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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?”
  • “I can tell something is bothering you, but calling me names is not going to help. We can talk about solving the problem when you are calm.”

How has showing empathy helped my son with ADHD?

Showing empathy gives my son a calm parent who 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! Spewing out consequences or punishments does nothing but escalate the issue.

Showing empathy helps my son identify what is happening. By talking about emotions immediately( or as soon as everyone is calm) 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.

Remember, this is a process-for everyone

This type of parenting did not come easy to me.  I was raised the old fashioned way-on fear and punishment. It worked for me. Parenting a kid with ADHD has had a huge learning curve for me.  It certainly is a challenge I take head on, but I often have to remind myself that change does not happen in a day.

Ross Greene’s this post.

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!!

Wait!!  I want to read more about ADHD!!

I talk about our ADHD sleep routine here.

See what a miracle a weighted blanket has been for my son’s ADHD here.

Our favorite breakfasts for fueling ADHD for a successful day are  here.

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  1. Great, informative article. I agree with your suggestions and comments. My 12-year old grandson has ADHD as well as sensory problems. I attempt to acknowledge his feelings (which happen so quickly, he is not able to think things out ahead of “reacting”. At the same time, I discuss when things are inappropriate and that growing up means taking responsibility for our actions. He is fearful of repercussions from his father who is naturally loud spoken. The last time I was with him and he had one of his “meltdowns”, after a calming period of time (in his room), I reasoned with him by asking “what’s the worst consequence you can think of happening regarding this situation? Will Dad yell? Will he punish you? Maybe; but I assured him that he would certainly live through it and everything would be OK. I told him that every single person had made wrong or bad choices in their life, even me, and although there were consequences, I lived through them and so would he. He really calmed down and wanted me to stay with him in his room. He is getting old enough to acknowledge that he has these problems and wishes he was different. I am working on researching for some “coping mechanisms” that I can offer to him to try. Hopefully, he will find some that suit him and help him to control his outbursts. Please don’t used my name. Thanks

    1. Hi! How lucky he is to have you as his Grandma! You are so right, when we treat kids with respect, everything changes. Thanks for reading, keep in touch.

  2. You completely nailed how I feel with my 12 year old son! It’s really helpful to know I’m not alone and crazy!

    1. Andrea! No you are not crazy and certainly not alone. I’ve been focusing more on ADHD on my blog because parenting a challenging child can be so isolating at times. I hope to bring comfort and helpful tips to people like us! Thanks for reading!

  3. Suzie thayer says:

    I have an almost 19 year old son. He was diagnosed very late 9 th grade and then most kept saying he did not have add. He was in a small private school through 8th grade. He was severely bullied in 6th grade, dealt with a death and we had to change schools due to bullying and lack of help from administration. He struggles with depression, drug addiction and impulse controls. He is super intelligent, extremely loyal, wants to be successful but is so down on himself not graduating an all the
    Other stuff. I have been doing research as I feel so much of this could have helped him. I have been employing a lot of the techniques but I struggle with the fact that time has run out. He lives with us but he is 18 and it is hard to employ some of these strategies with an adult child. Are there any resources that help parents when the diagnosis is late and you want to help your adult child without making them feel like a little kid or that they are stupid? He currently is sober and working hard to stay on track. He has started a ged class and is working. So I think he is in a good spot now but we always seem to get one step ahead two steps back. He also looks as any help is a crutch.

    Thanks for any info.
    Worried parent.

    things se

    1. HI Suzie, Thanks so much for your comment. My heart goes out to you, but I truly believe it’s never too late to make a big difference. I have just begun listening to Peter Shankman’s Podcast, Faster Than Normal. It is amazing because it has such a positive spin on ADHD and related diagnosis.He also has a new book out-I bought it for my husband, who was diagnosed at 43 years old! Also, if you are not familiar with Ross Greene, check out his books. They give examples with younger children, but his approach is amazing-we found a therapist from his website and we are seeing so much progress with my son’s anxiety. I hope these ideas help. I will let you know if I come across anything else that may help.

