11 Challenges of Raising a Child with Hyperfixation

Having a hyperfixated child can be a real challenge, putting a strain on the parents, and often on the whole family.

This article will help you understand your child’s hyperfixation and give you new ways of thinking about it. These insights will make your life easier and help you guide your child to focus their hyperfixation on more productive activities.

In this article, we’ll cover:

  • What hyperfixation is
  • The reasons why children hyperfixate
  • The potential benefits of hyperfixation – which are often masked by being applied to non-productive activities
  • The 11 most common challenges of raising a hyperfixated child – and how to to understand what’s really going on for your child
  • What you can do to make things better – for yourself and for your child

Short course via Zoom: How to Understand and Support a Child with Hyperfixation Issues

Intense concentration

What is Hyperfixation?

Hyperfixation is complete absorption in a task, to a point where a person appears to ignore or ‘tune out’ everything else.

Hyperfixation is characterized by:

    1. An intense state of concentration and focus.
    2. Awareness of things not related to the current focus not even consciously noticed.
    3. Hyperfixation is usually dedicated to things that the person finds enjoyable or fascinating.
    4. During a hyperfixation state, task performance improves.

Adapted from “Hyperfocus: the forgotten frontier of attention” by Professor Brandon K. Ashinoff, Department of Psychiatry, Columbia University, New York, USA and Ahmad Abu-Akel, Research Fellow at Institut de psychologie, Lausanne, Switzerland.

We cover this topic in depth in Hyperfixation: What it is – And what it isn’t.

Short course via Zoom: How to Understand and Support a Child with Hyperfixation Issues

Why Does Your Child Hyperfixate?

There is research that shows that people with ADHD, ASD (Asperger’s and Autism Spectrum) and schizophrenia tend to fall into states of hyperfixation more frequently than ‘normal’ people, but there is very little research into why this happens.

Anecdotal evidence and self-reports suggest three main motivations for going into states of hyperfixation:

  1. As a way to distract from or avoid other things
  2. As a substitute for real world social interaction
  3. The activity is intrinsically fascinating and absorbing for the person

Distraction and Avoidance

Many people report placing their intense focus on one activity as a way of distracting themselves from recurring or chronic negative feelings like anxiety and depression.

While they are in the state of hyperfixation, all other things disappear from conscious awareness, giving relief from the negative feelings they have.

Unfortunately, many people also report that after their period of hyperfixation ends, they actually feel worse than they did before they started.

So, unfortunately, this is a band-aid solution that doesn’t really help in the long term.

Having said that, this does not mean that it’s necessarily a bad thing in the overall context of a child’s life. There are many positive things a child can hyperfixate on that bring positive results in life, even if it’s an avoidance strategy. 

For example:

  • Health and fitness
  • Competitive sports
  • Getting good grades
  • Learning to write computer programs
  • Getting into a prestigious university
  • Learning new skills
  • Becoming a master in some field of endeavor

Playing video games

Substitute for Real World Socialization

Social media and multi-player games give the experience of social interaction, without having to actually engage in real world social interactions.

For people who find social interactions stressful this can be a welcome substitute. At least it gives them some form of interaction with other human beings, in a format that’s easier for them to deal with.

This may be especially true for people with ASD (Asperger’s and Autism Spectrum), who are more prone to hyperfixation than the general population.

It’s not a bad solution to a very difficult problem. In fact, for some people, this might be the best solution that is available to them.

While not confirmed, it has been widely speculated that Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, has ASD. Being hyperfixated on social media certainly turned out OK for him.

Fascination

Lastly, many people get into states of hyperfixation simply because they are fascinated by the topic or task at hand.

Depending on the object of the hyperfixation, this can fall anywhere on the scale from an enjoyable but unproductive use of time to an obsession that leads to success in career and life. 

When hyperfixation is applied to something that is useful and productive, the benefits include:

  • Almost inexhaustible energy
  • The ability to constantly practice and improve
  • A depth of focus that allows them to outperform almost anyone else
  • The ability to keep going and eventually succeed in the face of seemingly-impossible challenges

Short course via Zoom: How to Understand and Support a Child with Hyperfixation Issues

Is Hyperfixation All Bad?

