Updated 20 September 2019

A head injury could be causing your child's attention issues

Children who sustain brain injuries may suffer long-lasting effects to their memory, a new study indicates.

Children who suffer even mild brain injuries may experience momentary lapses in attention long after their accident, new research finds.

The study of 6- to 13-year-olds found these attention lapses led to lower behaviour and intelligence ratings by their parents and teachers.

"Parents, teachers and doctors should be aware that attention impairment after traumatic brain injury can manifest as very short lapses in focus, causing children to be slower," said study researcher Marsh Konigs, a doctoral candidate at VU University Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

This loss of focus was apparent even when scans showed no obvious brain damage, the researchers said.

Traumatic brain injury can occur from a blow to the head caused by a fall, traffic accident, assault or sports injury. Concussion is one type of traumatic brain injury. In 2009, more than 248,000 teens and children were treated in U.S. emergency rooms for sports- and recreation-related traumatic brain injuries or concussions, according to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention.

Slower processing speed

For the study, published online in the journal Paediatrics, researchers compared 113 children who had been hospitalised with a traumatic brain injury with 53 children who had a trauma injury not involving the head. The injuries, which ranged from mild to severe, occurred more than 18 months earlier on average.

The researchers tested mental functioning and evaluated questionnaires completed by parents and teachers at least two months after the injuries.

The head-injured group had slower processing speed, the researchers found. And their attention lapses were longer than those noted in the other children. But unlike other research, no differences were reported in other types of attention, such as executive attention – the ability to resolve conflict between competing responses.

The authors note, however, that although the findings suggest an association between head injury and lapses in attention, they do not prove a direct cause-and-effect relationship.

The study did not look at remedies, but Konigs said stimulant medications prescribed for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) may also benefit kids with head injuries who have these attention deficiencies.

The take-home message from this study is that even mild head injury can lead to problems, said Dr Andrew Adesman, chief of developmental and behavioural paediatrics at Cohen Children's Medical Centre of New York in New Hyde Park, New York. He was not involved with the research.

Attention lapses

"This study provides further evidence of the importance of trying to minimise brain trauma, since even when there is no visible damage on CAT scans or MRIs, there can still be a significant adverse effect on attention span and behaviour," Adesman said.

This research underscores the need to protect children from head injuries through proper supervision, consistent use of child car seats and seat belts, as well as headgear when bike riding and playing contact sports, he added.

A notable finding is that these effects on attention can be prolonged, said Dr John Kuluz, a paediatric brain injury specialist at Nicklaus Children's Hospital in Miami, who was not involved in the study. While some kids recover sufficiently after head trauma, he said, others have attention lapses that can interfere with school work.

Parents and teachers can help by restricting "sensory overload", Kuluz said. "They can be overloaded with sensory input from video games, texting and other sources."

If you are limited in your ability to pay attention, he said, "Use your brain energy for the important things, such as your school work. Don't spend hours and hours on video games and texting."

Read more:

Positive reinforcement helps kids with ADHD perform better

Homework and the child with ADHD


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Dr Renata Schoeman has been in full-time private practice as a general psychiatrist (child, adolescent and adult psychiatry) since 2008, currently based in Oude Westhof (Bellville). Renata also holds appointments as senior lecturer in Leadership (USB) and as a virtual faculty member of USB Executive Development’s Neuroleadership programme. She serves on the advisory boards of various pharmaceutical companies, as a director of the Psychiatric Management Group (PsychMG) and is the co-convenor of the South African Society of Psychiatrist (SASOP) special interest group for adult ADHD, and co-founder of the Goldilocks and The Bear Foundation ( She is passionate about corporate mental health awareness and uses her neuroscience background to assist leaders in equipping them to become balanced, healthy and dynamic leaders that take their own and their team’s emotional, intellectual, social health and physical needs into account. Renata is academically active and enjoys research and collaborative work, has published in many peer-reviewed journals, and has presented at local and international congresses. She is regularly invited to present at conferences and to engage with the media. During her post-graduate studies, she trained at Harvard, Boston in neurocognition and neuroimaging. Her awards include, amongst others, the Young Minds in Psychiatry award from the American Psychiatric Association, the Discovery Foundation Fellowship award, a Thuthuka award from the NRF, and a MRC Fellowship. She also received the Top MBA student award and the Director’s award from USB for 2015. She was a finalist for the Businesswomen’s Association of South Africa’s Businesswoman of the Year Award for 2016, and received the Excellence in Media Work award from SASOP during 2016.

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