Is your child addicted?

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Little Mira watches three hours of television a day, Khaya always eats the sweets in his lunch box before anything else, Litha cries to get her way (and she gets it every time), while Stefan punches other children for attention ...

Copyright: tatyanagl / 123RF Stock Photo

By Helen Hansen  (Dip. D. Psych, ECD, Prof. Kinesiologist)

Little Mira watches three hours of television a day, Khaya always eats the sweets in his lunch box before anything else, Litha cries to get her way (and she gets it every time), while Stefan punches other children for attention.

Would you classify these children as addicts? Probably not

The image most of society tends to have of an addict is some sinister-looking person, prowling the streets for the next fix. Truth be told, the root of all habitual behaviour is similar in nature.

What are habits?

Let's start by looking at habits. Actions, behaviour patterns, thought cycles that are repetitive are habits whether they are uplifting or detrimental.

Habits reside in our subconscious mind, the part of our brain responsible for automatic reactions. They generate neural circuits that perpetuate a particular act. This is then cemented in the body through biochemical and physiological changes that take place.

In other words, when a child receives attention after misbehaving, the body and brain will recreate the same or similar situation in order to receive that same biochemical, physiological and neural reaction as before. This is known as the 'dopamine reward'.

The more these pathways are etched into the brain, the less dopamine is available. The less dopamine available to the individual, the more they crave it. When the same outward response is received, for example punishment, the same internal pattern in the brain and body is etched deeper and so a habit is formed.

Why do children form habits so easily?

Part of a child's survival need is love, which is due in the form of affectionate touch and enough caring attention from close adults.

Children learn first and foremost from their closest caregivers, namely parents, other family members and then nannies. If this is lacking, the child may begin to misbehave as a way of communicating and saying, “Look at me, be with me!” or s/he may turn elsewhere to fill their void, such as immersing hours in computer games, eating and craving salty or sweet foods or withdrawing inwards.

Some children even reflect their need for love through physical illness, skin reactions or food allergies. If your child breaks out in a physical symptom, ask 'Have I been spending enough quality-attentive time with my child?'

Some children even reflect their need for love through physical illness, skin reactions or food allergies. If your child breaks out in a physical symptom, ask 'Have I been spending enough quality-attentive time with my child?'

In such situations one does need to have the individual thoroughly examined to find the root of the issue which may or may not be emotional.

How can I help my child break free from self-sabotaging habits?

Noticing your child's habit is the first step. The next step is desiring to assist them, and yourself, through the change.

Here are some guidelines to consider along the way:

1. Establish what you would like for your child instead.

2. Replace the habit with a healthier, happier option. It is important to note that if you do not replace the habit with something else the need for it will return even stronger, ie ensure the void is filled.

3. Gradual change is easiest. Sudden change can be traumatic, for everyone.

4. Discuss some options with your child if s/he is old enough. For example, when decreasing screen time from two hours per day to one hour per day, discuss some ideas that your child could replace it with. As much as possible include yourself in the new activity.

5. Write a plan for implementing the new way forward and journal the development along the way.

6. Be prepared for resistance at some point. Some children resist the initial idea while others welcome it but then resist it a few days into the new programme, just when you think all is well. When this happens, stick to your ground with loving kindness and persevere.

7. Be kind to your child and yourself. There may be good days and tough ones. During the challenging times remind yourself of why you are doing this and keep the goal in clear sight such as a visual on your desk or on your phone. Know that sometimes, part of the journey of growing is to experience setbacks. Learn from it and move on.

Guidelines for managing eating disorders:

  • Understand the developmental stage of your child and what her/his body requires.
  • Regularly eat together with your child and make eating wholesome food an enjoyable experience. Do not eat regularly in front of the TV.
  • Demonstrate a good attitude towards good food. Let your child witness you practising self-control when it comes to sugar, chips, cooldrink etc.
  • Ensure your child is exercising adequately for her/his age.
  • Spend time every day playing an active game with your child.

Guidelines for managing screen addiction:

  • Have the TV/computers in a separate room, ie not the bedroom or where you eat.
  • Follow strict time schedules regarding screen viewing. These time should be age appropriate, considering the effects on young children. Children under two years ideally should not watch any media.
  • Be diligent about monitoring the content your child watches. Watch new programmes before your child does or watch with your child.
  • Communicate with parents of friends to ensure that they understand your guidelines for your child. You may be surprised that when you voice your rules, they will be inspired to create their own (or even follow yours).
  • Spend time every day playing an active game with your child.

Guidelines for managing aggressive reactions:

  • Always remember that there is a little person with hurt feelings hiding under the aggression.
    Observe the environments the child is exposed to and notice where toxic situations are breeding. First, work towards changing the elements that are breeding negativity. If needed, take the child out of the environment.
  • Communicate positive messages to the child through stories.
  • Gently teach the child, through your behaviour, how to manage anger, fear, frustration.
    Spend time every day playing an active game with your child.

If you have followed the above and are still concerned about your child's behaviour or if you need assistance through the transformation of changing habits, seek professional help from a child psychologist or kinesiologist. To read more about addictive behaviour in children, click here.

About the author

Helen Hansen is a Transformational Facilitator and Professional Kinesiologist with expertise in Developmental Psychology and Early Childhood Development. She specialises in facilitation for parents, children and families.