Showing Empathy to Kids With ADHD

Families who struggle with ADHD know there can be times where parenting is a real challenge — and that is putting it lightly. From my own perspective, I have had to deal with explosive outbursts of anger, tidal waves of big emotions and sometimes tantrums that seem to make little sense given my son’s age.

In times of emotional chaos, I have found that showing empathy for my child with ADHD is the one thing that helps the most. Before I take any action or try to solve the problem at hand, I stop, take a breath and verbally acknowledge my son’s struggle. I let him know that it is okay, that I understand he is feeling all sorts of things and that it is hard to deal with all of these emotions — I ask him how I can help and then respect his needs to the best of my ability.

This is not as easy as it sounds and sometimes my empathy is not met with a good response from my son. It can take some time alone for my son to get to the point where he is listening and responsive. This takes practice, lots of it.  We will continue to hone our skills for as long as it takes.

Here are a few phrases that I have found to be helpful and find myself using over and over again:

  • “I know you are feeling angry and a little out of control. Some quiet time on the sofa might help you.”
  • “I can tell you are really upset about something, but it is not okay for you to yell at your brother. I am here when you want to talk about it.”
  • “I know all of those feelings can’t feel good. How can I help you right now?”

So how has showing empathy helped my son with ADHD?

Showing empathy gives my son a calm parent who he knows is on his side.  My interactions with my son (during highly stressful moments) are as positive as they can be when I give him some empathy. I know my child needs me to be calm  in these moments that he can’t. For me to answer his out of control emotions with mine is just a really bad idea.  I know because I have tried it!

Showing empathy helps my son identify what is happening. By talking about emotions immediately he can begin to identify what he is feeling. I am careful to name certain feelings I think might be coming up for him.  “You  might be angry, or frustrated, or tired.”

Showing empathy has allowed my child to be more open to talking about what may be behind his feelingsWhen things are calmer, we can then have a conversation about the emotions and what may be behind them. Rather than stuff them, feelings become part of our conversation. We often get to the source of his anger -usually something that happened at school-so we can solve the real problem.

Showing empathy models a great response for the rest of the family. My younger son does not have ADHD and these times must be very hard for him to understand, too.   If I yell, then he will yell at his brother.  I know because it has happened. Showing empathy also models the acceptance of feelings and being kind and gracious to oneself. I am teaching my kids to have empathy not only for others but for themselves in these sticky situations.

Empathy is just the first step.

Empathy is the first step in dealing with my son’s emotional outbursts.  I have learned to be a detective, to look beyond the anger, the yelling, the physical outbursts. These are only symptoms of something else that is going on.  Most of the time my son is dealing with issues that arose at school or  feelings that are hard for him to recognize because they come on hard and fast.

Parenting these outbursts is tricky. One might be tempted to address what you see in the moment-the anger, the yelling, the physical outbursts. Punishments, time outs, and spewing off consequences just do not work in these moments because they do nothing to address the underlying issues. Though having empathy for his rush of emotions really does bring him out of it much quicker than anything else.

Some people might interpret this the wrong way, that having empathy is accepting the often really bad behavior. It’s not. It’s accepting the big feelings and emotions that, for many kids, are so hard to handle. It is acceptance for the struggle, for the whole child who is trying, confused, overwhelmed, and still learning and developing.  I know my son feels out of control with his emotions, because he is out of control.

The more I learn about his ADHD and the myriad of issues associated with it,  the more I realize that these episodes are just as scary for my son as they are for us.  By showing empathy in these situations, we all come out of the sticky situation feeling we have handled it with as much dignity and respect as possible. We come away from an emotional episode with more peace and clarity. And we can get back to “normal”, which feels good for everyone.

Please let me know if you have questions or have tried empathy with your own child. Navigating the tough times of parenting feels easier when we can talk to each other and find someone who can relate!!