Pay Attention to Inattention

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

“How many times have I told you to pay attention? You just seem to space out. No wonder you aren’t doing well in school,” said the mother to her son. The father chimed in, “I don’t understand why you can’t pay attention. You just need to try harder.”

The child looks miserable and both parents are starting to think that their son might have ADHD. After all, ADHD’s main symptom is inattention. It’s right there in the name of the disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). His teachers have also seen the same difficulty paying attention in class and have mentioned in passing that he might have ADHD.

This situation is all too common as many adults assume that a child has ADHD due to difficulty paying attention. However, inattention is a general symptom that indicates a child is unable to maintain attention to the same extent as his classmates. While adults are right to be concerned if a child is easily distracted and has difficulty paying attention, it does not indicate a particular mental health disorder. Sometimes the inattention can be explained by typical development. Researchers have found that children who are the youngest in their grade are much more likely to be seen as having attention problems and to be diagnosed with ADHD. While it is possible that children who are the youngest ones in their grade have ADHD, it also could be due to those children being compared to older children who have matured and are better able to pay attention than younger ones.

In addition to developmental issues to consider with inattentive children, other disorders also frequently have inattention as one of their symptoms. Two such disorders are depression and anxiety.  In fact, both disorders occur much more frequently in children and adults than ADHD. A good example of how anxiety can cause inattention is seen in almost every hospital waiting room. A person can be seen looking at a magazine and yet has not turned a page in the past 10 minutes. The person is inattentive due to worrying about a loved one who is in the hospital. The anxiety is not allowing her to focus her attention on anything but the state of her loved one. As for depression, one of the hallmarks of the disorder is not feeling motivated to do anything. It can be very hard to pay attention when a person isn’t motivated to do so. Fortunately, parents and teachers do not have to diagnose a child with a mental health disorder. Rather, parents and teachers should notice if a child is inattentive and then consult with a qualified mental health professional to figure out how to proceed and intervene.

This article was published in the Richmond Register Health Beat Magazine in October 2011.

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