Thinking Outside the XBox

Over the many years I’ve helped people in my capacity as a psychologist, there are two questions (a.k.a., complaints, pleas for help) I hear most. A top contender for the most frequent vexation is:

“All he cares about is video games. I’ve taken away the darn thing (Xbox, Playstation, etc.), but it doesn’t seem to matter. What can I do?”

This displeasure usually follows the number one related question, which I’ll address shortly. To be practical, let’s deal with the video game vexation. As presented by frustrated parents, the problem is that the child seems obsessed by video game addiction and cares only about access to and time on the screen and game platform. Other enticements fall on deaf ears, and the child wants nothing more (or less) than playing video games. Taking the way the device seems like the only tool the parent has to get the child’s attention and make an impact. Alas, this move rarely works in the long run, and it often backfires because the child may still not improve his behavior. Instead, he adjusts to the deprivation, leaving both child and parents sour and frustrated; a sense of conflict and a punitive atmosphere remains, the power struggle continues, and the child hunkers down to nurse his grievances while the parent is left to ad lib about when to give back the prized video device. Rarely do improved habits and attitudes result from this struggle. When the parent does prevail, it is usually a Pyrrhic victory—one with such devastating cost that it is really tantamount to defeat. The child gets his device back, the obsession and irresponsibility continues, and the parent is left wondering how to exert authority and control and whether the child will ever divert himself from the screen and interact appropriately with real life.

There is a solution to this dilemma: I call it “Thinking Outside the Xbox.”

In order to avoid being driven by the child’s obsession with video games or constrained by a perceived “lack of rewards,” you must understand and apply two basic principles of behavior modification. They are:

  1. You can manipulate items, privileges, habits, and desires that your child already takes for granted and use them as reinforcements (the proper term and procedure for strengthening behaviors).
  2. You can attach costs to inappropriate behaviors, breaches of agreements, and violation of limits.

Earning One’s Keep

These principles are neither difficult concepts nor things learned only in classes. They are keenly observed adaptations of the way things work in the natural world—the way they work for all of us and shape our behavior to survive and function.

For instance, we all take for granted certain “rewards” as “consequences” for following the rules. This is so ingrained that we ordinarily don’t think of the behavior and its result in terms of their relationships and schedules. You probably have a mortgage or rental payment on your house and perhaps other obligations, such as a car payment. Given this reality, it’s unlikely that you wake up and think, I can continue to live in my home and drive my car as long as I pay $XX.00—yet that is exactly how it works! You take it for granted unless or until that schedule is disrupted.

Why not adapt the same principles (in simple, immediate terms) to your child? Rather than take away the XBox for a month (and what will you do once that commodity has lost its effectiveness?), you could “rent” your child his game console for an hour or a day at a time in exchange for specific and timely behaviors. You could do the same with a cell phone and other items and privileges the child assumes are inviolably his entitlements.

When a child is intensely focused on one thing—say, a preoccupation with video games—you can and should get his cooperation and expanded focus by reminding him behaviorally of his dependence upon what you provide on a routine basis. Many services and material things you provide can be put “on the table” for re-negotiation and payment through behavioral earnings. Among these are: favorite foods (snacks and dinners at home and outside the home), rides to school, use of phone and possessions (bikes, skateboards, music devices), visiting friends, time spent with parents, use of computer, even the child’s favorite clothes or pillow.

Many parents blanche when I suggest that access to a cell phone, computer, or pillow are privileges. Yet indeed they are, and your child very much takes them for granted. Many parents wince at the thought of taking the phone away because they would not be able to keep track of or communicate with their child. Really? Did your parents keep track of you by cell phone, text you to remind and reassure? Are you worried that by making your child earn access to a computer, you are disabling him from doing his homework? Or that confiscating his comfy pillow or favorite shoes constitutes cruel and unusual punishment?

Think again: such interventions can be practical tools for re-establishing your control and eliciting compliance. I share with you the true story (from decades past) of a friend who had difficulty collecting rent from one of his tenants. Reminders, pleas, and threats went unheeded. After weighing his options, my friend decided to remove the front door of his property in which the tenant lived for “repairs.” It didn’t take long for the tenant to get the message and come up with the rent.

Perhaps this example is extreme and a little weird, but it worked because it was practical and based on solid principles (response cost and negative reinforcement). You don’t have to remove the door to your child’s room (although you could). You should find ways to intervene and alter his priorities by providing swift and meaningful consequences that link the behaviors you want and don’t want with predictable consequences that have an immediate impact on your child. If he weathers particular deprivations by continued noncompliance or an “I don’t care” attitude, you can up the ante strategically, gradually, and systematically. It won’t take long for him to get the message that you are in authority and prepared to exercise control over what he takes for granted and actually needs.

The mistake parents too often make is taking away the “big” thing the child likes for extended periods with no path to earning it back bit by bit, day by day. This is an impulsive (often desperate) parental move that is ill-conceived and that breeds frustration and even contempt. There are many carrots to dangle, even the “big” one that preoccupies your child. But you also have to think outside the Xbox, or your child will have you over a barrel. Observe what he depends on and takes for granted; then put him on a schedule to earn these things by conforming to your rules and standards.

