Mack R. Hicks Ph.D.

Digital Pandemic

A Cure for Digital Withdrawal Disorder (DWD)

Playing with dad can cure kids' lonliness and alienation.

Posted Jul 27, 2014

I played for a living! No, I’m not talking about playing professional sports. I’m talking about how I made a living as a psychologist. Yes, I played. I played hard. With boys.

 Parents would bring their son to my clinic because he was distant and withdrawn or acting out in school. The young patient typically was a previously happy and outgoing youngster who had gradually distanced himself from his parents and others. After ruling out learning disabilities and other neurologically related conditions, I often found a strained, and sometimes nonexistent, relationship between the boy and his father.

These fathers were usually left-brainers such as bankers, lawyers, or engineers, and they were extremely busy with their careers. They had little time for their children, and the father–son relationships, to the degree they existed, were left-brained and intellectual rather than right-brained and emotional. These fathers were “stiff upper lippers.”

 Why did I play with these boys? Simply because it worked better than any other treatment modality. Exceptionally well, in fact. Talk therapy isn’t often successful with nine-year-old boys, and I found the fathers didn’t follow through when I suggested additional physical and emotional father-son experiences. For example, when I recommended that a father take his son to a sporting activity, the father would comply and might be there physically, but would spend his time listening to stock market quotes on a handheld radio, or returning pager calls.

 Hmm, sounds a little bit like excessive smart phone communications of today, doesn’t it?

How did I do it? I had a playroom filled with toys, games and activities. I invited the youngster into the activity room and said something like this. “Let’s just have some fun.” I would then follow the child’s lead. It wasn’t easy and it was sometimes a risky and dirty business, such as racing down an alley behind my clinic, engaging in gunfights with water guns or rubber-tipped darts (not allowed today, of course) or shooting hoops or playing ping-pong.

 It may surprise the reader to hear that it was such hard work. And some parents were dubious about paying a grown man to play games with their kid. But I was totally focused on the child’s behavior, speech, and emotions for every second of the session. It’s unlikely that anyone had ever focused on this youngster’s thoughts and behavior the way I did, and unlikely that this child would ever experience this again –– unless he got into trouble and was quizzed by an officer of the law.

 It wasn’t that easy to do, especially knowing when and how to behave in a way that helped the child, or how to talk about the boy’s behaviors and what they meant.

 Why did it work so well? In talk therapy the psychologist is limited to talking in order to help the patient develop intellectual and emotional insight or to suggesting new ways of behavior. What a huge advantage I had in dealing with the actual behavior that needed to be adjusted or reframed, in the here and now.

And it allowed me to introduce the father to proper adult–child play, first through a one-way mirror and then in the activity room itself. I was teaching grown men, many who were professionals to the concept of play. They liked it –– a lot.

 But you might be wondering what all this has to do with today? When you see a family in a restaurant having dinner and both parents and both children are totally absorbed with their digital devices rather than enjoying each other’s company, it reminds me of those unhappy boys from the past.

 Today, one in three Americans over 45 is chronically lonely, up from just one in five a decade ago. The Internet promises a virtual community to replace the real community, but I doubt it can replace warm-blooded friends as a source of support in a time of need. Others have proposed that at least 90 percent of Facebook friendships are those of utility and self-promotion, where we are only showing our public self.

 What’s the answer for boys today who are withdrawn or not relating emotionally to their parents or others? Play therapy? I don’t think it’s done much anymore. One solution may surprise you. It’s dad. Yes, dear old dad. A recent article in The Wall Street Journal by Sue Shellenberger described some of the benefits of dads’ who roughhouse with their children.

 This form of rough-and-tumble play allows for tuning in on an emotional level, setting boundaries, supporting risk-taking and showing the father to be a spontaneous and creative –– even if sometimes silly –– fellow. Sue Shellenbarger, “Dads Roughhousing Lessons,” The Wall Street Journal, June 11, 2014.

 Yes, it’s good stuff. But I think the writer and the researchers are shortchanging this mode of interaction. And that’s because it can result in much more than the desirable benefits described above. It can serve to develop a most important quality integral to human relationships: Trust. The kids I saw were always testing me. Did I really care about them, or was I just being paid to make them smile?

 After a dozen hours of play therapy, when trust had been established, those kids would do just about anything I asked of them. In fact, their total trust was a little scary.

 Yes, trust is where it’s at. Despite my many suspicions about the digital family, I’m thinking that as long as dad is rough-housing with the kids, the digital wolf will remain at bay.