You know the kid.
The one that Halloween night is gorging himself with candy until his is sick.
The one at Thanksgiving that can't keep her fingers out of the pie.
The one at Christmas that stealthily makes off with a plate of cookies.
We can all relate, right? I am not the only one ringing in the holidays to the music of wine glasses doing a celebratory dance.
Except for this child, the one exhibiting addictive behavior, these are not unique events. These occasions are part of a much, much longer series of stories of dysregulation. Instead of a celebratory dance, the clinks of someone with an addictive personality are in rapid fire succession.
One of the hardest stories for me to write is about my son's battle with an addictive personality. He has so many lovely qualities and, yet, here I am writing about this dark light within him because it is this light that keeps me up at night. His story (like so many) takes place in this ‘candy shop' environment we live in; an environment that is filled with triggers for a child predisposed to addictive tendencies. This child has to navigate this land of digital and chemical temptations without the years of trial and error, without the self-help books and articles and without a developed pre-frontal cortex to help with executive functioning.
That's where WE come in. The parents. We are here to assume our fundamental role of teaching our kids to develop a wonderful relationship with the world they live in. We have the unique opportunity to help make their story one of success, love, and happiness. We get to help them turn into the wonderful solitary that symbolizes balance and enjoyment.
So let's begin…
Kids and Addictive Behavior: The Setting
Children today have to deal with the ubiquitous availability of instant gratification. Unhealthy food is more accessible and cheaper than healthy food. This year in the United States, there are over 200,000 fast food restaurants operating and sales in the snack food market reached $124 Billion. Our children have access to rapidly-changing, sophisticated animation. Every iPhone or iPad offers instantaneous access to 2 million iOS Apps. Our television, social media and video games are on demand. We live in an instant gratification society. This environment is incredibly difficult for children (and adults) with addictive personalities.
Kids and Addictive Behavior: The Problem
Every kid has a different story, a different psychological and biological makeup.
Here are some identifiers you can look for in kids with addictive personalities:
A study from the National Academy of Sciences found that there are several “significant personality factors” that can contribute to addiction:
- Impulsive behavior, difficulty in delaying gratification, an antisocial personality and a disposition toward sensation seeking.
- A high value on nonconformity combined with a weak commitment to the goals for achievement valued by the society.
- A sense of social alienation and a general tolerance for deviance.
- A sense of heightened stress. This may help explain why adolescence and other stressful transition periods are often associated with the most severe drug and alcohol problems.
My son's story: addictive behaviors like secrecy, moodiness, and dysregulation.
It began when he was a toddler. If I let him watch one show, it was never enough. If I gave him a treat, he always wanted more.
Does this sound familiar?
This may sound relatively normal, but I knew early on that the frequency and scale of his tantrums definitely set him apart.
Now older, he has become more discrete in his addictive behavior. He spends time hiding in closets playing games on his computer or at the neighbor's house watching television and playing video games. He is a master at sneaking and hiding junk food and candy and it will be weeks before I discover the massive stash of wrappers. His moods plummet after screen time and he is forever resistant to turning it off. Sadly, he is exhibiting impulsive and oppositional behavior at a greater frequency that has been problematic at home and school.
BUT, he is also just a wonderfully kind, independent, loyal, funny, smart and competitive child. I wish that was the story I was telling and I hope that is the story that I am able to tell in the future.
Kids and Addictive Behavior: The Solution
I have to believe that I have the power to help give my child a story that ends with happiness. These are the methods that struck me as being the most beneficial for our situation: test for biological causes, teach mindfulness, share your own imperfections, let your child fail and remain positive.
1. Test For Biological Causes.
Shelly Allen, NYC Psychotherapist, explains it like this:
The addiction is not the problem, it is the solution to the problem. For example, if a kid (or adult) has lowered GABA or dopamine levels due to epigenetics or nutrient deficiency, a way to boost these levels is often temporarily achieved by a behavior that provides instant gratification like internet, video gaming, and substances like food, alcohol or drugs. The cycle of addiction begins when a person does not have a better way of alleviating this imbalance. This also helps explain why some people develop various addictions and others don't.
First, I always recommend patients get proper blood work to assess for any deficiencies or high levels of the following: Folate, Vitamin B12, Vitamin D, Iron, Magnesium Serum, Copper, Whole Blood Histamine, Homocysteine, Plasma, Zinc, Urine Pyrroles, Serum Ceruloplasmin, and Thyroid Panel. These tests can catch imbalances that may be causing behavioral issues.
2. Teach Mindfulness.
I didn't understand what mindfulness meant for a long time. This lack of awareness can lead us down the paths of excess.
Mindfulness means being present with intention (even if your intention is eating a cookie).
It can mean teaching yourself and your child to identify the signs of hunger and satiation. “Our body has some pretty significant built-in cues to tell us when to eat — and when to stop eating. But we’re not always listening. The practice of engaging all of our senses to guide our eating-related decisions is called mindful eating”, explains Megrette Fletcher, M.Ed., RD, CDE, co-founder and current president of the Center for Mindful Eating. Mindful eating can help us “acknowledge our response to food without getting into judgement,” she says.
Being mindful can also mean acknowledging our habits and putting systems in place for success. If you have a habit of downing an entire sleeve of Girl Scout cookies in one sitting (not that I know what that is like), then decide how many you want to have and put the rest away. If you and/or your child know that they lose track of time spent on Facebook (or reading blogs), then put a tracking app on the phone or computer. Parentsware has great information and tracking systems so that you and your child can form a screen-time strategy together.
3. Share Your Imperfections.
We are role models for our kids and they learn more from watching our failures than our successes. It is from us that they learn coping mechanisms and it is from us that they learn it is okay to fail because failure provides the opportunity to learn and do better. So, share your faults, freely and openly, and share the actions you take to become stronger.
4. Relinquish Control and Let Your Child Fail.
This is a difficult one for most of us. It has been hard to let go of the ‘protections' I put into place at home to keep out the temptations. I over-compensated for my son's (and my) behavior by prohibiting snack food and sweets in the home and for many years had a zero screen time policy during the week.
My erred philosophy was to take away the possibility of failure instead of working on the long-term goal of creating a good relationship between my son and food/screens. Author Jessica Lahey in The Gift of Failure says it best, “any strategy that undermines autonomy is probably not going to work if long-term learning is the goal… Knowing how to manage risk through experience is real, hard-earned competence, and it makes them <kids> feel great about themselves.”
5. Remain Positive And Celebrate Successes.
It is so HARD to stop ourselves from correcting all the mistakes our children make in hope that we can prevent them from making them again. So hard. But instead of focusing on the mistakes that our children will make along the way, we need to focus on celebrating all the successes no matter how small. Remember, we are asking children to make decisions against their biochemical desire to receive that extra dopamine boost. Even the smallest victories should be celebrated. All hail the one piece of broccoli that was chosen for consumption tonight!
The holidays are going to provide ample opportunities to test these strategies. In fact, just the thought of the decadent food and desserts and less structured time probably spent on screens makes me want to hide my head. I suppose this means it is time to start the conversation with my son about what the holidays will look like and what strategies we will use for success.
A toast to you this holiday season: Here's to managing the holidays with success and to discovering new ways to help our children write a beautiful life story not spent struggling with addictive behavior.
Please note: This post was shared by a friend and, although I struggle with similiar behavior, the words above are hers.
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