This sign of stress is a lot like restlessness and trouble calming down; but it is more of a problem for your youngster. Some children (about 1 in twenty) have a condition called Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or ADHD. These young people have abnormal problems concentrating and paying attention. Though this probably is not your child’s problem, be sure to consider the possibility. If your child has ADHD, he can do nothing about it by himself and you will likely be ineffective as you try to deal with him. Only a pediatrician and child psychologist working in collaboration with you and your child’s teachers can diagnose ADHD with certainty. It then needs managed medically, behaviorally, and through special teaching and learning techniques. Importantly, simply prescribing medication without other types of behavior and learning interventions is an incomplete and inadequate response. There may be short-term benefits; but achieving long-term benefits requires a multi- disciplinary approach. Your child and you cannot successfully cope with ADHD without this type of cooperative approach.
At home and school, problems concentrating and paying attention often are read wrong by adults. They read them as daydreaming and willfully not paying attention. A teacher might tell you, “She spends all her time daydreaming, not paying attention, fooling around, and wasting time.” When misread this way, a serious stress problem can be easily overlooked. If this happens, your child is more likely to be punished than helped.
If you are feeling frustrated by your child’s behavior, think about this. Have you ever had to be somewhere uninteresting, boring, and no fun? What if it were even worse? You have trouble understanding anything being said and do not know what is happening. Do you get the picture?
Now, What if you are told it is important and good for you? What if you are told you will understand how important it really is in ten or twenty or thirty years? What if you are told you are in big trouble if you do not pay attention and make the most of the opportunity? What does it take to get you to concentrate and pay attention? Most children are in these kinds of situations often and do about as well or as badly as the rest of us. Before you take any action, think about how reasonable you are being when you expect your child to concentrate and pay attention.
Most children who have trouble concentrating and paying attention because of stress are ignored. Even worse for them, they are treated as if they were misbehaving. What’s more, parents and teachers often think they were misbehaving on purpose.
Take time to look for underlying causes and explanations. If your child often has trouble concentrating and paying attention, ADHD needs to be considered. If the problem mostly comes up at school or when your child needs to listen carefully or read, a learning disability may be part of his problem. A school or child psychologist is the best resource for evaluating the possibility of learning problems. If, alternatively, the sign mostly occurs when your youngster has no choice about where to be or what to do, take a minute to think about how hard it is for him to pretend to be interested or to act like he cares when he does not.
If the problem suddenly comes up or especially if it has been there but is getting worse, stress is the most likely cause. Talk with your child about your concerns. The conversation might, for example, start like this.
“I’m concerned about you. It seems like you’re having trouble concentrating and paying attention. I noticed this when you were working on your homework, just as an example. It seems like you have a lot on your mind. It’s hard to concentrate when we’re thinking about important stuff. It’s a problem for me sometimes too. Can you talk about what’s getting to you?”
If your youngster does not want to talk, this follow-up sometimes helps. “Let me try again. I respect the fact you don’t want to talk about whatever is bothering you. Here’s my problem. I’m worried and am uncomfortable just letting go of it. If you really want me to back off, I will; but I’ll feel better if you can share just a little with me about what’s got you so upset.”
If your child chooses to talk some, listen patiently, acknowledge his feelings, and resist any temptation to criticize, give uninvited advice, or tell him he is getting upset over “nothing.” He is the judge of what is stressful for him. If he feels stressed, it is stressful. It is as simple as that. If your child continues not to talk and especially if he becomes angry or withdraws, keep some emotional and physical distance but check back with him every day or two to see how he is doing.