Sunday, January 15, 2012

Another kind of attention deficit

Quite often I meet with parents who are concerned about their child’s ploys for attention: a broody daughter’s mood swings, a tantrumming son’s belligerence, a withdrawn teenager’s prolonged silence or apathy. Should I ignore him? they wonder, concerned that if they pay their child any attention, they might be reinforcing a negative behaviour.

My answer to this is that any ploy for attention, no matter how unsavoury it may be to you, is still a cry for attention and you should listen to it. To ignore it or worse, punish it, won’t make the need go away, it will only frustrate and exacerbate it, increasing your child's sense of a deficit in attention from you and probably spurring him on to bigger and better ways of getting his needs met.

Instead, give your child the attention he needs.

Without indulging a behavior you do not condone, tell your child you’re concerned about his mood and/or acting out, and that you feel very badly that he’s suffering. Gently explain that, although you refuse to be the brunt of any aggression or rudeness (and please do remove yourself from a situation that is unacceptable to you!), you’d like him to come and talk to you when he feels ready to explain what’s going on with words. Tell him you’d like to understand him and help him feel better. Once your child has calmed down and, if he is still unable to put words on his feelings, which is pretty likely, offer some hypotheses of your own. Are you angry at your little sister? Frustrated with school? Upset about what someone said or did that hurt your feelings? Assume that your child is hurting for a reason and give him your unconditional loving support.

As a general rule, if your child seems excessively attention-seeking to you, make more time to be with him. Show him you are available and that you care. Curb the deficit by being more emotionally present. Just be there.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012


Does your child always want to do what he feels like doing and only how and when he feels like doing it? Congratulations then! Your child is normal and healthy.

Take it a step further though, to where your child is uncompromising to the point where he really doesn’t care what you or others want and his stubbornness deteriorates into tantrums that he should have outgrown by now and his behavior is really trying your nerves… well, then, maybe he is displaying symptoms of so-called Attention Deficit Disorder or ADD, with or without the “H” for “Hyperactivity”, the disorder so frequently diagnosed in young school-aged boys (see these Fast Stats).

ADD is not a form of moral deviance due to rudeness, orneriness, or anything that may be within your child’s conscious control. Nor is it a mental or learning disability. In fact, although ADD is commonly believed to be an attentional deficit, it is not due to a lack of capacity for attention or to "selective inattention”. It is in fact just a set of behaviors related to poor impulse control due to the immaturity of the frontal lobe cortex, the part of the brain responsible for filtering out irrelevant information, thereby enabling us to stay task-focused despite a constant flux of competing ideas and urges.

The more active your child's mind, the more difficult it may be for him to stay focused and self-controlled. Since this part of the brain is well-known to develop more slowly in boys, this may explain why boys seem more impulsive and scatter-brained than girls. Because of this developmental discrepancy, boys in some parts of the UK now start primary school one year later than girls. Normally, with time, the frontal lobe catches up to other parts of the brain such that an ADD child without other learning problems, although he may always remain more spirited than others, will surely grow into an adult with a very active and creative intellect.