Declining Attention Spans & How Parents Can Expand Them

There’s no doubt that technology has taken over nearly all aspects of our lives. While we can’t discount its obvious benefits, I can’t be the only one who’s worried about the negative effects of technology on our kids.

Of most concern, is what technology is doing to our children’s attention spans. I’ve heard several parents complaining that their children can hardly concentrate on tasks for more than a few minutes at a time. They seem to get easily bored and distracted and are always on the lookout for something more interesting to do. Thanks to technology, there’s no shortage of distractions.

I got to thinking, if we parents are finding it so hard to tear ourselves from our screens and pay attention to what is going on around us, how much harder is it for our kids? Is there anything we can do to help them stay on task?

I went searching for answers and here are some tips I found to improve your child’s attention span:

1. Give and you will receive.

With so many things clamoring for your attention, it’s sometimes difficult to focus on the moment. However, if we want our children to learn to pay attention to what we say, we need to give them our undivided attention too.

For instance, when giving instructions or making assertions, being in close proximity to your child works better than shouting requests from the next room. To get them to pay attention, be in the same room, get down to their level, make eye contact then make the request by saying, “ I need you to do this or that right now.”

2. Use creativity to make tasks more interesting.

The attention a child gives a task is directly proportional to their interest in the matter. This explains why some kids can play with Legos for 30 minutes but have trouble sitting still to write their names.

Employing a little creativity when tackling mundane tasks can solve this. For example, instead of asking your child to write out her name in a book, ask her to write it out with chalk on a board or shape it out with pebbles or Play-Doh. You can also teach your child to do math by counting fruits, building blocks etc. By incorporating these elements of play, you turn something dull into a fun activity, capturing your child’s attention.

Ensure that you also vary the tasks your child does and include adequate breaks to prevent boredom from setting in.

3. Watch what your child eats.

Hunger is one of those distractions that make it hard for kids to concentrate on what they’re doing. To combat hunger, ensure your child eats healthy meals that keep them fueled throughout the day.

Start each day by giving your child a nutritious breakfast rich in protein and healthy carbohydrates. Eggs, whole-grain cereals, peanut butter sandwiches are all excellent choices and will ensure your child’s energy level remains high for a long time. Also remember to provide healthy, filling snacks to keep them going between meals.

4. Exercise the body to improve concentration.

It’s easy to underestimate just how important exercise and play are to children. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), play can improve your child’s cognitive function, social skills, memory, attention and concentration. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends allowing children to participate in at least an hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day to improve their brain development.

So instead of letting your child vege out in front of the computer indoors, encourage them to take the dog for a run outside, ride a bike or take up rollerblading- anything to move their bodies. This will not only improve their muscle coordination but also help increase their concentration, intelligence and social development.

5. Adequate sleep will bolster depreciating attention spans.

Good sound sleep is known to work wonders for depreciating attention spans of both kids and adults. A full night’s sleep ensures that your child has a solid foundation for both body and mind development. Adequate sleep will allow your child to maintain optimal mental alertness– this is the state in which we have the greatest attention span and are more receptive to what is going on around us, allowing us to learn and retain more information.

Additionally, a good night’s rest allows your child’s brain to recharge while processing and storing the information received during the day, hence improving your child’s memory and retention.

6. Turn off electronics to turn on that focus.

All the exercise and sleep in the world counts for naught if your child is constantly distracted by electronic devices. A 2011 study conducted to study the impact of fast-paced cartoons on young children found that these programs significantly shortened the attention spans of 4-year-olds. Use of TVs, computers, smartphones and video games not only hurt your child’s concentration but also condition them to expect immediate results. Unfortunately, that is not how life works. In real life, we all have to put up with routine tasks which require patience and attention to get through.

To help your children regain their focus, limit screen time in your household and replace it with family time instead. Have your kids and teens unplug their devices and find ways to bond and strengthen your connection. Activities such as solving puzzles, playing memory or board games or reading together strengthen your kids’ attention muscles and bring you closer as a family.

A final word …

Helping your child improve their focus calls for a lot of positive reinforcement, encouragement and patience. However, if you notice that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for your child to concentrate on even the simplest tasks, it’s recommended that you seek help from a professional.


About the Author: Cindy Price

Cindy Price is a Northern Utah wife, mom, and writer. She has 15 years experience writing educational content in the many areas of parenting, with an emphasis on teen-related issues, from which she applies and expounds on her personal experience raising three teenagers. You can find Cindy on Twitter.

 

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Physical activity is the natural end to the fight or flight response (which is where the physical feelings of an anxiety attack come from). Walking will help to burn the adrenalin and neurochemicals that have surged the body to prepare it for flight or fight, and which are causing the physical symptoms (racy heart, feeling sick, sweaty, short breaths, dry mouth, trembly or tense in the limbs etc). As well as this, the rhythm of walking will help to calm their anxious amygdala. Brains love rhythm, and walking is a way to give them this. 
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Try to help your young one access their steady breaths while walking, but it is very likely that they will only be able to do this if they’ve practised outside of an anxiety attack. During anxiety, the brain is too busy to try anything unfamiliar. Practising will help to create neural pathways that will make breathing an easier, more accessible response during anxiety. If they aren't able to access strong steady breaths, you might need to do it for them. This will be just as powerful - in the same way they can catch your anxiety, they will also be able to catch your calm. When you are able to assume a strong, calm, steady presence, this will clear the way for your brave ones to do the same.
The more your young one is able to verbalise what their anxiety feels like, the more capacity they will have to identify it, acknowledge it and act more deliberately in response to it. With this level of self-awareness comes an increased ability to manage the feeling when it happens, and less likelihood that the anxiety will hijack their behaviour. 

