I have a son who has ADHD. He is very passionate and loves to work really hard at anything he does, but he has serious trouble focusing on anything which involves a non-trivial amount of (perceived) difficulty. For example, he loves gaming and he is always really passionate at any games he plays. He will work for weeks or even months to reach the top of the scoreboards and he'll spend tireless hours at work to max out his character. He grinds so much in the game that it's more like real work than play. But he doesn't see it that way--the reward aspect of the game makes it worth it to him.

However, there are other subjects he wants to pursue which are actually productive. For example, two such interests are music-composition and game development. He has a wonderful musical talent--he can learn to play most instruments very quickly and he has a good ear for what sounds right. Consequently, he expressed a desire to compose music. But he immediately became discouraged when he realized that composing music involves a bit of thought (boring!) and also a bit of theory, so he can learn how chords fit together, etc. Once he hit this bump of difficulty, he immediately became disillusioned and lost his former desire to compose music. But periodically, he still expresses an interest in it, yet once he remembers the element of work involved, he loses that interest again.

Similarly, he struggles with game development. This one is more serious for him. He has a strong desire to develop games and he constantly comes up with neat ideas for different games to develop that are quite unique and marketable. However, this one has yet more bumps of difficulty involved. He detests the idea of sitting still and thinking about a problem. Debugging simple problems can be a nightmare for him, because he doesn't want to focus. He doesn't like having to look things up in the documentation to figure out how a method works, for example. All of this usually overwhelms him and he slips back into compulsive video-game-playing and watching endless amounts of Youtube.

Of course this is entirely normal behavior and I would be inclined to just let him do as he wishes. I have no desire to force him to pursue activities he does not enjoy. But here's the catch: he's not satisfied with just playing games and watching Youtube. He actively comes to me and tells me that he is depressed and unhappy with his constant cycle of consuming entertainment and he wants to do something more productive. The remorse for game playing and Youtube is clear. He immediately identifies his love/hate hobbies (gamedev and music) as his go-to solution to this problem--yet, the minute he encounters difficulty while trying to rekindle his interest in the productive hobby, he gives up and goes back to games again. And he inevitably, eventually approaches me again expressing his remorse/depression and dissatisfaction with his time spent on constant games and entertainment.

How do I handle this situation/help my son? I want him to be happy, and I spend a lot of time trying to teach him while he is programming or making music, but if he just quits whenever the going gets a little rough then he'll never have the satisfaction he wants. The fact is, no matter how much I try to gamify hobbies like gamedev, it will never compete with the adrenaline rush and flashing colors of a real video game. As long as his hobbies are split between addictive fun stuff, and not-quite-as-fun yet productive pursuits, I don't see how he can choose the better option over the funner option.

It's like he wants to eat his broccoli because he knows it's good for him, yet he can't resist the cookies and ends up eating a whole jar. Yet then he comes back and expresses guilt and pain for having eaten the whole jar and wants me to pull out more broccoli and feed it to him. But after a few bites, he puts the broccoli down (because it's gross) and goes hunting again for more cookies. The cycle repeats more-or-less ad infinitum.

What can I do to help a kid like this? I've tried a number of options, like positive reinforcement, rewards, encouragement, and even punishment, but nothing seems to work (at least not reliably). I'm sure this has to be a fairly normal problem, but I don't know how to find out what other people do in situations like this.

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    Is he in some form of therapy/medical follow-up for his ADHD? – AsheraH Mar 31 at 18:06
  • Does the same thing happen if he's learning the hobby in a different environment and from someone who isn't a parent? I know as a kid I was much less likely to follow through on something my parent was teaching me vs from a teacher with other students. I also volunteer teaching programming to kids, and had to learn a lot about fun/effective/motivational/etc. teaching; just conveying the lesson info isn't effective. Also, in a group learning environment haring off to play/watch youtube isn't an option--there's some social pressure to continue through at least the end of class. – Michiyo Mar 31 at 21:47
  • @AsheraH he has had several years of counseling with no success. – kewardicle Apr 1 at 6:08
  • @Michiyo there are no such opportunities in our community and the current socioeconomic environment has exacerbated this. I have had no luck in finding any solid opportunities online that would fill this niche for him either. – kewardicle Apr 1 at 6:10
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    The key word here is addiction. I’m struggling with the same behaviors with my ADHD teen except mine has NO remorse, and no identifiable alternative interests besides sleeping. Mine too is seemingly “immune” to therapy. In my opinion, entrainment addiction (as you call it) is as bad as any other (drugs, alcohol, gambling, etc), and must be dealt with first. Not an answer bc we haven’t come out of this successfully yet, so I’m in no position to offer advice. – Jax Apr 1 at 19:56

I have experienced something similar to your son (although a lot milder I suspect), however I am a professional software engineer and in my very limited free time I make games.

