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Helping Children and Teens with Distractibility

Avoiding the shaming and blaming trap and really helping your distracted child.

A new school year is beginning and children and teens are armed with fancy new backpacks and seemingly “results guaranteed” notebooks and organizers. Sadly, while many children go into the school year set on being winners, for the many who suffer from distractibility problems, it becomes a losing battle. It is only natural for parents and teachers to find the distractibility of children to be very challenging and often highly frustrating. Complicating matters, when you react harshly to a distracted child, it unfortunately tends to fuel the distractible behavior.

Parents understandably end up getting frustrated helping kids who struggle in this way. While you may just being human to feel frustrated, try not to fall into the mistake of telling/yelling at your child how hard the future’s going to be, as a means of motivating him. This can backfire and fuel feelings of inadequacy and shame.

 We all know that shame usually just creates big time emotional struggles. Shame, even unintentional, certainly won’t help him succeed. What will help is explaining how proud you are of how hard your child has worked to achieve success, even though he has been challenged with distractibility.

Distractibility in children can be the result of one or any combination of several sources. These include:

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)



• Major life changes (e.g., divorce, relocation)

• Learning Disabilities

• Environmental distractions and stressors

If you want to manage your child’s distractibility, you must manage your own strong reactions, and respond in a calm, systematic way. Here are nine proven tips for helping distracted children. They are detailed in my book, 10 Days to a Less Distracted Child : The Breakthrough Program that Gets Your Kids to Listen, Learn, Focus and Behave (2007).

When encountering defiant children at home or in the classroom, use these seven strategies to lower their distractibility:

* Be mindful. Remember that the distraction prone child is struggling with feelings of inadequacy.

* Avoid yelling. Yelling only clouds your child’s mind, making him more distractible.

* Be calm, firm, and non-controlling. Keeping your cool, stating clear expectations, and not trying to command these children is the formula for success.

* 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.

* Limit media distractions in your home. Many children are not as good at filtering out noise as adults are. This means that having the television on while your child is trying to do her homework may interfere with her ability to concentrate. This said, some children and teens actually do better with some background noise or even TV. You know your child best. Work with him or her to find the balance to navigate possible distractions. Bear in mind, however, that videogames, Facebook, and Twitter can often lead kids to “lose time” if they are overly immersed in these activities.

* Encourage your child to break big assignments and task into smaller and more manageable ones. This is strategy is very overlooked and underused. Distracted kids will feel more motivated by small successes versus big failures.

* 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.

* 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.

* Build your child’s self-esteem. 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.

Remember that distracted children are often surrounded with negativity and begin to expect failure. It may not be clear how much your child will grow out of her distractibility, down the road. For some children, the symptoms get better as they grow older and learn to adjust. Others may have the genetic propensity and/or continued tendencies for distraction. Just keep in mind that those children prone to distraction who have 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 healthcare provider (when needed).

Dr. Jeffrey Bernstein works with children, couples, and families. More strategies to manage defiant children at home and at school can be found in 10 Days to a Less Distracted Child and on his website