Q: My nephew and niece’s mother died on December 6, due to a tragic accident. She was shot by her 13-year-old son. How can I tell if they are dealing with this tragedy in a healthy way? He continues to play violent video games with graphic shooting and killing people. Is this normal behavior?
A: Dear Aunt Jan,
Dear Aunt Jan,
First, let me extend my deepest sympathies for your tragic loss. Any death in the family can be extremely difficult to deal with, and a situation such as this carries especially heavy challenges. For your nephew, the feelings that accompany this tragedy are likely to be even more complex and upsetting. I strongly recommend that both he and your niece start therapy, if they haven’t already. They will need it simply to manage their emotional responses to losing their mother, not to mention processing through the circumstances surrounding that loss.
Your question about whether it’s normal for your nephew to be playing violent video games at this point is a good one. He may be trying to regain some semblance of control over the world by using virtual guns in a controlled, virtual environment. Shooting and killing video game characters may be his way of trying to make sense of the real-life, accidental situation.
Video games, which present environments and conditions to which the player must respond in certain ways to do well, function as “behavioral scripts” which the player practices over and over. Interactive electronic media which immerse participants in a “virtual reality” are among the most effective teaching technologies we have. What children do, they will learn. Content matters. Therefore, as a pediatrician, I steer parents and kids toward video games that are sports-, logic-, or strategy-based, instead of those that center on violence The challenge with the games is what they are teaching. I recommend to parents that when they buy a game, they carefully choose it for the content their child will learn from it and then spend time with their child discussing that content.
In your case, playing violent video games may not be the healthiest way for him to process through this, especially without the guidance of an experienced therapist to help him sort through both his virtual and real experiences. A therapist, in addition to helping your nephew work through his emotions, might be able to figure out his motivation for playing these violent video games and work to find healthier ways of achieving the same goals.
My deepest sympathies,