Ask the Experts

Q: Does My Child with ADHD Have Selective Hearing?

Your child swears you never told him. He doesn’t remember hearing that. He has no idea what you’re talking about. Is this selective hearing? Or something more specific to ADHD?

Teenager boy wearing yellow t-shirt over isolated background surprised with hand on head for mistake, remember error. Forgot, bad memory concept.

Q: “My son, Jake, is 15 and I am so frustrated that he doesn’t seem to remember anything I say to him. It’s like he has selective hearing. I’ll ask him to do things or remember to check on his sister or even meet me after school and it’s as if he never heard me in the first place. It makes me really angry. Is it ADHD? Can you help me figure this out?” – Remembering Mom


Hi Remembering Mom:

What you are describing is working memory, which is an executive functioning skill often impacted by ADHD. It’s the ability to hold on to new information and have it stored in the brain so you can pull it out and use it (even at a later time) when needed. I equate working memory to a two-lane highway: Information coming in must tether itself to the brain; and information must be ready to go out when prompted.

I teach parents about working memory with this example: Your student is in math class at 8 am and learning fractions. At that time and in that moment, he understands what is being taught. Now fast forward to 8 pm. Your student opens up his math homework, looks at it, and says, “I have no idea what this is. I never learned it.”

Did he hear it? Yes. Did he learn it? Yes. Did he remember it? No. What is actually happening is that the information or instructions he was given earlier in the day did not “superglue” to his brain. It boomeranged right out. So what might look like “selective hearing” is really his brain’s inability to solidify and hold on to information. When you are telling him something you want him to do later on in the day, he is hearing you… at that moment. He’s just not remembering later on.

So how do you help your child to remember?

[Read: Why Working Memory Fails and How to Bolster It]

1. Break down information. Any instructions or requests should be given in bite-sized pieces. If you’re giving your son multi-step directions or instructions, give them one at a time so he has a chance to process each one.

2. Limit the “oh by the ways” and “don’t forgets.” Your child is running out the door (or you are) and you call out, “Oh, by the way, don’t forget to meet me at 3 pm by the side door of the school!” The likelihood that your child will remember that information is pretty slim. As much as you can (and I know this is a tricky one), try to find quiet and distraction-free times to impart instructions. Aim for the night before if you can. And to ensure that your son hears you, make sure you are in the same room and have his full attention. Better yet, write it down.

And a tip within a tip. Don’t demand eye contact. Many children with ADHD cannot auditorily and visually process at the same time. Your son may need to move around to fully listen and be engaged.

3. How is he going to remember? Are y0u asking your son, “How are you going to remember that?” You son needs a scaffolding method to remember information. So asking HOW does just that. Perhaps he can use the Notes App on his phone, set a reminder or an alarm, or even take a picture of written instructions. Encourage him to find a strategy that works for him.

[Read: 15 Memory Exercises for Forgetful Kids]

4. Repeat it backwards. I learned this method from a middle school teacher! She explained that when she wants her students to truly solidify information she has taught, she has them repeat it to her backwards. Her reasoning? That the brain has to work harder to recall information when it remembers backwards, so it’s more likely to stick. So instead of asking your son to repeat back to you what you just said, ask him to do it backwards. I use this trick with all of my student coaching clients, and it works!

Good Luck!

Selective Hearing or ADHD: Next Steps


ADHD Family Coach Leslie Josel, of Order Out of Chaos, will answer questions from ADDitude readers about everything from paper clutter to disaster-zone bedrooms and from mastering to-do lists to arriving on time every time.

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