drug and not reach for it. The ONLY thing that would help him not go near his game, to keep his promise to you, is the strength of his relationship with you. So again we come back to that.

AND, of course, it is still your son's responsibility. He betrayed your trust. THAT is what I would talk with him about. The natural consequence is not that you don't believe him when he says he is sick -- he in fact was sick. The natural consequence of his lying to you is that you no longer completely trust him -- he has cut one of those invisible strands of trust between you. He needs to earn that back.

Now, it is normal for all kids to experiment with lying to their parents. But that doesn't mean that he doesn't need to make things better between you. So I would ask him what he will do to repair that trust.

Also very importantly, your son showed you that he cannot handle his addiction to Fortnite. There is a reason that CommonSense Media suggests that children be 13+ to use Fortnite. It is addictive so the child needs enough self-discipline to manage it responsibly. Punishment is not the point -- that will just further erode your relationship. But no young person should not be using an XBOX until he can demonstrate that HE controls it instead of it controlling him.

I would speak to your son about the addiction, using that word. And yes, anything that makes you repeatedly override what you value (your word, your integrity, your relationship with your mother) to do something for a momentary good feeling is an addiction.

If you're reading my book, you know that I am not a big fan of consequences, because they usually end up as punishment. I am, however, a big fan of kids cleaning up their own messes, which includes repairing what they break, including their relationships. AND I am a big fan of parents giving kids support to be their best selves. So in this case, he did not get the support from you -- which I would acknowledge to him.

I would say something along the lines of "It was really hard for you to resist, and I did not realize that and did not help. AND it was your responsibility to tell me that you were tempted to break your promise to me and needed my help to keep your promise. I will always help you. Since you broke your promise to me, our relationship needs some work now to rebuild the trust between us. I will forgive you and be here to support you, but you are the one who has to do the work to rebuild the trust between us. And I learned from this how addicted you are to the XBOX -- that you would even betray our relationship for it.

So no more XBOX at all until our relationship is repaired. Really.

And at that point, you may use the XBOX for short time periods, but you will need to demonstrate to me your ability to master the siren call. So before you use it again, we will sign an agreement about it. And for now, we are putting it away...     

And I also want to acknowledge that although you made the choice to betray our trust by going against our agreement, I think I have also done things that have hurt our relationship. For instance, I was not super empathic when you called from school to tell me you were sick. That is a symptom of how much of a gap there is between us now. I think that gap is partly my fault.

I want to apologize for anything I have done that has created conflict between us. And I commit to you now that I will do whatever I can to rebuild our relationship.

You will have to do just as much -- this repair needs to come from you -- but I know that our relationship is a two way street. I want to hear from you what has gotten in the way of feeling close to me. That does not mean I will be able to give you everything you want -- I am your parent and that means I have to look at the greater good of your whole self, not just at what you want in any given moment. But it does mean I will always listen to you and will always understand. I could never love anyone more than I love you and there is nothing more important to me than our relationship being strong. Even when I can't give you what you want, I promise I will give you something better -- a parent who understands and believes in you, no matter what."

And then I would follow through. I would be totally understanding that breaking an addiction is really hard, and apologetic that you let him develop this addiction. I would prioritize your relationship and even his happiness. And while he will chafe about losing the XBOX, and he will be angry at you, I would not give on that until you both agree that you have turned around your relationship.

And at that point, start in very small doses, monitor, and talk about the addiction as he starts to play again.

Is this punishment? No. You aren't taking away the XBOX as a punishment. You are making a new rule about it, based on your new understanding of his relationship with it, which is that he is so addicted he was willing to lie to you about it. You are giving him support to get over that addiction. You are also making a huge effort, yourself, to improve your relationship with your son, because of your realization that you have let that relationship deteriorate.

I know what I am prescribing is not easy in the face of our cultural relationship with screens, and in addition because you also have a younger child who needs a lot of your time. But you are so lucky to have this symptom now, so that you can see the work you need to do. You CAN reclaim your relationship with your son before the teen years. There's a lot at stake here, but thank goodness he showed you what he needs from you, even if he didn't know it. Good luck, and I'm sending you strength for the journey!

Dr. Laura


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