Something I've always struggled with is having a fixed intelligence mentality. I was intelligent enough to breeze through most of secondary school, and was expected to get top marks in my A-Levels. However, the step up in difficulty was not something I was prepared for and I did not have the work ethic to plough through actually challenging material. I thus graduated with upper-average marks, disappointing myself as I thought I had reached the limit of what I was capable of. This is particularly difficult when programming can be an exercise in constantly failing until you get it right, before moving on to the next thing to keep failing at.

However! One of the key skills on software development is breaking big problems down into small ones. "Make a Game" is a huge, nebulous problem. However if you break it down into all its constituent parts, you'll go through "make a player character", "make the character move" to "when I press key X, then Y will happen". You will want to build a list of these small task (there are a number of project management apps you can use to track them), although not all at once. You can leave some as nebulous epics until you get there.

This will give your son many small, discrete wins, which should help him visualise his progress as he makes his game, and will force him to think about how he wants to solve the problem before he starts bashing away at the keyboard. From experience, it is much easier to spend twenty minutes thinking about a solution than to spend two hours writing and rewriting and getting frustrated.

  • Wow, this is a great experience you've shared. Thank you so much. I think this really hits the topic on the head in terms of turning this into a balancing act with the right tools and mindset. Basically the concept of a growth mindset first needs to be instilled and reiterated to him continually and secondly, the things he wants to do need to be divided up into smaller "quests" to achieve successes that will encourage and provide appropriate, but perhaps lesser, dopamine responses vs the addictions he fights. – kewardicle Apr 5 at 14:24
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    I have found a rather miraculous tool that is having tremendous success so far: a game called Human Resource Machine. He has become addicted and it seems to be the right blend of short bursts of reward and puzzle that really makes you think. It really seems to be modeled after an Assembly language variant and I think he's really learning truly applicable skills that can translate into real world scenarios. – kewardicle Apr 8 at 18:03

You describe a very problematic situation, not only because it is frustrating for your son and yourself, but because he is at risk of learning that wholesome success is unattainable for him (despite him desiring it).

Game-development seems highly unsuitable as goal here; in fact, it may be one of the worst potential goals I can think of. Any kind of software development comes with a huge amount of frustration. When stamping out bugs, it can easily feel as if your progress goes backwards. It takes a long time (probably months) to finish a project, and you don't really get intrisically enjoyable milestones. Finally, even once you succeed in creating a game, most people (maybe including your son) will only be able to compare to professionally-made games and struggle to appreciate it.

I know almost nothing about composition, but my intution would be that it is not much better.

What you want for now is something where a genuine success can be attained in at most a few hours. Cooking might be a good choice - most people are at least interested in food, and with the help of a good recipe (and maybe some assistance) even a novice can create something tasty rather quickly. It is a skill everyone should acquire anyway, and learning that he can indeed achieve something will help your son in tackling larger-scale challenges later.

If it has to be similar to game development (or at a later stage), creating mods for existing games could be something doable on a smaller, more managable scale. There are often nice things one can get done in a week, with a few hours a day invested.

Finally, try to convince your son of the merits of "taking a break for now and coming back to it later" over "giving up". The process of pushing past an obstacle feels uncomfortable, and not always bearable right now. If you allow yourself to stop trying now (and maybe relax a bit with a soothing videogame, or more wholesomely take a walk), without declaring the attempt a failure, it becomes much less demanding on your resilience. Later you may be in a better mood or even have the right idea your subconciousness came up with in the mean time.

  • This is an insurmountable issue in that he has family members that are software developers who have somehow overcome their own similar (identical in one case) problems THROUGH game & software dev. Somehow (we don't know how to reproduce this) they USED these very things that you refer to as unattainable to springboard them through the process. This of course causes the problem where he sees them & their nearly identical issues being addressed by this. He has endured abuse by a "chef" & so this has extremely negative associations. Mods may be a good entry point, thanks for that suggestion. Hmm. – kewardicle Apr 3 at 19:25

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