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How to Talk to Your Child About Being Distracted and Unfocused

How to Talk to Your ADHD ChildMy son John, now age 23, has struggled with ADHD and Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) since he was in preschool. A bright, sensitive and outgoing child, he’s always wanted to succeed in school and fit in socially. His ADHD and OCD, of course, didn’t always make it easy for him. I first learned about executive function when John was in middle school; it was a memorable “aha” moment for me. Suddenly, his learning and behavior challenges made more sense—as did the success (or failure) of the tactics I’d been using to help steer him in the right direction.

Before each new school year, I tried to prepare John by reviewing what he and we knew about his strengths and challenges, what lessons and coping techniques he’d learned the previous school year and what situations to anticipate in the year ahead. We did this over the course of several conversations, and executive function turned out to be a helpful framework for me to keep in mind. I’d like to share some of the conversation starters I’ve used with John and hope this approach (when tailored to your child’s particular executive function profile) will serve as a springboard for some productive discussions in your household.

Executive Function–Related ADHD Challenges and Conversation Starters

  • Easily Distracted

    I know you try hard to pay attention in class but you get distracted. What helps you stay focused?
    When John was young, sitting in front of the class and away from fidgety, chatty kids helped. When I talked with his first grade teacher about this, she agreed and had already made the same observation. She even went a step further by making a point to walk over and stand near him, touching his shoulder when she addressed the class. It worked like a charm!

    How about when you’re doing homework?
    What worked best for him was to do homework at a tidy (not cluttered) kitchen table, with me nearby—not hovering, but making myself available when he needed help or guidance. When he got older, listening to music helped him tune in.

    What things (noises, people) distract you the most?
    Other boys with ADHD were like magnets to him. He was drawn to them, often amused by them, but he knew this kept him from focusing. He agreed that we’d ask his teacher to move him to a different place in the classroom and definitely not have the “funny, loud kid” be his class partner. A more complicated variation here was that he was sometimes distracted by his anxieties and obsessive thoughts. With time, maturity and therapy, he was better able to recognize and express his emotional distractions in an appropriate time/place so he could focus to school when he needed to.
  • Trouble Starting Projects and Shifting Between Activities

    Remember that big science project you did last year? You started late and had to give up some fun activities so you could finish it. What do you think would help you start projects sooner?
    With some digging, we realized he was often vaguely—and unknowingly—overwhelmed by what a new task involved. I started going over project instructions with him as soon as they were assigned. I didn’t interrogate him exactly, but I calmly asked him to tell me about the project, what parts seemed interesting to him, and where he anticipated needing some help. This process helped clarify the assignment but also unearthed any anxieties or concerns he had about it—all well before the due date. At school he learned to ask his teacher (or class partner) for clarification where needed and to help break the task down into smaller steps. From there, he was able to get going!

    You’re following those Lego instructions really well, and the pirate ship looks awesome. But you sure get upset when I tell you it’s time to stop playing and do your homework. Let’s figure out how to make the switch from play to work go better.
    When John was hyper-focused on something he loved doing, it seemed like even clear, polite warnings went in one ear and out the other. Sometimes it helped to make eye contact with him as each warning was issued. Eventually, I helped him identify pause points in a game or project—a place where he could save his work, set it aside and return to it later.
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