- Focusing problems in children and teens trigger anxiety, depression, and anger and can deplete their self-esteem.
- Parents and teachers who lead with empathy will be better able to connect with emotionally distressed children with focusing issues.
- Strategies that help improve executive functioning in children and teens help them overcome struggles with self-esteem.
Executive functioning is a set of mental skills that include focusing, as well as working memory, flexible thinking, and self-control. We use these skills every day to learn, work, and manage daily life. Trouble with executive function can make it hard to focus, follow directions, and handle emotions, among other things. Not surprisingly, children with focusing issues have big-time struggles with anxiety, depression, anger—and self-esteem.
As I explain in my latest book, The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, while most children hope to succeed in classes at school and when relating with peers, the academic and social realms are not easy for kids with focusing problems. In fact, school and friends become fronts for losing battles for many distracted children.
A New School Year Means a New Opportunity
As this new school year begins, it is important to realize that as frustrating as life is for distractible children, it can be even more challenging for their parents and teachers. What complicates matters is that parents get toxic thoughts [e.g., "She is just lazy" (toxic thought) versus "She is truly spinning her wheels, stuck and struggling." (Empathetic and more realistic thought)]. Sadly, parents at their wit's end with what I call "parent frustration syndrome" react harshly to their distracted children.
Clearly, children and teens on the receiving end of their parent's frustrations (think about those emails and phone calls from the school and those missing assignments showing up on the school grades portal) usually become even more distractible. Talk about a destructive cycle of distractibility. To help these children, it is crucial that parents learn to understand and manage their own frustrations as well as those of their distracted child. Distractibility problems in kids can have more than one cause and the most common reasons are listed below.
What Causes Distractibility in Children?
Distractibility in children can be the result of one or any combination of several sources, including:
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and learning disabilities
- Major life changes (e.g., divorce, relocation)
- High levels of day-to-day stress
- Learning disabilities
Despite the cause of the distractibility, the end result is that distracted children end up with crushed self-esteem.
Bolstering Self-Esteem in Kids With Focusing Problems
Parents and teachers have a right to feel frustrated when managing distracted children. At the same time, telling a distracted child that if they cannot pay attention they may fail or be expelled from school, however, almost never helps the child improve. Worse, this is more likely 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 has been challenged with distractibility.
How can we further bolster a distracted child's ability to cope inside and outside the home with frustration and the feelings of anger, despair, or self-doubt that often accompany their focusing problems? Some further strategies are below.
1. Convey empathy.
Remember that the distraction-prone child is struggling with feelings of inadequacy. It is of utmost importance that parents are empathetic with their frustrated children. These kids need extra doses of understanding and encouragement to stay motivated. You may say something like, "I realize you're frustrated about getting this done. How can we make some progress? Sometimes just hearing this will help distracted kids.
2. Be calm, firm, and non-controlling.
Avoid yelling. Yelling is really just an adult temper tantrum that only clouds your child's mind, making him more distractible. Keeping your cool, stating clear expectations, and trying not to command these children is the formula for success.
3. Get to the bottom of the problem.
Remember that your child is not being bad when he or she is frustrated. The true reason for the angst and possible tears is that she is struggling with a task that is beyond her resources at the moment. Stay tuned into the frustration and remember what it is that makes your child find homework hard to do.
This is more productive and healthier than just 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 the sentence or because he wants to call a friend. Try to discern how much your child learned the material in school and what is it about this problem that's too hard. Once you identify that there's a problem area or skill deficit, you can work on that or involve the teacher to help re-teach the material.
4. 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 daughter fidget, stare into space, or seem reluctant to begin the work in the first place? Pay attention to those moments before you just mutter, "Oh no, here we go again..."
5. Break down big problems into smaller ones.
This strategy is usually overlooked and underused. Distracted kids will feel more motivated by small successes versus big failures. Your child might need a break, or some help turning a big project into a series of small jobs. Kids may need an adult to supply the structure. Parents who see themselves as distractibility management coaches really help the situation. For example, saying "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 and 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.
6. Use checklists.
Help your child get into the habit of keeping a to-do list. It's very reinforcing to be able to cross tasks off a list.
7. Draw on past successes.
If your son is frustrated at not being able to get a hit on the baseball field, remind your child of the time he learned to do a new trick on the skateboard and ask, "What worked for you then? You're reminding him of a time when he did do well and encouraging him to use the same strategies in this new situation."
8. Focus on the present.
Rewards down the road don't work so well for easily frustrated kids. Something more immediate needs to happen. A colorful new sticker when she completes a math problem might encourage your young daughter to go on to the next. 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.
10. Keep proactive and open communication with your child's teachers.
Distracted children tend to shut down quickly when they encounter obstacles. The great news, however, is that you can help your child resist sinking and keep on swimming if you stay active and involved.
11. Remember to be a helper but not an enabler.
Doing too much to help your child to finish a difficult assignment may feel good to her, but it's not good for her. Remember that distracted children are often surrounded with negativity and begin to expect failure. Amidst their considerable challenges, it is easy for distracted children to feel that they are often in trouble and inferior to their peers. Let your child know that in addition to loving him that you believe in him.
As much as you may hope your distracted child will outgrow their 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. Just keep in mind that the distractible children with the best chance of becoming well-adjusted adults are those who have loving, supportive parents who work together with school staff, mental health workers, and their health care provider (when needed).
Bernstein, J. (2020). The Anxiety, Depression, & Anger Toolbox for Teens, PESI Publishing, Eau Claire, WI
Bernstein, J. (2018). The Letting Go Of Anger Card Deck, PESI Publishing, Eau Claire, WI
Bernstein, J. (2015). 10 Days to a Less Defiant Child (2nd Ed.) Perseus Books, New York, NY.
Bernstein, J. (2009). 10 Days to a Less Distracted Child (2nd Ed.) Perseus Books, New York, NY.
Bernstein J. (2009) Liking the Child You Love, Perseus Books, New York, NY.
Bernstein, J. (2019). The Stress Survival Guide for Teens. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.
Bernstein, J. (2017). Letting go of Anger—Card deck for teens. Eau Claire, WI: PESI Publishing.
Bernstein, J. (2003) Why Can't You Read My Mind? Perseus Books, New York, NY.
Bernstein, J. (2017). Mindfulness for Teen Worry: Oakland, CA: New Harbinger