Obsessions: do they fill, or fulfill

Andrew Wake Newsletter, Parenting

“My child does nothing all day except…”

Obsessions are a common concern among parents.  How do you discern whether it is a healthy or unhealthy obsession for your child?

In a previous post I looked at the difference between whether the obsessions is a “want” or a “need”.  Eg: wanting to exercise, brilliant.  Needing to exercise, problem.

But there is another way to look at their intense interests:  whether the activity the child is doing involves consuming or contributing.

Consuming is vital.  The wish to consume is often biologically driven, particularly where there is also a dopamine reward / pleasure hit associated with it.  Consuming can also be a brilliant avoidant strategy, distracting us from unpleasant thoughts feelings and realities.  Pleasure and distraction of consuming fills us, but it doesn’t fulfill us.

Contributing is different.  As a motivator for behaviour, it is much less powerful than consuming.  However, when it comes to nurturing good relationships with yourself, others, and your world, contributing is unbeatable.  It also is a great way of feeling good about yourself, as contributing is one of the three main ways of creating meaning and purpose.  Consuming is pleasurable, but contributing is meaningful.

Eating a chocolate cake may be pleasurable and may fill.  But making a chocolate cake and sharing it with others may fulfill.

Playing a computer game for hours may give hits of pleasure and may fill the day.  But joining a team and contributing to the team’s success may fulfill.

Binge watching an enjoyable TV series may fill.  But it may not contribute to your own development or relationships with others.  Finding a show you and your child like and watching it together as a routine may be fulfilling as it contributes to the shared story you are co-creating.

Sexual activity where the focus is on your own pleasure may fill you with dopamine hits.  But the experience of playfully contributing to the pleasure of another will likely fulfill.

So, when it comes to thinking about your child’s balance of activities, clarify if your concern is that they are consuming too much, or that they are contributing too little.  Once you have worked that out, you can then talk with them about the activity, trying to understand why it is so important to them, what pleasure it gives, what meaning it provides, what need it meets, or what pain it helps them avoid.  And then you can wonder with them about whether they have their balance right.

Your child has 3 roles that need their contribution:

  • Contribute to themselves: to look after their own body, mind, and possessions and room.
  • Contribute to their family: To be a part of the family, and contribute to the family and their role in it.
  • Contribute to their job, which for most children is their student role. As they grow and mature, they like you will take on more jobs like work, parenting, volunteering, trying to make their world a better place.  Quoting Christopher Hitchens, “Until you have done something for humanity, you should be ashamed to die”.  You can model these 3 roles for your child.

Consuming is great, but if it gets in the way of their contributing to their 3 core roles, you’re going to have to have a conversation about it with them.  And if the balance is out, something likely has to give.  And it won’t be one of their 3 core roles.

So whether it is excessive time in their room, excessive social media, excessive computer games, excessive exercise or sport, excessive music, excessive contact with friends, excessive food, excessive pornography, excessive reading, excessive substance use or gambling, you may find bringing up the topic in a discussion around the balance of consuming and contributing in the 3 main roles of their lives helpful.

“Hey honey, you know that thing that you spend so much time doing? I’m wondering if you have the balance right.  Is now a good time to talk about it?”