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Is Attention Deficit Natural?

5 simple "attention friendly" strategies for teens and their parents.

Key points

  • A lack of attention is natural and predictable.
  • Such lapses in attention aren't indicators of a mental disorder.
  • It's more likely that the problem is anxiety or boredom.

Every other client of mine believes that she has an “attention deficit disorder” and that is what is preventing her from penning her novel or getting her journal article written. Although maybe not officially diagnosed, she is convinced that she has it, and it is because of her disorder that she can’t concentrate, can’t get his work done, and can’t get things completed. Her next question? Shouldn’t she be on medication?

Does she have a disorder? Or is it rather that a combination of low-level anxiety, the speediness of the online world and the speediness of the real world, a racing brain, a million worries and distractions, and an indwelling style that supports a lack of concentration all are conspiring to produce the things called “attention deficits,” leading to the popular label “attention deficit disorder”?

To my mind, it is the latter. And if it is the latter, then chemicals are not the answer.

To label something an “attention deficit disorder” begs the question, why should it be easy to pay attention? You are trying to write a history paper for school. Nothing about it interests you. You try to pay attention, but it is physically painful to write yet another paragraph on the legacy of Spanish priests in California. For one thing, you doubt that any of what you’ve read is truthful. For another, this Spanish priest looks indistinguishable from the last one. For a third, you could be enjoyably killing zombies and moving from level six to level seven of the game you’re playing with zombie-killers worldwide. Who could possibly pay attention?

The experts claim that paying attention should be a snap and that not paying attention is a mental disorder. But doesn’t it feel truer that a lack of attention is to be expected as normal rather than abnormal? That doesn’t make focus any less of a challenge, but it does relocate it back into the territory of the normal. These lapses of attention, maybe caused by ambient anxiety, maybe caused by a racing brain, maybe caused by boredom, maybe caused by an “I can’t concentrate” self-identification, or maybe caused in some other way, are both natural and predictable. That doesn’t make them any less challenging, not if you are trying to get that history paper written—or trying to do anything that requires concentration and intellectual stamina.

Vitaly Art/Shutterstock
Source: Vitaly Art/Shutterstock

For parents

You may have felt for the longest time that your teen wasn’t doing a very good job paying attention. This may have been a problem all through his school years, from kindergarten on, and years ago you may have started down the road of mental disorder labeling and chemical strategies. This may be a long-standing, significant issue for you, your teen, and your whole family.

Maybe this is a moment for you and your teen to revisit the whole “attention” question. If it is, and if he is willing, you might support him in putting into place the five “attention helpful” strategies I’ve listed below. You and your teen might put your heads together and ponder what environmental changes might help and what family dynamic changes might help. You might do a little research and locate an anxiety management podcast, a mindfulness video, or an online relaxation program to pass along. This might be the perfect moment to start fresh in your thinking about what “a lack of attention” might signify—and, in collaboration with your teen, come up with some completely new approaches.

For teens

If you have trouble concentrating, rather than bad-mouthing yourself and rather than labeling yourself as disordered, try the following five gambits.

  1. Learn an anxiety management technique or two. Anxiety is likely the culprit. Learn a breathing technique, a mindfulness technique, a relaxation technique.
  2. Decide not to flee because something is boring or because some shiny object has caught your attention. Say, “I can stay put,” and mean it. Yes, you may be bored. Yes, that shiny object is winking at you. Yes, you may feel anxious. Accept the reality of these distractions and the reality of these pressures and return to your mantra, “I can stay put."
  3. Try not to catastrophize, over-dramatize, or in other ways think thoughts that undermine your native ability to concentrate. If you’re thinking, “This is too hard!” or, “I’ve never been good at this!” or, “I don’t understand this!”—each thought coming with a dramatic exclamation point—you are undermining your ability to concentrate. When you hear yourself thinking one of those thoughts, say “No!” to it.
  4. Be safe. If we don’t feel safe, it is hard to concentrate. If it doesn’t feel safe at home, because that’s the scene of past traumas or because home life is chaotic, work in the school library or your local library. Your environment matters. If it’s noisy, raucous, or unsafe at home, of course you’ll find it hard to concentrate there.
  5. Present yourself with a model of multiple life purposes—the idea that a lot of things are going to feel important to you in life—and get a clear picture of how calmness and an ability to concentrate are going to serve you as you try to live your life purposes. Connect “paying attention” and “having the life you want.” They do connect.

Help yourself pay better attention by employing these strategies. If you don't want to try to fix your problem, honestly accept that you are less interested in paying attention than you claim to be. That would be important news worth thinking about.