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Last week we learned that strong-willed kids are more likely to struggle with addiction than other children. This is a HUGE concern to many parents. If it’s a concern to you, then you don’t want to miss today’s interview with Mike Fitch, CMHC. We talk about ways you can help prevent addictions, warning signs of addiction, and some things you can do as a parent if you think your child is struggling with an addiction.
Mike Fitch, CMHC
Here’s a quick recap from last week:
- Strong-willed children are more likely to struggle with addictions than other children.
- The three most common addictions for kids are:
- Junk food
- Kids get addicted to these things easily because they release “feel good” hormones in the brain
Now let’s talk about prevention, warning signs, and early intervention for each of the three most common addictions.
First, limit the amount of unhealthy foods you keep in the home. I don’t think that you need to get rid of ALL the unhealthy foods that you have. In fact, I see that kids who grow up in homes where they’re allowed to have treats, go crazy and eat lots of junk when their parents aren’t around. Kids tend to do better if they have junk food occasionally with their families.
Second, meet with your family to create healthy boundaries around food together. Let them know what you learned from last week, why we turn to unhealthy foods and how addictive they can be. Also review what a balanced diet looks like, then ask them to help create your family’s rules around food. Doing this as a family will help your kids be more committed to the plan.
After you have set the limits, be consistent in enforcing those limits. Of course there will be special occasions where you will need to flexible about the rules, but on regular days, enforce the boundaries. This is easier to do if you don’t have much junk food available at your home.
Third, make sure your kids get ENOUGH food. Kids will be less likely to eat junk food if they are full of healthy food. When they are hungry their blood sugar drops and they want something to raise their sugar fast. If you’re feeling like you child won’t eat any healthy food, go here to learn what tips our therapists have for getting picky eaters to eat healthy foods.
Here’s a couple of quick bonus ideas:
- Get individually packaged junk food. It costs a little more, but it limits how much you child can eat. A small bag of cookies that’s gone when it’s gone is easier to manage than a huge box of cookies.
- Consider doing online shopping for food, then pick up at the store. Marketers know how to get you to buy junk food. The less time you spend in the grocery store, the less likely you are to buy the junk.
According to Common Sense Media, 59 percent of parents say their kids are “addicted” to their screens, while 66 percent say their kids spend too much time on screens.
Prevention: Set boundaries around the amount of screen time kids are allowed to have each day. Remember that screen time releases the hormone, dopamine, in unnaturally high amounts. Dopamine release from TV and video games is extremely addictive. If you limit the amount of screen time, you limit the amount of dopamine exposure.
Here are the most up-to-date recommendations for amounts of time:
Under age eighteen months-no screens unless “face-timing” with someone
Toddler through Tween-One hour daily
Teen-Two hours daily
These recommended times include ANY screens. If your child is doing any TV or gaming on any device, that counts as screen time.
Now, I know there are times that you need to give your kids a little extra screen time. If you’re sick, your child is sick, or your on a long road trip, giving your kids some extra screen time may be just what you need. However, make those occasions the exception instead of the rule.
Warning: An hour will not feel like an hour to your child when they are on screens. It might be good to set a timer for them.
Also, when it’s time to turn off screens, your might be irritable because they are coming down from the “high” of the dopamine they’ve been feeling.
Prevention: First, please buy a good filter for your computer. Filters are designed to do just that, filter out the good sites from the bad. You want to limit the types of sites that your children have access to.
A filter that I often recommend is called “Covenant Eyes“. Just a heads up, this a really Christian company with a lot of focus of pornography. I love everything about it except the monthly fee. However, the fee covers continually updates which keeps this filter from becoming obsolete.
You also set up the service to send you browsing reports so that you can see what sites your family is trying to access.
Another filter that I like and personally use is the Disney Circle. The reviews on Amazon are medium, but I have really like it. There’s no monthly fee and it not only allows me to pull a report on what sites everyone is browsing, but it also allows me to limit how much screen time my kids get to have.
