smart approaches

'Anti-Dopamine Parenting' Focuses On Reducing Or Redirecting Kids' Cravings

Experts say the strategies can work on everything from junk food to screens.

A little girls looks at a tablet instead of playing outside with her dog. Anti-dopamine parenting is...
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A few months ago, I noticed that my tween daughters only got really angry with me in two situations: when I cut off their screen time and when I limited food such as processed snacks and sweets. It was a mystery until I heard an episode of All Things Considered on NPR about “anti-dopamine parenting” that made everything make perfect sense, in a scientific way. It also gave me some amazing strategies for stopping the fights and, ultimately, making my kids less attached to less-healthy “quick fixes” of pleasure.

In the radio news program, which aired last week, journalist Michaeleen Doucleff spoke with Anne-Noel Samaha, a neuroscientist at the University of Montreal, about how dopamine really works and how parents can use their knowledge about dopamine to help their kids thrive.

Samaha said that parents might not exactly know how dopamine works in the brain and body — and that it isn’t just a feel-good entity that everyone craves.

“[Dopamine] evolved in our brain to draw us to things that are essential to our survival — you know, water, safety, sex, food,” she explained. “In popular media, there's this idea that dopamine equates pleasure. There's actually little convincing data in science that that's what dopamine does. And there's, in fact, a lot of data to refute the idea that dopamine is mediating pleasure.”

Then what does dopamine really do?

“Dopamine makes you want things,” she continued.

In other words, whatever is triggering dopamine in your brain makes your brain pay more attention to that thing — even if it is no longer bringing you pleasure. That explains why you scroll on your phone even though you aren’t even enjoying it in the moment, or why you might eat chips even after you’re full.

“Whatever dopamine makes you want, you might not actually like it, especially over time,” Doucleff said. “In fact, studies show that people can end up not liking, even hating, the activity they're doing.”

That means that when your kids are tied to their screen, even they don’t want to be there a lot of the time. And when you abruptly take it away, they will fight as if they are fighting for their very survival.

“It's not you versus your child,” Samaha concludes. “It is you versus a hijacked neural pathway. It is the dopamine you're fighting, and it's not a fair fight.”

In a recent New York Times article, Dr. Dimitri Christakis, M.D., M.P.H., director of the Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development at Seattle Children’s Research Institute, explains that as soon as you tell your kids to put away the video games or the bag of chips, their dopamine levels drop, and it doesn’t feel good at all. And it isn’t an accident: games and junk food are both specifically engineered that way so that we consume more.

“The withdrawal of it is experienced as painful,” Christakis said. “You experience transient withdrawal like you’re coming down from a high.”

Anti-dopamine parenting, then, is parenting that recognizes that dopamine creates these needs in kids that aren’t based in reality. After all, they don’t need to watch YouTube kids for 3 hours straight or to eat a half jar of Nutella, but their brains are telling them a different story.

According to Psychology Today, an easy way to think about dopamine is as a reward-seeking loop. If your brain realizes that it has a good source of dopamine, it will seek it out over and over again, sometimes resulting in both larger appetites and shrinking rewards. The trick is to train your brain (and your kids’ brains) to seek dopamine from healthier sources and create loops that lead to healthy dopamine levels — things like riding bikes, creating art, eating a slice of watermelon, or sledding down a hill.

And it’s important to remember that healthy dopamine levels and loops make for overall healthier and happier kids. According to Harvard Health, dopamine affects kids’ learning, attention, mood, focus, movement, organ function, and sleep. It can even affect how the body feels pain.

Anti-dopamine parenting hacks

NPR also spoke to educator and screen consultant Emily Cherkin and Stanford psychiatrist Anna Lembke about what parents can do with this new knowledge about how dopamine functions in their children’s lives — and offered several parenting strategies and hacks that are easy to implement.

The first thing that Cherkin suggests is delaying the introduction of things that are engineered to trigger dopamine, like screens, phones, and video games.

“I talk to hundreds of parents, and they — not one has ever said to me, I wish I gave my kid a phone earlier, or I wish I'd given them social media access at a younger age,” she said. “Never.”

Lembke stressed talking to your older kids about what activities are healthy sources of dopamine and which aren’t.

“The activities that we feel good doing it and then afterwards we feel even better, that's really the key,” she said. “That means that we're getting a healthy source of dopamine.”

Activities like exercise, meditation, sleep, listening to music, and getting out into nature are all great sources of healthy dopamine. So is connecting with others. A lot of healthy foods can give you a dopamine boost too, like protein, colorful fruits and vegetables, and dark chocolate.

Activities that release dopamine but can leave you feeling worse afterward can include social media scrolling, eating certain processed foods, gambling, shopping, and, of course, drugs.

Next, Lembke said to “limit quantity and frequency of use” of the less healthy dopamine hits.

You can do that by creating “microenvironments” — times and places where the offending activities are just not available. They are out of sight and therefore out of mind.

“Places in the home and times during the day where the child cannot see or access the device or food,” she said. “For example, my family stopped bringing screens in the car. We removed them from all but one room in the house, and we started camping once a month — no screens.”

Finally she suggests “habit makeovers,” which simply means replacing your worst habits with slightly better ones, even if they’re not super great. A few examples? Swap a mindless video game with something that has strategy and/or a storyline. Pick a social media platform that encourages creativity, too. Or download an app that helps your teen learn a new language or skill. If your kid is craving sweets, allow it if he helps you bake some.

One more suggestion?

Rebecca Rialon Berry, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor in the department of child and adolescent psychiatry at N.Y.U. Langone Health, told The New York Times that it can be helpful to have a “buffer activity” between an activity like screens and an obligation like brushing teeth, going to dinner, doing a chore, or getting ready for bed. Even if it’s for five, 10 or 15 minutes, let them read a book, play, have a snack, or other transitional activities.

“Anti-dopamine parenting” is more complicated than just taking away your kids’ greatest pleasures or banning all screens and junk food. It’s about understanding the evolutionary reasons that your kid might snap at you when you tell them “five more minutes” — and give you some tools to limit or re-route problematic activities. And really, it can help you understand your own habits as well.