Learning Disabilities and ADHD Articles

Playing Games with ADHD

Written by:
Jay Johnson, Registered Provisional Psychologist
March 11, 2020

Typically, ADHD shows up different in boys and girls - no surprise there - and, typically, is more associated with boys. Why? Research shows that boys are more likely than girls to display hyperactivity or impulsivity as symptoms of ADHD. These distracting physical outbursts get the attention of adults more readily, which in turn means ADHD is often recognized and diagnosed sooner in boys than in girls. As a result, in children between the ages of 4 and 17, boys are twice as likely to receive an ADHD diagnosis.

Thanks to recent and ongoing research, understanding and awareness of ADHD have increased in parents and teachers alike. We know that ADHD is less a behaviour problem and more a brain-management problem. While not considered part of the official diagnostic criteria of ADHD, problems with emotional regulation are often more frequent and apparent for boys diagnosed with ADHD. Their lower tolerance to emotional distress, combined with the tendency to be impulsive and disruptive, can certainly make for a difficult and exhausting school day. Understandably, they might feel like a ‘brain-break’ is needed. For a variety of reasons, gaming has arguably become the most popular after-school activity for students.

Gaming as a Means to ‘Re-charge’

For many parents, a common question/concern arises: “After a day struggling with the expectation to sit still, remain quiet, pay close attention, and delay gratification - how is our son able to sit calmly, quietly, and hyper-focus while playing his favourite video game? He would do this for hours if we let him.”

By the end of a long day trying his hardest to focus, regulate emotions, and sit still, his pool of cognitive energy is depleted and nearing empty. Gaming creates an environment where his ability to focus isn’t particularly challenged. It might seem like he’s able to focus for a long period of time, but in reality, he’s completing hundreds or thousands of tiny tasks one after another. Stimuli are constantly changing and decisions are being made at a split-second rate.

Now, don’t get me wrong. This doesn’t necessarily mean that gaming is always a damaging or detrimental activity. To date, there is no evidence to show that gaming or gaming addiction contributes to or causes ADHD. However, research does reflect a link between excessive gaming and depression as well as social isolation. Additionally, studies suggest young people with ADHD may be more prone than the rest of the population to showing addictive gaming behaviour. Gaming is not without its risk factors. And, we know it doesn’t provide the best opportunity for children and teens to recuperate their pool of cognitive energy/resources at the end of the day.

Alternatives to the Couch

So should parents roll out a new schedule to limit gaming? This is a valid option. We do know that scheduling and structure set all children up for success, especially children with ADHD. When children know the expectations, know what is coming, and are not worried about surprises, there is a better chance they can follow through effectively. However, being the “bad cop” by cracking down on gaming may create unwanted tension and turn you into the enemy.

So what else can you do? Research shows that participating in individual competitive and/or creative activities provides excellent practice for focusing on one task over a longer period of time. Some examples include:

  • Individual sports (Tennis, Track and Field, Golf, etc.)
  • Martial arts
  • Music
  • Drawing
  • Photography/Videography

These individual activities are ideal to support development and strengthening of skills that are often lacking with ADHD. Keep in mind that regardless of an ADHD diagnosis, people are more likely to pay attention to a task they are highly interested in. For this reason, it is essential a child’s preferred task is chosen or something your child is interested in and motivated to continue pursuing. That way, the reinforcement is built-in to practice tasks that will build skills helpful in managing their symptoms.


We understand that boys are more likely to show obvious symptoms of ADHD, yet conversely, they can sit quietly and hyperfocus while gaming. While this may make for a nice break from the noise and activity for you, gaming doesn’t actually provide rest for your child’s brain or support recuperation of the cognitive resources used up during the school day. Incorporating a gaming schedule may be helpful. However, research shows that getting your children involved in individual activities that they are motivated to participate in is the best way to provide them with a fun way to practice focusing on one task at a time. And who knows, they could be a black belt or a world-renowned artist in no time!

ADHD research is ever-expanding, and there are ongoing resources and programs available to parents in person and online. For additional articles, support, and education opportunities, the following resources can serve as a great starting point:

Additional insight into the interaction between ADHD and gaming can be found in the following articles as well: