teen girl succeeding in school despite executive dysfunction

Executive Dysfunction Explained

April 28, 2023

Why Can’t My Teenager Focus?

While many teens struggle with finishing assignments or prioritizing projects from time to time, for others, it’s an ongoing problem. If your teen can’t stay on top of things or remember important tasks or events, don’t chalk it up to laziness. They may be dealing with executive dysfunction.

What is Executive Dysfunction?

Executive functioning a term that describes the brain’s ability to prioritize tasks, motivate action, create memories, shift or maintain focus, and manage impulses. Executive dysfunction is when the brain struggles to achieve one or more of those functions. This may manifest in a variety of ways, such as struggling to initiate even important tasks, distraction or difficulty switching from one activity to another, forgetting things like appointments or assignments, impulsive actions or spending, or hyperfocusing on less urgent tasks at the expense of urgent priorities.

In your teen, this might look like forgetting to turn in homework assignments or struggling to complete big projects on time. In some cases, they may also engage in risky behaviors such as drug use or reckless driving due to the problems with impulse control caused by executive dysfunction. They may also become frustrated by interruptions or unexpected changes in plans.

Many things cause executive dysfunction. It commonly occurs as the result of a learning or developmental disorder, such as ADHD or autism. It may also be related to mental illness concerns such as depression, or it may come from damage to the brain from traumatic brain injuries or conditions such as dementia, though the latter is more uncommon in teens.

Although not every instance of these problems is tied to mental dysfunction, it’s important to recognize the signs. Knowing what you’re looking for can help you seek the proper treatment to help your teen succeed.

Treating Executive Dysfunction in Teens

Executive dysfunction can be treated in a number of ways. Interventions like cognitive behavioral therapy that can teach your teen coping skills to help improve their function and mediate the effects. Another common treatment for executive dysfunction is medication. Though medication is not always necessary, a qualified psychiatrist can tell you if this might be appropriate for your teen. Some students also see success through academic coaching that helps them prioritize assignments and projects.

While executive dysfunction is something that can be mediated through treatments like these, it’s important to remember that you can’t punish it away. No amount of grounding or taking away distractions is going to change their brain function, so it won’t solve the problem. The best way to handle these issues is often a combination of creating habits as a family and assessment and treatment by a qualified professional.

Treatment for Teen Executive Dysfunction

If you’re concerned your teen may be struggling with executive dysfunction, having them assessed to find the cause is a good first step. The Forum at San Diego Brainworks offers assessment and treatment by qualified professionals who can help your student find solutions and succeed. Contact us for more information about our mental health and learning disorder services.