Showing Empathy for Neurodivergent Children: ADHD, Anxiety, Depression


My youngest child has an anxiety disorder. Her worry monster looms large, convincing her the house is on fire when it’s only a candle-flicker. It urges her to stay home to avoid scary new things like the doctor’s office, a friend’s house, or a new school year. Her worry monster has so much power over her, it truly impairs her life — and I feel sorry for her. It kicks me into action, wanting to find ways to squelch her pain, reduce her fear, stop her worries. I want to help her.

My middle child fought a bought of depression in middle school. He felt rejected by peers and confused in school, and it made him sad enough to stop doing things he used to find fun. Sometimes, he’d get so sad he would say scary things like he wished he was dead. I felt sorry for him. It kicked me into action, wanting to find ways to squelch his pain, reduce his sadness, stop his tears. I wanted to help him.

My oldest child has ADHD. She forgets important things and is completely disorganized. Her sense of time is abysmal, so she fights back when her video-game break is over. Her brain can’t transition well, so when she’s asked to shift quickly, she’ll decompensate into an emotional and very loud tantrum. Sometimes she’ll lash out and hit. If she’s caught, she often lies about it.

[Symptom Test: Could My Child Have Generalized Anxiety Disorder?]

But I don’t I feel sorry for her. The only action I take is one of raising my voice louder. I try to squelch her behavior by punishing her. I try to reduce her bad behavior by taking away a privilege. I try to stop her disorganization by getting angry when she doesn’t clean her room.

But she can no more turn off her behavior at will than my anxious girl could stop her worrying or than my depressed boy could stop his sadness.

Why is it so much easier to feel empathy for anxiety and depression than for ADHD-related behaviors? We would never insist that a blind child see through sheer will, just because their sister can. Or that a diabetic child control their insulin levels, just because we’re the parent and they should do as we say. They all need our help. Moreover, they all need our empathy.

We’re almost all guilty of this. The answer, I think, is because we’ve all experienced anxiety, we’ve all been sad, we all understand that those are things that sometimes just take over. They’re hard to control. At the same time, as adults in particular, we manage to behave the way society expects. We get to work on time, we provide food for the family, we keep the house clean. We are in control of these things, so we naturally conclude that behavior is something that is a person can control, at will.

[Read: How to Process and Accept Your Child’s Neurodiversity]

But ADHD behavior is not controllable at will. Ironically, if we can approach ADHD from a place of empathy and understanding, then we’ll see that the behaviors we find so frustrating are usually our child’s way of asking for help. And we’ll stop taking their behavior so personally and stop reacting to it in anger. I don’t take my youngest child’s anxiety personally, why should I take my oldest child’s ADHD personally? She’s not trying to upset me on purpose. She just doesn’t know what else to do, how else to verbalize her frustration, how else to ask for help.

She needs me to take positive action by learning about her ADHD. She needs me to help squelch her defiance by making sure she understands the instructions. She needs me to help reduce her lying by making sure I don’t put her in frustrating, impossible situations where she can’t succeed. She needs me to help her stop forgetting by scaffolding her memory with pictures, notes, and gentle reminders.

She needs my help. She needs my empathy.

Showing Empathy for Neurodivergent Children: Next Steps

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Updated on April 27, 2021

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