  4. My daughter was diagnosed at age 6. At 33 we still work with the challenges 1 day at a time. Measuring successes requires a lot of listening and the right therapist. She needs a therapist she can trust You /We are not alone. We still parent when they are grown. Thanks for the article.

    1. Thanks Cheryl for your comment. Your experience is very valuable. Your daughter is lucky to have you!

    My son is 9 years old and is being treated for ADHD. He takes meds for that and now in the last week he started taking meds for being bipolar, this helps a whole lot!

    1. You are very welcome, Tina. We really can learn so much from our kids. I am learning a whole new way to parent!

  6. I have 5 children all very different and all fall on the ADHD scale as well as mild autism. I am looking for ideas in managing our home dealing with chores and homework. Any suggestions?

    1. Sounds like you have your hands full. I am no expert with chores – my kids still put up a fuss when they do chores and we have been doing them since they were 2! What works for us is talking about what they are willing to do (my son prefers to clean bathrooms over weeding, etc) and the time they will do it(my son hated to take the trash out at night because he was afraid of the dark alley) Getting their input has been key as they get older. Maybe I should do a post on this because so much has NOT worked for us. Hope that helps. We also have a laminated list for each of them with their chores – so I just say, “have you don’t your list yet?”

  7. Thank you so much for this. I don’t feel like such a failure anymore! My son is 7 and was diagnosed last year. I was on Pinterest browsing ADHD parenting tips and this article came up. Everything sounds so like my life; its so refreshing to know I’m not the only mom out there feeling this way!!

    1. HI Rachel…You are NOT a failure. There are so many people dealing with similar issues…its great to connect online! Thanks for reading, glad you found this.

      1. Reading the words, “I don’t feel like such a failure anymore” really brought out some emotions in me I had been holding down for a while now. I’m just getting my son tested, although after reading a ton and doing some research I’m pretty certain he has ADHD, and I’ve felt exactly like what you said, a FAILURE. Reading and learning about ADHD is already helping so much. My son is just 6 but I was struggling trying to understand his behaviour, and becoming very frustrated and feeling hopeless. I started blaming myself and letting it effect my own behaviour, and our home was in complete chaos. It definitely feels good to know I’m not alone.

        1. Tamara, You are not alone, for sure. I struggle to understand my kids all the time. We have great days, good days, bad days and a few really bad days sprinkled in. This is a journey and you are a great mother! I always think that we have so much to learn from our kids. They are a blessing for us. Have you read the book, The Explosive Child by Ross Greene? It really helped me figure out what my son was communicating with his behavior. Keep up the good work, mama!

      2. Thank you for your post. I’ve very recently been experiencing this with my 4yr old son. He hasn’t been diagnosed but he does show many traits of adhd. It’s so nice to know that I’m not alone in this journey. We’re just taking each day as it comes. How do you go with transition to school? We’re struggling with outbursts at preschool and I’m feeling a little nervous about starting kindergarten next year. Would love any tips and tricks.

        1. Hi Samantha, Sorry you are experiencing this. My sons exhibit this behavior at home and not at school, although it happens literally until he gets out of the car and enters school. BUT from a teacher’s perspective I’d say, get the teacher on board quickly. Let them know his triggers, what works best. Does he need more movement breaks? A bean bag chair to calm down in? Are there different schools in your area that are an option? Montessori or Waldorf, or the like? Check out my reflex integration post, because this work could be great on someone so young. Read Ross Greene’s explosive child if you haven’t already. Our therapist follows his method and it’s life changing!!! Let me know how it goes and don’t hesitate to send me an email with more questions.

  8. I absolutely love this article. It does seem like my days go better when I am more empathetic to my child. It seems I give a punishment like taking away a favorite toy (from my 5 year old) too often. I just have such a hard time calming myself down inside when he hurts his almost 2 year old brother.

