“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 they are engaged in an activity that they enjoy.
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 their attention and even make the most of their ability to hyperfocus.
- First, make sure your child’s basic needs around sleep, nutrition, and exercise are adequately met. If your child is hungry, sleep deprived, has a great deal of pent up energy, or is feeling lethargic from sitting around too much, then address these issues first. You’ll be laying a solid foundation for better regulation of attention – as well as emotion, behavior, and activity level.
- Second, be on the lookout for factors that tend to push your child into their hyperfocused mode. There will of course be certain high interest activities that pull their attention into a hyperfocused state, but there may be other factors as well, like having to complete an assignment just before a deadline, being asked to “beat the clock” by completing a certain number of problems or worksheets before a timer goes off, being challenged to do something better than they’ve ever done it before, or having to finish an assignment or task to earn a reward or privilege. Hyperfocus triggers will be specific to your child, but once they’ve been identified, you can use them to help your child focus when it’s necessary.
- Lastly, always have your child complete their hyperfocused activities last. Once your child goes into hyperfocus mode, it may be hard for them to stop what they’re doing and shift to another activity. On top of this, it takes more mental energy for your child to regulate their attention during less engaging activities than it does when they are hyperfocused. So, have your child do their less interesting activities first, before they are mentally fatigued.
Helping your child use strategies to regulate their attention, and make the most of their hyperfocus abilities, will go a long way in improving their ability to focus during those activities that they don’t typically enjoy.