While raising a child who is hyperfixated can be challenging, there are some remarkable benefits to being able to hyperfixate:

  1. Intense Focus
  2. Untiring Energy
  3. High Productivity
  4. Being ‘in the zone’
  5. Being in a ‘flow state’
  6. Mastery Through Practice

Simone Biles has the ability to hyperfixate

Some famous people who seem to have the ability to hyperfocus include:

  • Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, who was obsessively focused on creating great user experiences (and also is on the Autism spectrum)
  • Simone Biles, considered to be the most successful gymnast of all time (who also has ADHD)
  • Elon Musk, who’s obsessively focused on creating technological innovations to solve difficult and important problems (and is also on the Autism spectrum)
  • Albert Einstein, you know, he invented General Relativity and changed our view of the universe forever (and was also dyslexic)
  • Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, was obsessively focused on building computer technology, and is now equally obsessively focused on his philanthropic endeavours. (See the documentary “Inside Bill’s Brain.”)

The list goes on and on. Just look at anyone who’s a world-class leader in their field, and you’ll almost certainly find that they spend most of their time hyperfocused on their single obsession in life.

We cover these benefits in detail in 6 Extraordinary Benefits of Hyperfixation.

Of course, these potential benefits are only useful when your child hyperfocused on something productive.

Through working with Oxford Specialist Tutors, I’ve learned a lot about how my ADHD – Hyperfocus brain works, and how to harness it to my best advantage.

In the mornings, I sometimes wake up in hyperfocus mode, in which case I get straight to work.

But most mornings, I wake up in full-on ADD mode. My brain is filled with a thousand thoughts and ideas, and flits from topic to topic in rapid fire. I cannot focus on one thing, but I am having useful thoughts about everything that’s on my mind. And there are a LOT of things on my mind!

When that happens, I used to try to force myself to focus, but it never worked. And I’d get really stressed in the process.

Now, instead, I let my brain flit around for as long as it needs to – while I take a walk, drink a coffee, or just gaze out of the window.

Once my brain is ready to settle, only then do I bring my focus down to just one thing.

When my brain is ready, that’s really easy to do, and I get into a hyper focused state of extreme productivity. “In the zone” as some people call it.

I’ve also learned that I need time to switch from one focus to another. If I try to switch too fast, again I get stressed out and cannot focus.

So instead, I always take a break between different topics of focus.

Overall, understanding how my brain works, and how to manage my ADD and hyperfocus has made my life a lot less stressful, and a lot more productive.

David – ADHD, Hyperfocus

When they’re hyperfocused on something that is a waste of time, those potential benefits become problems. They pour all their time and energy into something useless, while ignoring schoolwork, chores around the house and interacting with other family members.

Short course via Zoom: How to Understand and Support a Child with Hyperfixation Issues

11 Challenges of Raising a Child with Hyperfixation

If you have a hyperfixated child, you’re probably all too familiar with the items in the list below.

The symptoms are familiar, but what’s really going on for your child when these things happen? We’ll give you a little explanation of each one, so that you can understand them better.

Later in the article, we’ll talk about how you can start to redirect your child’s hyperfixation from time-wasting activities to productive endeavors.

1. Don’t listen

Probably the most common complaint is your child just doesn’t listen. You say something to them and they completely ignore you. You call them five times to come to dinner and… nothing. Eventually you have to go up to their room, and maybe even prod them to get their attention.

It’s crazy making! And it feels rude and disrespectful. You’ve put time into cooking dinner and they can’t even be bothered to come down to eat.

What’s really going on here is that your child most likely doesn’t even hear you

That’s hard to get your head around, but the reality is that they’re so focused on what they’re doing that they simply tune out everything else that’s going on around them.

When someone talks to them, they literally don’t hear it.

One of our hyperfocused friends has made a pact with his wife. 

When he’s in intense work mode, she reminds him at 5:00 PM that it’s almost time for dinner. He nods, but hardly registers it.

At 5:30, she tells him again, and this time he starts to drag himself out of his hyperfocsed state. (It’s tough for him, because he’s so engrossed in what he’s doing. But he knows he has to eat.)

At 5:45, she reminds him again, but this time stands by him until he looks up from his computer.

Reluctantly he drags himself away.

At 6:00 he lays the table, and then they enjoy a family dinner together.

They’ve also agreed that he won’t rush his dinner to get back to work. In fact, they’ve agreed that after 6:00 he doesn’t do any more work for the day.