Now - let’s give their awareness some muscle. If they are experts at what their anxiety feels like, they are also experts at what it takes to be brave. They’ve felt anxiety and they’ve moved through it, maybe not every time - none of us do it every time - maybe not even most times, but enough times to know what it takes and how it feels when they do. Maybe it was that time they walked into school when everything in them was wanting to walk away. Maybe that time they went in for goal, or down the water slide, or did the presentation in front of the class. Maybe that time they spoke their own order at the restaurant, or did the driving test, or told you there would be alcohol at the party. Those times matter, because they show them they can move through anxiety towards brave. They might also taken for granted by your young one, or written off as not counting as brave - but they do count. They count for everything. They are evidence that they can do hard things, even when those things feel bigger than them. 

So let’s expand those times with them and for them. Let’s expand the wisdom that comes with that, and bring their brave into the light as well. ‘What helped you do that?’ ‘What was it like when you did?’ ‘I know everything in you wanted to walk away, but you didn’t. Being brave isn’t about doing things easily. It’s about doing those hard things even when they feel bigger than us. I see you doing that all the time. It doesn’t matter that you don’t do them every time -none of us are brave every time- but you have so much courage in you my love, even when anxiety is making you feel otherwise.’

Let them also know that you feel like this too sometimes. It will help them see that anxiety happens to all of us, and that even though it tells a deficiency story, it is just a story and one they can change the ending of.
During adolescence, our teens are more likely to pay attention to the positives of a situation over the negatives. This can be a great thing. The courage that comes from this will help them try new things, explore their independence, and learn the things they need to learn to be happy, healthy adults. But it can also land them in bucketloads of trouble. 

Here’s the thing. Our teens don’t want to do the wrong thing and they don’t want to go behind our backs, but they also don’t want to be controlled by us, or have any sense that we might be stifling their way towards independence. The cold truth of it all is that if they want something badly enough, and if they feel as though we are intruding or that we are making arbitrary decisions just because we can, or that we don’t get how important something is to them, they have the will, the smarts and the means to do it with or without or approval. 

So what do we do? Of course we don’t want to say ‘yes’ to everything, so our job becomes one of influence over control. To keep them as safe as we can, rather than saying ‘no’ (which they might ignore anyway) we want to engage their prefrontal cortex (thinking brain) so they can be more considered in their decision making. 

Our teens are very capable of making good decisions, but because the rational, logical, thinking prefrontal cortex won’t be fully online until their 20s (closer to 30 in boys), we need to wake it up and bring it to the decision party whenever we can. 

Do this by first softening the landing:
‘I can see how important this is for you. You really want to be with your friends. I absolutely get that.’
Then, gently bring that thinking brain to the table:
‘It sounds as though there’s so much to love in this for you. I don’t want to get in your way but I need to know you’ve thought about the risks and planned for them. What are some things that could go wrong?’
Then, we really make the prefrontal cortex kick up a gear by engaging its problem solving capacities:
‘What’s the plan if that happens.’
Remember, during adolescence we switch from managers to consultants. Assume a leadership presence, but in a way that is warm, loving, and collaborative.♥️
Big feelings and big behaviour are a call for us to come closer. They won’t always feel like that, but they are. Not ‘closer’ in an intrusive ‘I need you to stop this’ way, but closer in a ‘I’ve got you, I can handle all of you’ kind of way - no judgement, no need for you to be different - I’m just going to make space for this feeling to find its way through. 

Our kids and teens are no different to us. When we have feelings that fill us to overloaded, the last thing we need is someone telling us that it’s not the way to behave, or to calm down, or that we’re unbearable when we’re like this. Nup. What we need, and what they need, is a safe place to find our out breath, to let the energy connected to that feeling move through us and out of us so we can rest. 
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But how? First, don’t take big feelings personally. They aren’t a reflection on you, your parenting, or your child. Big feelings have wisdom contained in them about what’s needed more, or less, or what feels intolerable right now. Sometimes it might be as basic as a sleep or food. Maybe more power, influence, independence, or connection with you. Maybe there’s too much stress and it’s hitting their ceiling and ricocheting off their edges. Like all wisdom, it doesn’t always find a gentle way through. That’s okay, that will come. Our kids can’t learn to manage big feelings, or respect the wisdom embodied in those big feelings if they don’t have experience with big feelings. 
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We also need to make sure we are responding to them in the moment, not a fear or an inherited ‘should’ of our own. These are the messages we swallowed whole at some point - ‘happy kids should never get sad or angry’, ‘kids should always behave,’ ‘I should be able to protect my kids from feeling bad,’ ‘big feelings are bad feelings’, ‘bad behaviour means bad kids, which means bad parents.’ All these shoulds are feisty show ponies that assume more ‘rightness’ than they deserve. They are usually historic, and when we really examine them, they’re also irrelevant.
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Finally, try not to let the symptoms of big feelings disrupt the connection. Then, when calm comes, we will have the influence we need for the conversations that matter.
"Be patient. We don’t know what we want to do or who we want to be. That feels really bad sometimes. Just keep reminding us that it’s okay that we don’t have it all figured out yet, and maybe remind yourself sometimes too."
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 #parentingteens #neurodevelopment #positiveparenting #parenting #neuronurtured #braindevelopment #adolescence  #neurodevelopment #parentingteens

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