    1. Thanks Amy! and thanks for the heads up on the broken link. This kind of parenting is not how I was raised, so it is not my default. It has taken lots of practice and presence.

  9. Brandy L. Lawhorn says:

    Thank goodness for people like you!
    My 8 year old daughter, my oldest of two, has ADHD, as well as diagnosed anxiety issues. Also, not to ramble but I have a six year old son who has neither of these issues, its like night and day with my two babies. Other parents hear me talk about issues I am trying to navigate with my baby girl, and having no clue how different parenting her is from any other child, feel the need to go to the ” oh they just are just spoiled today need a good olé switch and a spanking.” These kinds of comments make me sad to think of all the children who suffer from these uncontrollable, foreign feelings with these stuck in the past parents. I haven’t tried any sensory tools to help my baby girl , however she has extreme problems with any underwear( the elastic no matter what size is too tight) , any socks( the seams no matter how tiny hurt), and shoes( always too tight). Any recommendations or advice would be greatly appreciated!
    Thank you so much for spreading your research and knowledge on this very pressing issue!
    Fellow overwhelmed parent,
    Brandy L. Lawhorn

    1. HI Brandy! My oldest had some sensory stuff with clothes when he was little, but has grown out of it. Have you worked with an OT? I am taking a class on rhythmic movements and integrating reflexes from Sonia Story @ moveplaythrive.com. Really interesting stuff!! My sons has sensitivity around getting physically hurt….will totally overreact to a scratch or bruise. I mean TOTALLY. I am learning so much from Sonia’s class and website. Check it out.

      1. My son has also suffered from some of these sensory issues when he was younger such as socks,shoes, and hooded sweatshirts. He is 8 and has huge reactions to physical pain….. even just a scratch or if I accidentally poke him with my fingernail you would think I pinched him as hard as I could. He is irritable a lot of the time too!

        1. Yes, the sensitivities really are pervasive….my 14 year old is still so sensitive to scratches, etc and when he is sick…even a little cold will have him out for a few days. His senses are just on high alert all the time, I think. Does your son have extra great hearing, too? Mine can hear my husband and I talking two floors above him and on the other side of the house. : P

  10. Hello, i have a 13yr old son that was diagnosed with adhd last year. My challenge has always been that he does not like to hear the word no, and if he does he gets out of control. He will insult me or just get aggresive and slam doors. How can i help him get thru it. I always feel like the worst mom and guilty for not beeing able to fulfil his needs. I was raised diffrently and really have no idea how to parent a kid with adhd.

    1. You are singing my song!! I have had to learn an entirely different way to parent. I have gotten a lot of help from Ross Greene’s work. It’s all about working collaboratively to solve problems. Read “The Explosive Child” and “Raising Human Beings”. We found a therapist who is trained in his ways and (after going thru 3 other therapists)have had so much success with this method. This parenting stuff is so hard, you’re doing good mama – even when it doesn’t feel like it. Just the fact that you are questioning and searching for another way is proof that you are amazing!

  11. I have an 11 year old daughter with ADHD and a few other issues. This is the first time that I have replied to a group, but suddenly I don’t feel so alone anymore.

  12. How do I follow this page to stay connected? It’s nice finding others who are going through some similar issues. I don’t feel so alone

    1. Hi Hollie! You can sign up for my newsletter in the side bar. I send one out about every other week with ideas for your ADHD Parenting Toolbox

