Why it's so hard to get kids' attention, according to science

How to keep their attention is half the battle.
How to keep their attention is half the battle. Photo: Supplied

After dinner, which is served in shifts and consumed in various parts of the house, Dad does the dishes, and Mum makes a phone call to a co-worker. Both also begin the disagreeable ritual of reminding their kids – in year 5 and year 9 – to complete a chore, do their homework or make after-school plans for the next day. But the year 5 is engrossed in a video game while the teen exchanges messages with friends.

Still facing the sink, Dad addresses the kids multiple times and issues escalating consequences with each request. Mum steps in, pointing and gesturing with incredulity and anger while speaking into the phone cradled under her chin. The kids' eyes return to the screens. Their attention comes, then fades.

The specifics may vary, but the scene is familiar to parents struggling to connect with their kids.

Neal Rojas, a pediatrics professor who has studied attention issues, says it often is a matter of salience – the complex process our brains go through to determine what from the outside world should get and keep our attention. He says the "salience ratio" has to be pretty high to get the focus to move from familiar and engaging screens.

"If I tell my kids with my back turned to them while washing the dishes after dinner 'Okay, time to wrap up that game,' but I don't engage them and watch for their response in situations like this, I might as well be talking to the cat," Rojas says.

It starts with the setting, says Maggie Jackson, author of the book Distracted, a new edition of which is due out in September. She notes that research carefully following households all day on video found that 40 per cent of US families eat meals separately and revealed that parents and kids are together in a room only about 16 per cent of the time, mostly ignoring one another.

Families are pressed for time, and they are not engaging in the repeated, structured daily patterns that help develop connections. Jackson says efforts to get and keep a child's attention are further challenged by a steady stream of potential diversions for busy parents and their children.

"Presence has become dramatically splintered because our devices are designed as insistent, intrusive systems of delivery, so any single object of our focus – an email, a text, a news alert, a child – competes with others every minute," she says. "We experience overlapping, often conflicting commitments, and so have trouble choosing the nature and pace of our focus."

A study that came out in July shows that digital media use by teens seems to result in persistent attention issues. Jackson says research also indicates that even a phone that is turned off "undermines focus and problem solving" because the prospect of receiving a message or new information occupies space in our brains, even if we think we have separated ourselves from the phone.


While she believes this lack of connection has much bigger implications for the culture, one casualty is attention.

"Multitasking parents unintentionally are saying to their children, 'You are secondary,'" Jackson says. "Meanwhile we've groomed our children to be half-there, to be present in shallow ways. Fully focused attention to others is a rarity in their world."

She says all this also results in information being embedded in a more "shallow" way. "That means that it can't be used flexibly and creatively in the future, and parents and children are less likely to fully understand or recall what was said."

Here are five ways parents can combat those distractions, and get and keep their child's attention.

Be attentive yourself

Jackson says that parents who try to direct their child when they are themselves multitasking or disengaged are less likely to get the message clearly to their child and more likely to have their child not take it seriously.

Have rules

Rules about tech use, a child's responsibilities and schedules should be instituted and discussed. More importantly, stick to the guidelines you set. A child is less likely to need reminders and your attention if they know what to do and that they will be consistently required to do it. "Don't give up," says Jackson.


Sharon Saline, a clinical psychologist and author of the book "What Your ADHD Child Wishes You Knew," says parents should make sure they have their child's full attention using what she calls the Rule of Three: Get close and say their name, make eye contact, preferably at their level, and then give them the message and ask them to repeat it – twice. "It may seem silly to them, but that's okay. By repeating the directions, you know they have grasped what they need to do. Also, this technique activates several means of connecting – sight, sound, repetition – that trigger different and simultaneous neural pathways."

...But don't nag

Catherine Pearlman, author of the book Ignore It!: How Selectively Looking the Other Way Can Decrease Behavioural Problems and Increase Parenting Satisfaction, says sometimes children don't pay attention simply because a parent is always asking them to and the message gets lost. She recommends parents be selective with their directions and, if they are ignored, quickly implement well-understood consequences without lengthy discussion or repeated warnings.

Consider outlets

Active children who get a lot of exercise may be more likely to pay attention, along with those who learn some basic mindfulness skills, says psychologist and author Thomas Armstrong. He recommends the arts, martial arts and time spent in nature and advocates "unstructured play." Get them to read, if possible, and help them identify a strong interest they can engage with.

James Paterson is a freelance writer and illustrator and a former school counsellor.

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