So, he just gets up early the next morning so he can get right back to it.

2. Distracted

Even if they’re physically present, your child may seem totally distracted. 

While they’re going through the motions of doing something with the family or doing their homework, you can just see that their head is in another world.

That’s the blessing and the curse of hyperfixation. They’re able to totally dedicate themselves to one thing, but it’s hard for them to turn it off and pay attention to something else.

The most successful hyperfocused kids (and adults) have learned that they need to set their own internal boundaries on their fixation. There are times when it’s fine to have their head in the clouds – for example when they’re doing household chores while still thinking about their obsession – but there are times when the task at hand or the people around them really do need their full attention.

Learning to ‘switch it off’ takes practice and patience.

3. Don’t pay attention

They seem to be there. You’re talking to them and they’re nodding as you speak. But afterwards, they don’t remember a thing you said.

Aaaargh!

Again, the problem is that they’re not really there. They’re physically present, but all of their attention is off somewhere else.

A phrase that works well here is, “I have something important to say, and I really need your full attention.” Then just wait until they’re actually listening. (You can most likely tell when they’re really listening and when they’re not. Just wait.)

Afterwards, it’s probably a good idea to check they heard what you said, by saying something like, “I just want to check that you got it. What did you just hear me say?”

(If they can’t repeat it back, rinse and repeat.)

4. Staying up late

Yep. Staying up all night to read a whole novel in one sitting, or get to the next level in their video game.

Then when the alarm goes off in the morning, they can’t get out of bed.

This works fine when the hyperfixated person (and those around them) have a flexible schedule.

We’ve worked with many CEOs and business leaders who will stay up all night honing their visions and plans for the company, and then show up at 11:30 for a 9:00 AM meeting. (True story.)

It’s frustrating for their team, but they get away with it because everyone appreciates the genius they bring to the table from their hyperfocus.

But for a kid who has school in the morning and parents who have to get to work, that just doesn’t work.

It’s a tough one to enforce, but the only solution here is to set hard limits on book hours or screen hours. If you can be flexible on the weekend nights, that will make it easier for you kid to follow the rules on school nights.

5. Not doing their chores

For most kids, doing household chores is not their highest priority in life.

And for hyperfocused kids, chores are often even lower down the list. (Unless, of course, you lucked out and your kid is hyperfocused on cleanliness and organization – but that’s one in a thousand.)

This is where a lot of well-intentioned people would suggest bribes: “If you do your chores, you’ll get X reward.”

We recommend against this, as, counter-intuitively, it reinforces the belief that chores are unpleasant and to be avoided unless there’s some other reward.

Instead, we suggest mapping out a weekly calendar with your child to help them plan their time. When are they going to do the chores? When are they going to do their homework? And – importantly for your child – when are they going to be able to fully immerse themselves in their hyperfixation? It’s important that this is a visual calendar they can see, not just a conversation.

If they can see where everything fits, and when they’re going to get to do what they most want to do, it’s often easier for them to follow the schedule.

6. Not getting their homework done

There’s a fundamental problem here. 

Most schooling and homework is oriented to rote learning and passing exams.

That doesn’t work well for children in general, and is even worse for hyperfocused and neurodiverse kids. (Many hyperfocused children are also neurodiverse, which isn’t a bad thing, but it’s something to keep in mind.)

If the homework doesn’t match their particular interests, and the teaching style doesn’t match their preferred learning style, it’s always going to be hard to get them to do their homework.

The best solution here is to work with a specialised tutor who can help them to learn how to learn, given their specialized needs and interests.

Related articles:

7. Wasting time on stupid things

Oftentimes, the hyperfixations of kids can seem like a total waste of time to their parents.

It’s worth bearing in mind that hyperfixation itself can be a superpower when channeled correctly.

When your child is hyperfixated on something, developing and honing that skill can be an advantage, even if they’re practicing the skill on something that seems to be a waste of time.

If your child develops the skill of being hyperfixated when they’re young, chances are that they’ll be able to apply that same skill to more useful endeavors when they’re older.

One of our students dropped into a state of hyperfixation whenever she was browsing her Instagram feed. It didn’t seem like a useful skill at the time. In fact, it drove the people around her crazy.