  13. I am a mother of 3 but have had a hand jn raising just about everyone I knows kids. Im have been blessed enough to get to stay home for the last 23+ years with our children, now help with grandchildren also. Which is amazing! I have always been the one that all the kids listen to, and respected! I’ve never came across a child i couldn’t handle, or get thru to with the right amount of love and correcting mixed with the right amount of your time and guidance, it’s just come natural to me. I show them love they show me love, they show me respect, i show them repect, well you get the picture im sure.
    My two youngest are boys and both have adhd, but my youngest is 12. And well he is my more interesting kiddo, and boy is he something. He the combined adhd and also has odd he had been taking medicine since he was 4. They have had him on the maxed does of what he takes of 3 different meds. For a few yrs now and hes going thru puberty now, also. This young man is the sweetest, most helpful, hardworking, loving person i know, until he gets mad, then he hits the meltdown mode, his trigger words have always been “don’t, stop, and NO!” And my biggest mistake is saying, “don’t you dare …. do what ever” because sure enough he will do just THAT!!! No matter what!!!! I have a hard time getting thru to him and for some reason he enjoys making everything a pain in the tail for me and only me, im the only one he showes his full on temper and anger to and im the only one he takes it out on, he is overall good for the most part for others. But from where he hasn’t always been able to control his temper, and his mouth, his grandparents dont seem to really have the energy for keeping up qith him anymore. So i can’t trust that he wont have a meltdown and put holes in the walls at other people houses, or sneak and try to sneak away when he want to go do something. He doesn’t care about consequences and its not because of lack of discipline like people tend to think. I can tell you we stay to ourselves more now which has not been the right choice either i don’t think. After all these years and all these kids, even though each ones different in their own way. I thought i could handle any child, no matter how strong willed, until God sent me my last gift, and i know this boy loves me but out of anger he can look me straight in the face and tell me he does not, and never blink until hes hurt me enough and i break, then he switches. I just don’t understand….my 19 yr old 6’1″ 230lb football player is afraid for his life to even try that with this Momma. And im maybe 120lbs 5’2″.

    1. Hi Joy-Ann, You sound like an amazing mom, full of unconditional love…and yes, you are right, they are gifts – maybe not the ones you thought you’d get. He sounds a bit like my oldest – that behavior comes out when mine is anxious and goes into a fight or flight mode…he senses danger and watch out! We’ve learned so much over the years about how to handle it – have you read Ross Greene’s explosive child? My kiddo is perfect at school and only shows this side to us because he feels safe. Your boy probably feels the safest with you – lucky us, huh! There is some unsolved problem or lagging skill under the behavior, it might take awhile to show it, but it is there!! Keep in touch.

  14. Hello! This post is just the reminder I needed. My son was diagnosed with ADHD a year ago when he was 9 and through this process, I found out now at almost 50 years old, that I have it too. It makes it even harder as I have difficulty slowing my reactions with him but I’m working so hard to do so. His meds help his hyperactivity and impulsivity in general, so that he can function well at school, but it does not help much, if at all, with his anxiety and emotional regulation. He’s even started cursing, which is completely embarrassing for my husband and I. He’s very easily insulted by other kids, and when he doesn’t feel up to par, which is often, he lashes out and says rude things. Any advice on the social aspects of ADHD? And if kids are impulsive, how do we get them to slow down their reactions with others? we are in therapy, but his therapist is not necessarily a specialist in ADHD.

    1. Hi Sheri, I know exactly how you feel! The cursing could be stemming from lots of things…in my experience it’s impulsivity, possibly a bit “stimulating” for kids, and communication that they are really upset. While I can not say the swearing is 100% gone(we can also thank social media for this and I hear tons of kids swearing like sailors in public) our therapist helps us to dig under the behavior and get to the real upset. My son-and ADHD kids in general, I think, have a hard time expressing their feelings and concerns and so swear and lash out. Ross Greene’s website, book and podcast were-and still are- life savers for us. Hope that helps!

      1. Thanks for the reply! We are seeing a therapist so I will make it a priority to work on it and although I love raw screen, I sort of neglected his work in my ADHD distractibility. Thanks for the reminder. I will dig back into this work and explore the website. You mentioned it is just nice to know there are other people out there who understand. As a mom, I often feel isolated, and like no one quite gets it. Our social and emotional struggles seem to be more magnified than other that I know with ADHD.