What is Internal Focus in Childhood?
Internal focus in childhood is the tendency to ignore what is happening in the social environment. For example, an internally focused child might stack blocks in the corner and not even notice a fire drill going on in the room.
Parents may say, “once he gets focused on a video game, a fire alarm could go off, and he wouldn’t even look up.”
If your child is internally focused, it may seem like a whole conversation is going on in their mind that other people cannot easily disrupt. Your child may get very interested in a particular activity and lack awareness that a whole world is going on outside. It is okay for people to spend some time alone; however, this internal focus can become a problem when a child does not make an effort socially or struggles to make friends.
Symptoms of Internal Focus Issues in Children
- In their own world: your child is focused internally and not externally
- Ignores others: your child is unaware of others’ actions and interests
- Looks away: your child is not interested when someone points or shows something
- Seems to ignore people: your child is doing their own thing and is not interested in others
- Is a loner: your child prefers playing alone or has trouble playing with or talking to other kids
- Doesn’t share enjoyment: your child gets excited about a toy or object and does not bring others to enjoy it too
- Misreading cues: your child does not understand cues in the social environment
- Distracted: your child gets so focused on their thoughts that teachers cannot keep their attention on the lesson. Your child may get in trouble in class for not listening
- Intense internal dialogue: Your child may be so interested in their thoughts that they seem to be in a silent play or a movie, missing what is actually happening in the room
Causes of Internal Focus Issues in Children
- Social skills deficits or delays: when children have a delay in social skills, it may be hard for them to focus on other people’s ideas or interests
- Attention problems: when children struggle to pay attention in general, they may find it challenging to focus on what other people are doing around them
- Developmental delays: when children have developmental delays, they may not hit social milestones at the same pace as other children. Social attention typically develops between 18 and 30 months, but children with developmental delays may not demonstrate this skill as early. Instead, kids who are internally focused may avoid others or stay ‘in their own world’ in kindergarten or first grade
- Neurological differences: when children have autism spectrum disorder, there are differences in the white matter connections in the brain. Issues with internal focus can be an early warning sign of autism. Other neurological differences like ADHD can also underly challenges with being internally focused
- Cognitive Development: when children have delays or deficits in their cognitive abilities, they may be slower to make social skills progress. Thus, you may see that they are developing more slowly in terms of paying attention to others and instead stay focused on their own thoughts or interests
What to Do About Internal Focus Issues in Children
In order to help your child with paying attention to others, it is essential to know some basics. Parents can significantly impact a child’s social attention through direct teaching and practice.
“To help your kids enter your world, join them in theirs.”
First, join your child’s world: Parents can become distressed when their children are so distracted and difficult to engage in a conversation. As clinicians, we often notice that the child is actually interested in talking with the parent, but it is about a subject that is not particularly exciting. For example, the child may have a particular interest, such as trains. Trains are all the kid wants to talk about all day long. The parent gets so tired of hearing about trains that they tune out and get frustrated or distracted.
Join them in a conversation instead of tuning out of your child’s ongoing talk about trains. Play trains or go to the train museum. Once you have your interest in the train conversation, start to expand the topics gradually. Perhaps you can point out cars or trucks.
Next, notice what they notice: Say something like, “what are you looking at, buddy?” If your child says, “the train,” you might say, “oh, that’s a shiny train, isn’t it?” If your child responds by agreeing or commenting, immediately respond. You can say, “thanks for showing me,” or “it is so fun to look at trains together.” In this interaction, you are showing your child that you like to be brought into their world and you are interested in hearing their perspectives.
Then, expand the topic: If you want to help your child join you in conversations beyond their own area of focus, start with something they already like. For example, your child may have an interest in bugs. Great! Talk to your child about bugs for a while. Then, you might start to talk about bugs you like. Once you have your child’s attention, add something new. For example, you might say, “isn’t it interesting that bugs are such an important part of the food chain?” If your child shows some interest, immediately reinforce that by saying something like, “It is so great to learn about nature together.” In this way, you are showing your child that you care about their ideas and that you can have fun sharing ideas together.
If you are doing these activities and your child is truly not responding, treatment may be needed. Early intervention, meaning getting help while your child is still young, has the best outcomes for improvement in social skills such as focus and sharing attention.
When to Seek Help for Internal Focus Challenges in Children
If your child seems to be locked in their own world, help is available. As a therapist, I heard a parent aptly describe how difficult it can be to see your child disconnected and unplugged from the social world. The child’s dad said,
“My child is trapped in the kingdom of isolation.”
This description captures what it can be like for families to see a child get stuck in their own world. The good news is that you don’t have to face this alone. Important skills need to be taught to many children, particularly if there are neurodevelopmental disabilities present.
An Applied Behavioral Analyst (ABA) therapist can work with your child to model and teach how to share and engage with others. A behavioral therapist can provide direct support at the child’s current level to teach these skills step-by-step. ABA therapists can increase a desired behavior through direct teaching like communicating and interacting with others.
For example, let’s say your child wants to unlock the door to go outside. Instead of asking for help, your child bangs on the door and kicking the wall in protest. An ABA therapist would require that your child appropriately get your attention before they would respond. The therapist may give the child the language to get attention and make requests. For example, the therapist would teach your child to say, “Can you help me get the door open?”
As parents, it is often easy to skip over this step. We want to meet our child’s needs so if they ask for something, we might just naturally give it to them. However, in therapy, your child would learn that the door will not be opened until they learn to request it appropriately.
Parents can do this same type of modeling at home. The need for a therapist depends on the intensity of the behavior and how receptive the child is to learning new techniques.
Further Resources on Internal Focus Challenges in Children
- Psychologist or neuropsychologist: to conduct an evaluation to understand your child’s needs. A diagnosis of a developmental disability can often open the door to therapies that your child may need to improve their social development. These therapies are often covered by insurance and may also be available at the school in the form of special education services
- Developmental pediatrician: to do an evaluation or guide medical and behavioral intervention. A developmental pediatrician specializes in children with developmental concerns. They can help guide behavioral and medical treatment.
- Psychotherapist: to provide intervention for social skills and related emotional issues. Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) and play therapy interventions have been shown to help children make gains in recognizing and understanding emotions, improving perspective taking, and social skills
- ABA therapist: to directly teach skills like interacting socially with others. Applied Behavior Analysis uses principles of reinforcement to increase desired behaviors like communication, social skills and engagement with peers and adults
Similar Conditions to Internal Focus Issues in Children
- Attention problems: difficulty with internal focus may be associated with other types of attention problems such shifting attention or sustained attention
- Executive functions: difficulties related to planning, sequencing, and organizing information may go hand in hand with internal focus problems
- Processing speed: difficulties with fluency in cognitive processing can cause issues with social engagement. A child may not learn from others, or join them in conversation, if they have trouble processing what they are hearing
- Social skills problems: difficulty engaging in flexible back and forth communication and building social connections can be associated with internal focus problems
Resources for Internal Focus In Childhood
Kroncke, Willard, & Huckabee (2016). Assessment of autism spectrum disorder: Critical issues in clinical forensic and school settings. Springer, San Francisco.
Linder Ed.D., Toni & Petersen-Smith Ph.D., Ann (2008) Administration Guide for TPBA2 & TPBI2 (Play-Based Tpba, Tpbi, Tpbc). Paul H. Brookes, Inc.
Barkley, Russell A. (2013). Taking charge of ADHD, 3rd edition: The complete, authoritative guide for parents.
Giler, Janet Z. (2011). Socially ADDept: Teaching social skills to children with ADHD, LD, and Asperger’s.
Kluth Paula, Schwarz Patrick. (2012). Just Give Him the Whale!