Children who have trouble focusing share a major problem with their parents— a high level of frustration. And distraction doesn’t just hinder home life.
Most children hope to succeed in school classes and with their peers. However, the academic and social realms are not easily navigated by children with focusing issues. In fact, many distracted children experience great hardships at school and in relationships.
As frustrating as life is for distractible children, it can be even more challenging for their parents and teachers. Complicating matters, when adults react harshly to a distracted child that child usually becomes even more distractible. To help these children, parents must learn to understand and manage their own frustrations, as well as those of their distracted children.
The Causes of Distractibility
Distractibility in children can be the result of one or any combination of several factors, including:
- attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
- major life changes, such as a divorce or a move.
- high levels of daily stress.
- learning disabilities.
Ways to Bolster Confidence in Distracted Kids
Despite the cause of the distractibility, children with focusing issues often end up with a crushed sense of self-esteem.
Parents and teachers have a right to feel frustrated when managing distracted children. But, when an adult tells a distracted child that if he or she cannot pay attention, then the child may fail or be expelled from school, the child almost never improves. Worse, this is apt to create feelings of inadequacy and shame. A strategy more likely to succeed would be to explain that you are proud of how hard your child has worked to achieve success, even though he or she has had a difficult time focusing.
How can we allow a distracted child to cope with frustration, anger, despair and self-doubt inside and outside the home? Some strategies follow.
- Be understanding. Remember that the distraction-prone child struggles with feelings of inadequacy. It is of utmost importance that parents are empathetic with their frustrated children. These kids need extra doses of compassion and encouragement to stay motivated. You may say something like, “I realize you’re frustrated about getting this project done. How can we make some progress?” Sometimes just hearing supportive words helps distracted kids to concentrate on tasks.
- Be calm, firm and non-controlling. Avoid yelling. Yelling is really just an adult temper tantrum that clouds your child’s mind, making him more distractible. Keeping your cool, stating clear expectations and trying not to command distractible children is the formula for success.
- Get to the bottom of the problem. Be mindful that your child is not being bad when he or she is frustrated. The true reason for the angst and possible tears is that he or she is struggling with a task that is beyond personal resources at the moment. Stay tuned into the frustration and remember what it is that makes the particular task difficult for your child. This is much more productive and healthy than merely viewing your child as “lazy.”
- Keep asking questions to determine, for example, whether your son is frustrated because he doesn’t understand the parts of a sentence or because he wants to call a friend. Discern how much your child learned the material in school and what it is about the task that’s too hard. Once you identify a problem area or skill deficit, you can work on it and possibly involve the teacher to help re-teach the material.
- Don’t wait for the drama and tears. Focus on the first signs of a meltdown and intervene early in the sequence of events. Does your child fidget, stare into space or seem reluctant to begin homework in the first place? Pay attention to such moments, rather than muttering “Oh no, here we go again…”
- Break down big problems into smaller ones. This strategy is usually overlooked and under-used. Distracted children feel motivated by small successes. Your child might need a break, or assistance in turning a big project into a series of small jobs. Kids may need an adult to supply structure. Parents who see themselves as distractibility management coaches can provide this structure. For instance, say: “Yes, this problem is a tough one, but let’s see what we can do. Let’s do one question together, then you try the second. I’ll be right here at the counter paying some bills if you need me.” Modeling calm attention to a task often has a calming impact on kids.
- Use checklists. Encourage your child to get in the habit of keeping a to-do list. It reinforces a child’s sense of accomplishment when he crosses tasks off a list.
- Draw on past successes. If your son is frustrated at not being able to get a hit on the baseball field, remind him of the time he learned to do a new skateboarding trick and ask, “What worked for you then?” This reminds your child of a time when he did do well and encourages him to use the same strategies in this new situation.
- Focus on the present. Possible rewards down the road generally don’t work well for easily frustrated kids. Something immediate needs to happen. Giving your daughter a colorful new sticker when she completes a math problem might encourage her to go on to the next problem. Avoid making the outcome or incentive too big or long-term. Saying in October, “You can get a new bike this summer if you get your homework done more often,” is a reward that is too distant in the future.
- Maintain positive open communication with your child’s teachers. Distracted children tend to shut down quickly when they encounter obstacles. Yet, the great news is that you can help your child resist sinking and keep on swimming if you stay actively involved in his or her schooling. Find out whether your child’s teachers prefer telephone contact or e-mails, and stay abreast of your child’s progress.
- Be a helper but not an enabler. Doing too much to help your child finish a difficult assignment may feel good to the child, but it’s actually not good for him or her. Distracted children are often surrounded with negativity and begin to expect failure. With their considerable challenges, it is easy for distracted children to feel they are in trouble and inferior to their peers. Let your child know that in addition to loving him, you believe in him.
As much as you may hope your distracted child will outgrow distractibility down the road, it is far from certain. For some children, the symptoms get better as they grow older and learn to adjust. Others, because of their genetics, may demonstrate continued tendencies toward distraction. Keep in mind that the distractible children with the best chance of becoming well-adjusted adults are those who have loving, supportive parents who ally with school staff, mental health workers and healthcare providers, when needed.