Distractibility / inattention

Can Kids Who Have Trouble With Focus Sometimes Be Hyperfocused?

By Nelson Dorta

My son seems so scattered so much of the time—I was starting to wonder if he might have ADHD. But then I see him sitting in front of his PlayStation, focusing like a laser beam on his favorite game. What’s going on here? Can kids who have trouble with focus sometimes be hyperfocused?

Nelson Dorta

Pediatric Neuropsychologist

While “hyperfocus” isn’t an official medical term, I understand what you’re talking about. Many parents use the term to describe what can be a confusing aspect of ADHD: Sometimes and under some conditions, a child who usually is easily distracted can have trouble shifting his attention away from an enjoyable task. Parents often notice this difficulty when their kids are watching a TV show they like or playing a favorite video game.

When it comes to paying attention, there are three primary issues in children with ADHD:

  • Sustaining their attention
  • Choosing what’s important to pay attention to in a given moment
  • Shifting their attention from one thing to another

This helps explain why background noise can be so distracting when kids with ADHD are taking a test or doing homework. It also helps explain why these same kids may have trouble tuning into a parent who keeps calling their name while they’re playing a video game.

But it’s important to note that even during these times of what may seem like intense focus, a child with ADHD is not paying better attention than a child without ADHD. Scientists have studied children with ADHD while they play video games. While they may play the game as long as kids who don’t have attention issues, children with ADHD make more errors and do things like re-start the game more often.

The ability to sustain or shift their attention is not conscious or in their control. That’s why telling a child with ADHD to concentrate harder or to stop daydreaming is like asking a child who is nearsighted to try to see farther when he’s not wearing glasses.

If you suspect your child may have ADHD, talk to his teachers. See if they’re noticing similar problems with attention at school. Then talk to your child’s doctor. If it turns out that your child does have ADHD, there are many ways to help him at home and in school.

About the Author

Portrait of Dr. Nelson Dorta

Nelson Dorta is a pediatric neuropsychologist and an assistant professor of clinical psychology at Columbia University.

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