Q. We have a seven year old boy who is very smart, but lacks focus, and gets distracted easily. Often, he seems to be living in the moment, not remembering what comes next and losing track of time. This sometimes results in him sitting in the restroom for as much as 45 minutes or getting so immersed in reading books that he doesn’t pay attention to what we ask him to do. Even in the classroom, he falls into a reverie and stops paying attention to the teacher who has moved on and is asking everybody to write notes. The feedback from the teacher is that he is very smart in math and problem solving, but he “zones out” and can easily get distracted.
It is difficult for us to see whether his focus is good or bad. We guess the problem is his ability to remember sequences of events and do it effectively and fast and be mindful of surroundings and what is expected out of him.
A. I am glad to hear that your son is smart and can immerse himself in something of interest. However, I hear that he becomes unaware of time and his environment. When he does get absorbed, evaluate his comprehension. Does he remember what he reads or can he articulate what he is lost in? When he is lost in thought, ask him what he was thinking about with curiosity and try and be non-judgmental about it.
He ought to be able to share what he is learning and reflecting upon with you. If he cannot do that, then he is most likely dissociating to get away from his feelings, family or environment. This may be his way of coping with some inner or relational challenge. How long has it been since he retreated into his inner world? Has something happened in his life that has been traumatic or overwhelming in some way? If so, he needs to get some psychotherapy from a child therapist who can help him work that situation through, so he can reconnect with others and his environment in a supportive and responsive way.
Although some children don’t do well with a lot of structure and actually need more independence, it sounds like he could use some coaching and supportive training.
While giving him freedom to explore himself and interests in his own way, it might be helpful for him to have more structure. Setting a timer when he goes to the bathroom, or reading or doing other activities can help him transition.
If he doesn’t respond, ask him why he is not responding. Do your best to draw him out without getting impatient or critical. Be careful to not overwhelm him or be invasive. Rather be warm, interested, while respecting his style. This is not an easy way to approach him, for he may be sensitive. If these approaches do not work, talk to the school psychologist about some testing to understand more about his attentional style or issues.
Alzak Amlani, Ph.D., is a counseling psychologist of Indian descent in the Bay Area. 650-325-8393. Visit www.wholenesstherapy.com