Second, be aware of what devices can access the internet in your house. You’d be surprised by how many things in your home allow your kids to browse the internet. You need to know what capabilities your devices have.
Thirds, create boundaries with your kids around internet usage.
- Location-No screens in bedrooms. The majority of my young clients that struggle with sexual addiction access inappropriate content behind closed doors. Keep your devices that can access the internet in a public location in your home. It’s OK to be VERY strict about this boundary. It will protect your kids.
- Parental supervision for younger children-If younger children want to browse the internet or YouTube, it’s good to have a trusted adult in the same room supervising their activity. This gives the adults an opportunity to teach internet safety principles while making sure the kids are safe.
- No secrets– Make a family policy that whenever someone sees something inappropriate, they tell the family. Addiction has more of a hold on a person when they are keeping it secret.One family that I know lives by this policy and it’s been really helpful for them. If the adults see something inappropriate, they will mention it to the family during dinner. They don’t share any details of the image, but that they saw something and how they handled it. This helps kids feel more comfortable sharing when they see something and teaches them how to handle it when they do. It also helps kids feel less shame when they see something because they now know that it happens to everyone.
- No shaming or overreacting– I can’t emphasize this enough. If you find out that your kids have been viewing inappropriate content or they tell you they saw something, please be very calm in how you respond to them. If your emotions escalate or you shame them, they will feel worse about the situation and will try to keep any future activity a secret from you.If your child has violated a family rule that you made, it is OK to give them a consequence for breaking the rule. Just be calm in giving the consequence and make it clear that it was for violating a specific family rule.
Last, please have open, age-appropriate conversations with your children about sex and sexuality. Each child will have natural curiosity about sex and their bodies. That is a normal and healthy part of development. You want to talk about those things with your kids instead of leaving them to ask Google about them instead.
Some parents are uncomfortable having conversations about bodies, sex, and pornography with their kids. If you are one of those parents, I recommend reading well-written, age-appropriate books with your kids. This will help you know what to say and get through the things that might feel uncomfortable.
Books I recommend to help you start the conversation bodies and sex:
For Age 4 and up
For age 7 and up
For age 10 and up
Book I recommend for body safety:
Book I recommend for discussing pornography:
Here’s an additional website resources:
Prevention for all three addictions: Teach your kids healthy ways to get a release of the “feel good” hormones they crave
Last week we taught you that humans turn to addictive activities to sooth five common uncomfortable emotions.
We use an acronym to remember the emotions.
The acronym is BLAST
Blast stands for:
Help your kids be aware of the “BLAST” emotions and make them aware that they will want to soothe those feelings in potentially harmful ways. Teach them these healthy ways to release the feel good hormones.
Here are the ways that I recommend:
- Communication: Healthy, non-digital communication is so good for all of us. We tend to feel soothed when we can talk to someone about our lives, stresses, concerns, etc. If you are a parent, you’ll want to check out our episode/blog post on how to listen so your kids will talk. Your kids will be more likely to communicate if you listen the right way.
- Imaginative play: This kind of play is so good for the development of a child’s brain while releasing lots of “feel good” hormones.
- Active Play: Not only is physical play good for muscle strength and heart health, it also releases endorphins. Find an activity that your kids enjoy and incorporate it into their lives. Remember that there are hundreds of options out there. Find one that’s a good fit for your child.
- Sunshine: When sunshine touches our skin, it helps synthesize vitamin D in our bodies. While vitamin D isn’t a “feel good” hormones, it is a “feel good” vitamin. At least fifteen minutes of sunshine each day can help most people feel a lot happier.
- Go on an adventure: New activities or experiences can release adrenaline. These adventures don’t need to be expensive, it could be as simple as finding a new trail to hike, a river bank to explore, or trying a new activity for the first time.
