It was my son’s seventh birthday and we invited 22 kids to join us in the park to kick the ball, climb trees and share food. Everybody had fun - laughter, a few grazed knees, cake - and we thought it was a success.
When we got home and my son opened the mountain of gifts he had been given by his generous friends something interesting happened. After lots of oohing and aahing from all of us about how great the presents were, he proceeded to sit on the sofa, turn on the television and watch his favourite show. Thirty minutes later he got up and told me he was bored.
I know he was worn out from running around playing football. Birthdays are always huge days, especially when you are seven. But what struck me was the indifference he expressed about having all of these amazing toys, games and activities in front of him.
It raises the question for me about whether this abundant and entitled childhood many of us have constructed for our kids is actually detrimental to their emotional wellbeing.
The age of abundance and entitlement
It was not that long ago that the haves and have nots in this world were widely divided. Nowadays that division has closed in and many of us are working hard enough to raise kids that enjoy a very comfortable existence.
I know in my community most of the kids have social engagements, week in week out. Copious numbers of birthday parties to attend, playdate after playdate with friends, concerts, overseas holidays and lots of “stuff” given to them. Add screen time into their time off and you have kids who are constantly after a hit of the good stuff — fun time with no tolerance for boredom or being left with their own thoughts, not even for five minutes.
I don’t want to be the fun police but ...
You may ask, why should our kids having a wonderful, bountiful, experience-rich childhood be a problem?
We could get into a conversation about the lack of gratitude some kids have (my kids anyway!) and the sense of entitlement they have (my kids again!), but the concern it raises for me is the constant dopamine hit these kids are getting from a young age and all the way through to adulthood that can potentially lead to mental health problems.
Engaging the brain’s reward centre constantly reduces its ability to make dopamine. Over time kids end up with low dopamine levels and low dopamine can create all sorts of problems.
The role of dopamine
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that transmits signals between nerve cells of the brain. It’s responsible for the pleasure and reward feeling we experience. When it’s low we tend to seek out rewarding behaviours regardless of whether it is a healthy one. Think food, drug, exercise, gambling and screen addiction.
Some people are genetically predisposed to having low dopamine. They will carry gene mutations for the dopamine receptor D2 (DRD2) protein or for the catechol-O-methytransferase (COMT) enzyme which is responsible for breaking down dopamine. This means they are prone to breaking down the dopamine they produce really quickly and end up with low levels of the neurotransmitter.
Over time low dopamine levels overtake your ability to make healthy choices and the drive to seek out pleasurable experiences becomes the priority. We end up with kids who are constantly searching for the next high. They tend to seek out carbs to eat, screens to watch and more stuff to have.
Sound familiar parents?
The end result is bored kids and high risk behaviour in a world of stimulation overload.
When dopamine is consistently low
Individuals with low dopamine look like this:
Physically and mentally fatigued
Finding it hard to get going in the morning
Prone to infections
How to raise dopamine levels
We all want our kids to be happy, healthy, resilient people. Here are a few things we can be doing to help them produce healthy amounts of dopamine.
Eat a protein rich diet
Tyrosine is an amino acid derived from protein that is the precursor for making dopamine. It is important to make sure kids are eating a variety of good quality protein sources including fish, poultry, red meat, eggs and dairy (if tolerated) to ensure they are getting this key cofactor for dopamine production.
Reduce high glycemic index foods intake
The glycemic index is a measure of how fast blood glucose levels spike after eating a food. Foods like biscuits, pasta, rice, bread and baked goods are high GI and when we eat those foods we light up the brain’s reward centre, release dopamine and feel good for a short time. This is how food addiction arises. By encouraging kids to eat less high GI foods and focus on eating more low GI nutrient dense foods such as whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes they avoid craving sugary high GI food and preserve dopamine levels.
Eat foods rich in zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6.
Zinc, magnesium and vitamin B6 are also co-factors in the production of dopamine. Deficiencies in these key nutrients are common. By focusing on eating more zinc, magnesium and B6 rich foods you are providing the body with the building blocks for dopamine production and synthesis. Foods rich in zinc include red meat, shellfish, legumes, seeds and nuts.
For magnesium rich foods focus on eating more cocoa, nuts, seeds, seaweed and oats. And to boost your vitamin B6 levels foods to eat more of include fish, poultry, eggs, dairy, carrots, spinach, sweet potato, peas, avocados and bananas to name a few.
Get kids playing sports
Exercising and engaging in competitive sports has been found to increase dopamine and serotonin levels.
Back to the age of abundance and entitlement. Do we just lock away all screens, say no to too many “experiences” and stop buying them toys? I don’t have an answer for that. That is a very individual parenting decision we each decide on.
But I do wonder about one aspect of this.
if we don’t identify and address dopamine deficiency issues in our kids now, where they will get that dopamine engaging high when they grow up?
(Photo by Jessica Lewis from Pexels)