But later in life, she became an expert in Social Media Marketing. A hyperfixation that has given her a great career.

8. Being late

“Just five more minutes…”

When someone is hyperfixated, it can be very hard for them to break the spell. It takes remarkable willpower to break out of a hyperfixated state.

The best strategy here is:

  1. Set clear time limits
  2. Give them time to shift their state and a sequence of reminders to gradually make the change

It’s easy for most people to switch from one thing to another. But to repeat ourselves: for the hyperfixated person, this is hard and takes enormous willpower.

9. Living in their own world

Professor Sir Andrew Wiles of Oxford University is the most celebrated mathematician of the twentieth century. He doesn’t cycle to work (which is the most common form of transportation at Oxford), as he thinks it would be dangerous for him to do it while thinking about mathematics. Instead, he walks to work so he can continue thinking about mathematical problems without being a danger to himself and others.

– Adapted from Nature, “Fermat’s last theorem earns Andrew Wiles the Abel Prize

Talk about living in another world! His mind is so consumed with mathematics that it’s not even safe to ride a bicycle.

The biggest advantage of people ‘living in their own world’ is that it allows them to grapple with extremely complex problems over an extended period of time.

So, yes, hyperfocused people do tend to live in their own world. It can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on how you look at it.

10. Losing track of time

One of the great joys of hyperfocus is completely losing track of time.

Hours go by and they don’t even realize it.

The benefit is that it gives them seemingly inexhaustible energy to work on their topic of interest.

But it can be crazy-making for the people around them.

Remember, when they lose track of time and forget commitments they made, they’re not being intentionally rude or disrespectful. They are literally not aware of the passage of time.

If you need them to remember commitments they made to do things at a certain time, the advice is the same as we gave about them being late.

11. Ignoring the rest of the family

Combined, all of these can lead to if feeling like a hyperfocused child ignores the rest of the family – including you.

It feels like they just don’t care.

If your hyperfocused child is having a negative impact on you and the rest of the family, it’s appropriate to talk about it with them.

But talking to them about it while they’re in their hyperfocused state won’t work. Wait until they drop out of their hyperfocus to have the conversation.

And the more you can respect the importance of their hyperfocus to them while also expressing what you need and expect in family interactions, the better.

Short course via Zoom: How to Understand and Support a Child with Hyperfixation Issues

How to Deal with Your Child’s Hyperfixation

So, hyperfixation is a very mixed bag.

It can be crazy-making for you as a parent and the rest of the family.

And if your child is hyperfocused on something that seems like a complete waste of time to you, it’s even harder to deal with.

Having said that, the ability to enter states of hyperfixation is an extraordinary skill which is fundamental to the success of the top performers in any area of work or sports.

Through working with Oxford Specialist Tutors, I’ve learned a lot about how my ADHD – Hyperfocus brain works, and how to harness it to my best advantage.

In the mornings, I sometimes wake up in hyperfocus mode, in which case I get straight to work.

But most mornings, I wake up in full-on ADD mode. My brain is filled with a thousand thoughts and ideas, and flits from topic to topic in rapid fire. I cannot focus on one thing, but I am having useful thoughts about everything that’s on my mind. And there are a LOT of things on my mind!

When that happens, I used to try to force myself to focus, but it never worked. And I’d get really stressed in the process.

Now, instead, I let my brain flit around for as long as it needs to – while I take a walk, drink a coffee, or just gaze out of the window.

Once my brain is ready to settle, only then do I bring my focus down to just one thing.

When my brain is ready, that’s really easy to do, and I get into a hyper focused state of extreme productivity. “In the zone” as some people call it.

I’ve also learned that I need time to switch from one focus to another. If I try to switch too fast, again I get stressed out and cannot focus.

So instead, I always take a break between different topics of focus.

Overall, understanding how my brain works, and how to manage my ADD and hyperfocus has made my life a lot less stressful, and a lot more productive.

David – ADHD, Hyperfixation

The trick is to manage and redirect your child’s hyperfixation into useful activities and skills – so that it works for you now and gives them a foundation for enormous success in the future. We go into depth about how to do this in How to Turn Your Child’s Hyperfixation into a Superpower.

If you would like to talk with one of our experts to discuss what would be the best approach to tutoring your hyperfixated child, book a free consultation today.

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