By Daniel Sheras, Psy.D.
(This article is the first in a series of five blog entries that address common myths and misconceptions about ADHD.)
A common misconception regarding ADHD is that children and teens with ADHD can’t pay attention to anything. It turns out that the opposite is actually true; they pay attention to almost everything. This is what makes it so difficult for them to focus on one solitary activity, especially when that activity is not fun or exciting – homework for example. This phenomenon ultimately is the result of a central processing issue in the brains of children with ADHD. Their brains struggle to filter out distracting stimulation or inhibit behavioral responses to it. This results in poor focus and frequent activity shifting. In essence, children with ADHD are akin to race horses without blinders on. They can perform very well yet are easily distracted by things around them.
Often parents of children with ADHD notice their kids struggling to complete tasks such as homework or chores while spending hours upon hours focused on other activities. These activities often include things they enjoy such as video games, watching “trashy TV,” reading magazines, texting with friends, or even reading for fun. Many parents assume that their children are willfully putting off harder tasks or shirking their responsibility, because they don’t have a full understanding of why their children can focus on one activity and not another. The process of choosing to focus on some activities and not others, or “selective attention” as it is commonly referred to, is somewhat misleading as is relates to ADHD.
In reality, children with ADHD can focus more easily on activities that they enjoy because they provide more stimulation for their brains. Video games, for example, provide frequent auditory and visual stimulation and frequent shifts in context. These elements are attractive to the ADHD child, because their brains are getting all needs for stimulation met. In contrast, activities such as homework or chores may provide little stimulation, so the brain continues to search for other ways to stimulate itself. In fact, children with ADHD may have such a difficult time with these “boring” tasks that they will avoid them altogether in order to prevent frustration and a sense of failure. This is often when parents start to notice tasks not being completed or being missed altogether. Therefore, children with ADHD may indeed be “selecting” stimulating tasks over less stimulating ones. However, this most likely represents their attempts to avoid high levels of frustration rather than to intentionally shirk responsibility.
So what’s a parent to do? Let’s face it; playing video games, sports, texting and watching “trashy TV,” etc. will always be more “stimulating” than doing homework or chores for a child or teen with ADHD, or for any child for that matter. However, there are things parents can do to make mundane activities more stimulating, and therefore increase the chance that they will get done. For example, by turning homework into a game or by introducing media elements, teachers and parents can make these tasks more stimulating. In addition, when parents provide their children with multiple breaks (during which they can briefly engage in more stimulating activities), homework or chores can become less arduous or daunting.