“My child can focus on things when he wants to. In fact, when he’s really interested in something, he focuses better than other kids – he’s hyperfocused. He’s the opposite of distracted! I just wish he’d choose to hyperfocus on the important things, like homework.”
If you are the parent of a child with ADHD, this may sound strikingly familiar. Many of the parents I have worked with describe their child as someone who can hyperfocus on a few high-interest activities, but seem to be unable to focus on less enjoyable tasks, like homework. While the targets of hyperfocused attention vary from child to child (e.g., Legos, video games, books, etc.), across the board parents are bewildered by their child’s ability to focus so well on some things and not at all on others. Parents often say that they feel frustrated by their child’s seemingly willful choice to focus well only when he or she is engaged in an activity that he or she enjoys.
For frustrated, perplexed parents, it’s often helpful to start by shifting the way we talk about and conceptualize the ability to focus within the context of ADHD. We often talk about a child, teen, or adult with ADHD as completely lacking the ability to pay attention. In reality, most people with ADHD can focus very well at times, and many can in fact hyperfocus on some activities – directing 100% of their attention toward the task at hand and blocking out everything else in the room. The core difficulty in ADHD may not be the inability to pay attention, but instead be difficulty in regulating attention. The struggle lies in turning on focused attention at the necessary and appropriate times, adjusting the focus intensity to match the demands of the activity, and “turning off” focused attention when it’s time to shift to another task or activity. In fact, some would argue that across the board ADHD should be conceptualized primarily as a disorder of regulation, including difficulties with regulating emotion, activity level, and behavior, as well as attention.
When we think about ADHD as a disorder that causes problems with regulating attention, it becomes easier to understand why kids with ADHD experience so much variability in their level of attention from one day to the next, and why they hyperfocus on some activities and focus so little on others. There are many factors that influence our ability to regulate attention, including fatigue, hunger, how interesting an activity is to us, the length and complexity of a task, the immediate payoff we get for completing an activity, etc. As parents, there are things you can do to help your child regulate his or her attention and even make the most of his or her ability to hyperfocus.
Helping your child use strategies to regulate their attention, and make the most of his or her hyperfocus abilities, will go a long way in improving the ability to focus during those activities that he or she doesn’t typically enjoy.
Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.
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