My Kids Can’t Focus! Should I be Worried?

We’re talking about focus.

Something I hear from parents a lot is that their kids can’t seem to focus.

They’re like that dog in Up. They see something new and shiny and they go “squirrel!” and bounce around from one activity to the next without ever actually sitting down and settling in.

Focus is hard.

I recently was diagnosed with ADHD and it didn’t really suprise me because staying attuned to something I’m not interested in or that I don’t see a clear and fairly immediate use for is extremely difficult.

One reason I try to make all my content very actionable because I assume y’all are like me and if you can’t see a use for it, you’ll discard it. Fair enough.

Focus is, in essence, sustained engagement. It’s the ability to tune everything else out and center your attention on a problem, activity, or interaction.

Many parents feel that their child is unable to focus. They get distracted easily. They can’t sit still. They’re nosey.

There are a million ways parents describe their child’s inability to focus to me and usually, their complaints pertaining to their child’s focus not while playing, but while doing adult-led activities on an adult timetable. Meals. Cleaning up.

An activity or game that involves a lot of rules.

A verbal request like “put your shoes on.” Sometimes parents do complain that their child can’t focus on play and bounces from toy to toy and never really settles into a game or play.

This is totally typical for children under age 6.

It’s been found that it takes an average of an hour for children to settle into play.

During that time, they’re bouncing from toy to toy, activity to activity, to find one that meets their needs at that particular time. When they’re doing this, they’re full of dopamine.

Dopamine

Dopamine is a hormone that is responsible for making us seek. It makes us curious, it makes us search for things.

When you’re sitting scrolling through Netflix and nothing looks good? That’s dopamine.

Dopamine actually feels awful. It feels gross. That’s why you get so frustrated when there’s nothing that catches your eye on Netflix because the point of dopamine is to make you search and feel a lack of something.

Your brain doesn’t know what that something is it just knows it’s missing something and it feels icky!

Now, when you do hit on something that looks good that feeling of satisfaction, that glow of accomplishment that you feel?

Peptides

This is created by something called peptides. Peptides give you that rush of fufilment. They make you feel good and satisfied.

The contrast between the feeling dopamine gives us and the feeling peptides give us, is why the system works.

We don’t want to feel gross and icky and unfulfilled. Often during this time children are kind of irritable, they’re distractable, they’re bored, they have difficulty settling.

Grab the scripts for crazy-making behaviour and know exactly what to say next time your toddler, preschooler, or kindergartener isn't listening.

Here’s the problem, this is a good thing.

The more your child experiences dopamine and experiences a peptide hit, the better they get at moving through that period of dopamine dominance. The better they get at figuring out what will solve that sensation. The faster they’re able to become deeply engaged in something.

Unfortunately, parents are often actively hindering this mastery by interrupting them. We try to step in and offer suggestions or get them engaged with us.

This is why a lot of parents will complain to me that their children can’t play by themselves…

They’ll only play with me!

Well yes, you’ve trained, quite literally, to view you as the only solution to finding a peptide hit. Mom is the drug dealer. I am dependent on her to get this feel-good hormone. I have no practice doing it myself through activities and independent engagement.

I need to give her the good stuff!

This translates into an inability to focus on things that aren’t as interesting, or engaging, or entertaining- because they don’t have any practice doing it.

This is why I’m always running around with my hair on fire screaming about independent play.

It’s the gateway to a lot of development!

Teachers, other parents, instructors, and anyone who engages with my children almost always comments on how good they are at entertaining themselves.

It’s because I absolutely refused to be the Peptide Dealer in our home. My kids are good at that because I’ve given them lots of opportunities to do it.

I posted a photo on my Instagram stories the other week of my kids drawing in the dirt at the side of the road with the heels of their rainboots. We’d gotten to their bus stop not 5 minutes before, and they both immediately dropped their bags and started to draw, and when I asked what they were doing they informed me that they were drawing a world map, not like, of earth, more like, a Minecraft map.

While they were doing this one of the other parents at the stop said to her son in hushed tones behind me “See? Why don’t you just go play like them?” He’d been whining and hanging off of her since before we got there.

He literally said “I don’t know what they’re doing.” It’s not just that they have independent personalities, it’s that they know I’m not going to engage with them so they are very quick to look at the resources available and find something that will satisfy their needs…in this case mud on the side of the road.

It’s important to allow our children the time and space to get bored and figure it out by themselves, even though it can be painful.

As I said during out episode on boredom, embedded in this process is the practice of self-regulation.

If we’re hyperaroused, our brain isn’t going to be seeking something to entertain us, it’s going to be seeking something to calm us down.

It only takes about 20 minutes to calm the nervous system down.

Which is where I see parents complaining that their kids will play for a few minutes and then be back in their grill.

Your child isn’t playing, they’re regulating.

Which is awesome! We want that!

We need the follow-up of transitioning out of a regulation break and into a play state. This requires executive functioning skills. In particular self-monitoring, flexible thinking, planning and prioritizing, organization, and task initiation.

If those skills are weak, your child is going to have difficulty moving from regulation to play because play requires all of those skills to be used on a consistent basis.

If those skills are weak, then they take up a lot of energy to use, which will once again dysregulate your child and it becomes this cycle.

I go play, I calm down, I struggle to transition into a deeper play state so I go attempt to get an adult to provide entertainment, they either entertain me which gives me my peptide hit, but the second they stop I get slammed with dopamine again.

Or, they refuse to entertain me, which floods me with dopamine, and I go play for another 10-20 minutes.

Either way, they’re being robbed of all the developmental support deep, focused play provides.

How do we solve this problem?

By teaching children to regulate and building their skills.

It all comes down to this because these executive skills, they’re the tools our brain uses to do everything. From eating food, to using the bathroom, and everything in between.

Let’s use an example of how this plays out at the dinner table.

You tell your kids to go play while you’re making dinner. They do, but they come back whining for food eventually.

You put dinner on the table and they take a bite, walk around the table, are bouncing around, getting distracted by telling you about their day.

All the while they’re whining about how hungry they are and yet have put like 2 pieces of food into their mouths in 30 minutes.

Eventually, you give up, they go play while you clean up, and then they’re whining again.

Regulation, entertainment, dysregulation, regulation, demand for entertainment because their skills are weak.

They can’t focus on eating, because eating requires them to use their organization, planning and prioritizing, self-monitoring, flexible thinking, emotional control, impulse control, task initiation, literally all the skills!

Trying to use them all simultaneously is draining, so then they have to re-regulate.

If your child is struggling to focus, there’s really no way over it, there’s no way under it, no way around it, you gotta go through it and support both their regulation skills and their executive functioning skill development.

The stronger those skills get, the easier they will go into a play state.

The faster they’ll be able to shift out of regulation into play.

The easier it will be to sustain their attention on something over a period of time even if it’s not super stimulating for them.

It’s the stick in the spokes of that negative, annoying, frustrating cycle and once it’s established it becomes a new cycle.

A positive cycle that you can rely on and once it gains momentum is self-sustaining because it becomes a habit.

I hope that gives you a different perspective on focus and gives you some ideas of how you could alter what you’re doing to promote your children’s ability to focus.

As always, if you’re struggling with implementing this, please come and join us in the Parenting Posse so we can collaborate with you and help you figure it out!

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About Allana

Hi, I’m Allana. I teach parents of toddlers and preschoolers why their children are misbehaving and what to do about it without yelling, shaming, or using time-outs. When not teaching parents about behaviour you can generally find me chasing around my two boys, reading cheesy romance novels, or hanging out with my own parents.

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