The old adage applies: You don’t work, you don’t eat. I am not suggesting that you don’t feed your child—just perhaps that you limit the tasty stuff in accord with his performance.

To people who are unfamiliar with the scientific principles and nuances of behavioral learning theory, the difference between “taking away” things and earning or retaining them through behavior shaping may seem like a “glass half-full or half-empty” semantic riddle. It is not. There is a very practical and predictable difference between taking away and establishing an understandable and attainable path to earning and retaining possessions and privileges.

When parents notify me that they have taken away the Xbox, etc., I ask, “What specifically does he have to do to get it back, and when can that happen?” Either the parents haven’t specified that (because they’ve confiscated the prize in a fit of pique and frustration without planning out the consequences), or they’ve announced some general and distant standard (usually unclear to the child), such as “when his grades improve.” This is a recipe for failure. In order to stay goal-oriented, motivated, and focused, all of us need clarity on what we need to accomplish and a reasonable chance of succeeding, especially in the near term.

The foundation for accomplishment and the learning or revamping of behaviors is the strengthening of behaviors through reinforcement. Start small and easy, stay consistent with a schedule, and habits form quickly.

Response Costs

To strengthen behaviors, we use reinforcement. This means utilizing consequences that have the effect of making behaviors (hopefully desirable ones) more likely and frequent. But the problem always occurs that while we are attempting to reinforce the (less strong or probable) desired behaviors, we are confronted with the habitual undesirable behaviors. Ignoring them is not practical, so when the flagrant, attention getting, annoying behaviors present themselves, we tend to reinforce (strengthen) them unwittingly by noticing them.

Part of the solution to circumvent this problem is to attach “response costs” to transgressions or faulty behaviors. This means that the child must pay a price (predictable, consistent, and clearly known and enforced) for exhibiting such behaviors. A good example for understanding this is by thinking about parking tickets. While no one is going to physically stop you from parking a vehicle in a disallowed space or manner, someone may officially attach a cost for doing so. You’ve learned through experience that no matter how you feel or gripe, you are going to have to pay the ticket (or worse, retrieve your towed vehicle!). The consequence—learned through experience and subsequently by symbolic warning—exerts an inhibiting effect on repeating the prohibited behavior.

You can use this same rule-based system with your child: a specific infraction “costs” the child his device or privilege for a pre-ordained specified amount of time. The child learns to associate the behavior with the sacrifice, and this expectation has a definite and predictable impact upon his behavior. The amount and time of the cost can be adjusted according to your child’s sensitivity and his response to the intervention.

If you are a parent who has “tried taking this and that away, and it makes no difference”—believe me: you are not succeeding because you are not understanding and manipulating reinforcements and response costs appropriately. Behavioral principles—like gravity, fire, and friction—always work. It’s just a matter of whether they work for you or against you.

Parents’ Most Frequent and Pressing Question

Here is the question I am asked the most frequently and with the most urgency by parents:

“Doctor, can my child help what he does—I mean, is he actually in control of his behavior and can I hold him responsible—or is he just not able to control or help himself?”

For parents, this decision seems to be the heart of the matter. It’s as if parents need permission to use common sense and their own experience and possibly some advance exoneration from guilt if they set standards high for their child. But the distinction is really a “straw man.” This is so because every person must be held accountable for his actions. Sure, there are extenuating circumstances, and I am most definitely an advocate for those with handicaps and a proponent of step-wise modifications and accommodations. However, holding someone accountable is necessary for a reality orientation to the challenges of life. Accountability doesn’t preclude making mistakes, getting help, or receiving mercy. Accountability means that the child learns to systematically recognize, monitor, and report his behaviors in accurate ways that are consonant with the observations of those around him. Only upon this basis can responsibility be achieved, promises realized, and commitments be honored.

The real answer to the question is that the child in question probably has neurological and developmental anomalies that interfere with self-control and follow-through. In my experience, it is almost always the case that these internal difficulties enmesh with poor habit formation that is perpetuated by on-going family power struggles that undermine the child’s lack of clear understanding of realistic boundaries and that interfere with the firm and consistent implementation of the family’s rules. This situation compromises the child’s capacity to assimilate behavioral guidelines and enhances the likelihood of the child acting out in maladaptive and counterproductive ways. These impediments are often compounded by a concomitant attitude of entitlement in which the child thinks that life “owes” him his way when he wants it (usually always) and typically engenders parents who feel resentful that they got a raw deal by having such a difficult child.

Yes, we should make careful, strategic, and planned allowances for those who are not quite up to par. But simple jobs that are required must still get done, and all of us must follow certain rules. Most of us have problems, and some are truly disadvantaged. In these cases, help and guidance, and justice and mercy are needed. As for whether a person “can’t help it”—that and a buck-fifty will get you on the bus, as the old saying goes. The world can be very cruel and unforgiving to those who are unprepared to act responsibly, meet their obligations, and follow the rules.

For more information and assistance in “thinking outside the Xbox” to get your child to comply, you can read the detailed chapters on modifying behaviors in my book, Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times. (see Living Intact: Challenge and Choice in Tough Times)

You can also call me to schedule a consultation.