Maybe you’re trying to read, but your thoughts keep wandering to your weekend plans. Perhaps you’re trying to listen in class, but your thoughts wander to what happened in the latest episode of Game of Thrones. You’re in a serious conversation with someone, but you keep zoning out.
If you’re an adolescent, it’s normal to get distracted at times. And there could be many reasons why you can’t concentrate at any given moment.
But here are a bunch of things to consider when teens can’t focus:
You might be tired.
For adolescents juggling school, extracurricular activities, friends, homework, and maybe even college applications, the day may never seem long enough—hence the tendency to stay up late into the wee hours of the night. However, research shows that fatigue and sleepiness cause lack of focus, inattention, and general crankiness (but you probably knew about the last one yourself.) If you find yourself zoning out, or returning back to the same task many times because you just can’t seem to make headway, consider how many hours of sleep you’ve been getting this past week. If you can, just hit the sack…instead of fighting a losing battle against your mind. If you can’t, try to splash some water on your face or chew something minty—it helps wake you up!
You’re not eating well.
If your stomach is growling but you want to keep pressing on with the task at hand, it may not be the best idea. Hunger is distracting, for your body and your brain. It’s important for growing adolescents to eat three healthy, nutritious meals a day… you’ll see that it helps with your level of attentiveness. Keep in mind, though, that too much food can become a distraction very easily as well. Once you feel full, put away the stash so it doesn’t keep calling your name. Also, while we’re on the topic, stay off sugar. Sugar and fructose have been linked to poor memory and focus, according to one well-known UCLA study.
You might be near too many distracting stimuli.
You’re trying to study for Biology, but you keep checking your phone every few minutes instead. Or you’re attempting to write your Sociology paper, but find yourself wasting hours on Facebook. Or maybe you just tell yourself you’ll just reply back to a few people who emailed you, and then you’ll go back to your math homework. Teens these days are bombarded with almost incessant stimuli competing for their attention. If this sounds like you, you need to summon the mental strength to block yourself from accessing these distractions—whether it’s apps that shut down specific sites if you’re on them for too long or just shutting yourself in a room with just a desk and the bare minimum you need for your task.
You’re not moving enough.
We can’t extoll enough the virtues of exercise for adolescents. When you find yourself having trouble with focusing, do some pushups, or go for a quick run around the block. Yes, even though you’re groaning right now. If you’re restricted from doing those, because you need to stay in place for any reason, try to just move your legs, head, arms—whatever you can. If you can stand up and work, do that. A mountain of research has linked the effects of physical movement to improved cognition and attention for teens.
You have pressing issues on your mind.
Whether you just had an argument with your friend or are trying to convince your parents to attend a party this weekend, it’s hard to concentrate when your mind is busy with lots of other matters that seem more pressing. To fix this, first, try to acknowledge that these thoughts are valid. Once you validate that you are worried, upset, anxious about that specific issue—whatever it is—it may be easier to move on to other tasks at hand.
You’re too overwhelmed.
If you have a project that’s looming down at you, but you’re finding it hard to focus, work on it in increments. Tell yourself you’ll focus just for 15 minutes, and then you’ll stop. This takes away the nerve-wracking anticipation of the project taking hours and hours. For now, all you have to worry about is the next 15 minutes. Some teens find that this makes it easier to tackle.
You might have ADHD or another mental health issue.
If you’re reading all of these things and rolling your eyes because you’ve tried them countless times and never been successful, perhaps it’s time to consider whether you have ADHD. Adolescents with ADHD not only have trouble focusing; they also have trouble sitting still or being quiet for more than a few minutes. If you also have high energy levels, get bored very easily, are constantly losing or forgetting things, and don’t have careful attention to detail, you may have ADHD or another mental health issue.
Do I Have ADHD? More About the Symptoms
If you’re not doing well in school, that may be another indicator that you have ADHD. Many teens who have ADHD feel restless in the classroom and often ask to get up and leave class, often frustrating teachers, who usually resort to discipline to try and keep these teens in check. Are homework and test-taking enormous challenges? Do you lag behind in school and have consistently low grades? Do you often get into trouble at school? Undiagnosed ADHD may also affect other areas of life as well, including friendships and other relationships. It may be hard to make friends. This pervasive difficulty in so many areas of life can cause adolescents with undiagnosed or untreated ADHD to fall into depression, anxiety, or other comorbid mental health issues.
I think I have ADHD. Now what?
If you think you have ADHD, let your parents or any other competent adult know your concerns. They’ll be able to help you get evaluated by a mental health professional specializing in teens. Once diagnosed, this professional will then recommend a specific course of treatment. To keep the mental health symptoms under control as best as possible, you may need behavior therapy (like CBT or DBT), medication, and/or lifestyle modifications. Through treatment, you will learn coping skills on how to best manage your symptoms. Once you are diagnosed, your counselor and teachers at school may also be able to help accommodate you with by modifying rules about schoolwork, time spent sitting down in class, test-taking, and other related activities. These accommodations are offered at most schools through an Individualized Education Program (IEP) Plan.