After reading this, you may feel like you need to make some changes in your family. If you want to make a change, get the whole family involved in the planning process. This will help them be less resistant to changing their lifestyle. Take baby steps if you feel that will help your family. In reality, you may need to wean them off of their current lifestyle.
Also, remember that as the parent, you get to model healthy lifestyle. If you are sedentary, your kids are more likely to be sedentary. If you are turning to electronics, food, or sex to sooth your emotions, your kids are going to be more likely too. Evaluate what changes you need to make personally and start to make those changes. In the end, it will help you AND your children.
Early Warning Signs and Early Intervention
**If at anytime you feel concerned about your child’s choices and feel over your head in how to respond, please seek professional help. A professional can give you the guidance you need to deal with issues when they are smaller rather than waiting until they grow. Go here if you’d like to learn more about seeking professional help.**
- Excessive weight gain-Some weight fluctuation is a normal part of development. But if you see excessive weight gain, that can be a red flag.
- Sneaking foods- While some sneaking is normal as well, watch for consistent sneaking.
- Lying- Another warning sign is if your child is being dishonest about how much junk food they’re eating or about sneaking food.
Again, each of the above warning signs are normal to some degree. But if you see them consistently, that should be a cause for concern.
- Discuss the reasons they may be overeating- Review the emotions that we try to resolve through over eating. Discuss the process of addiction. Make a plan together about ways to make healthier choices.
- Consider taking a break-If one particular food is an issue, consider taking a break from that food or make it more difficult to access. Sometimes we need to show our brains that we really can survive without the thing that we’re feeling addicted to.
- Acting out– Some sexual exploration is really normal. For example: “Show me yours and I’ll show you mine”. However, penetration or oral sex is not within normal development. If your children are acting either of those out, it’s a sign that they’ve either seen this happen or they’ve had it happen to them.
- Browser History- Every parent needs to regularly check which sites their kids are visiting and which YouTube videos their kids are watching. Browser history can let parents know if their kids are started to get addicted to pornography.
- Lying- If your child is lying about what they have viewed or sneaking a browse capable devise into a secret place, that’s a definite warning sign.
If you see these warning signs:
- Talk to a trusted adult before you act. This can help you calm your emotions and give you an opportunity to make a well-thought out plan for how to approach your child
- Calm any intense emotions you may have before you…
- Talk to your child about your concerns
- Revisit the boundaries that you have set, you made need to adjust them based on the issues that you are seeing
- If the issue persists, seek out professional help. You may want to meet with the counselor first just as parents to talk about your concerns and receive guidance about what steps to take next
- Kids trying to manipulate the system- This is really common, even with kids without addiction. But if your child is constantly trying to get more and more screen time, that can be a warning sign.
- Sneaking- If a child is waking up really early or trying to stay up late to sneak electronics while the adults are sleeping, that is a warning sign.
- Increased irritability or negative behavior– While there are many factors that affect behavior, electronics can be one of them. If they are only happy during screen time, it’s a sign that they are relying on dopamine for their happiness.
- Your kids may need to take an electronic “fast”. Skipping electronics for a day or week. If you want to try an electronic fast, I recommend having your kids plan what they’re going to do that day instead of electronics during the fast. This can help them enjoy the fast and see that they can be happy without screens.
- Limit electronic time. You may need to cut back on how much electronic time your child has. Twenty minutes of electronic time a couple of times a day release less dopamine than one continuous hour of electronic time.
Warning: With all of the early intervention ideas, expect resistance. Your kids are not going to like “weaning off” of their addictions. Remember that their brain believes they need their addiction to survive.
Is there hope?
There are some hard truths about addiction. Addiction does change the way that a person’s brain is wired and once a person becomes addicted to something, that addiction never fully goes away. However, the great thing about addiction with kids is that their brains are developing and can quickly change. Meaning that if an addiction has rewired their brain, they can more easily undo that wiring than an adult could.
If you can watch for warning signs of addiction and catch it early, there is so much hope for your child.