How to Love Your Child When You Feel Empty

“You can’t depend on another person to fill your voids, energize you, or provide emotional sustenance. You need to learn how to rescue yourself. How? Here are the daily exercises I used to free myself from the demons of anger, disappointment, and sadness — and learn to love my child with an open heart, which is what he needed all along.”

A knitted sweater coming undone
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A Parent Coming Undone

I wasn’t sure for how much longer I could hold myself together. I felt like a worn-out sweater. If one more thin thread were pulled, I’d unravel and fall apart.

One more teacher's conference, one more phone call from the school, one more doctor’s appointment, one more detention. How much more could I tolerate? I wondered this daily as the parent of a child with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD).

One more complaint about my child’s focus, or ambition, or behavior. One more attempt at changing schools — hoping this would be the learning environment that clicked. One more hope that someone somewhere would recognize my child’s gifts as I did. Would anyone ever care enough to notice his creative thought process, and understand that he simply couldn’t follow the same old system?

Riders stuck in a subway car
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A Parent Stuck

Each day felt like I was trapped in a crowded subway car. There was always an annoying person behind me, pushing me forward when I had no room to move. At times, I felt I took two baby steps forward, but was still standing in the same place. I tried to see what lay ahead, but my vision was blocked.

Let’s face it: Life with ADHD can be mentally, emotionally, and physically exhausting. Fatigued, I was a walking, breathing void — an empty shell, a physical body going through the motions with nothing inside. This is how I spent too many years as a parent.

Boy dressed as superhero with ADHD
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A Parent Feeling Insufficient

I looked at other people’s lives, and they seemed so “normal,” while I was usually right smack in the middle of a crisis or a drama. I was beginning to understand that living with ADHD required a positive mindset and superhero strength — I just didn’t know how to conjure either one. I was just beginning to accept the challenges of my life, but I wasn’t giving my mind and body what it needed to meet those challenges — a good night’s sleep, a nourished soul, and the permission to think positively.

I doubted my love. Did I love my child enough? Was I giving him what he needed? Was I doing too much for him? I was too tired, at times, to give my loved ones what they needed, and then I felt guilty that I wasn’t doing enough. I felt worn out and empty.

[Free Download: The Truth About ADHD and Strong Emotions]

Lifering rescue buoy
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A Parent S.O.S.

What I didn’t realize until years later is this: You can’t depend on another person to fill your voids, energize you, or provide the emotional sustenance you need to get through your day. You need to learn how to rescue yourself.

How? I began my training my brain to maintain a positive outlook in life. Practicing these skills daily, I freed myself from the demons of anger, disappointment, and sadness. I replaced them with love, compassion, and hope. Only then, was I free to love my child with an open heart, which is what he needed all along. Here is my mantra:

Photographs of things you're grateful for
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Step One: Begin Each Day with an Attitude of Gratitude

Gratitude doesn’t flow from desperation. I know the benefits of gratitude. Research shows that taking time every day to appreciate the good things in life makes a positive impact on a person’s physical health and mental attitude. But when you’re emotionally drained, your struggles often overpower and drown out your thanks.

On days like that, I lie in bed, close my eyes, and try to vividly picture all the good in life. At first, I can feel the gratitude only in my head, not my heart. The negative is slow to recede. But then, as if in slow motion, my mood brightens, my heart lightens, and I can breathe again. Gratitude works, just not instantly. You have to trust in it.

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Step Two: Search for the Good in Everything

Sometimes, it feels impossible to find the good in a bad situation, but it’s the only way I’ve gotten through my toughest times. Pollyanna, I’m not. I know it’s hard to see the good when you have a flat tire on your way to a job interview. Or when your child is refusing to go to school — again. But I find that positivity is the secret weapon that triggers my survivor mentality.

Instead of feeling sorry for myself and lamenting why bad things always happen to me, I’m able to hang on long enough to remember the good that has come from my past struggles and to find the strength to endure again. I keep a list of these events close by to remind myself daily.

First-aid kit for mending ADHD wounds
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Step Three: Judge Lovingly — or, Better Yet, Don’t Judge At All

Everyone is hurting. When my struggles overwhelm me, I forget that people’s reactions come from their pain. It’s a fact. I’m quick to judge others negatively. I know I’m not perfect. I don’t have all the answers, but at times I act as if I do.

I’ve learned that criticism is rarely a precursor to breakthrough or change. Instead, the situation takes a turn for the worse following criticism — even if I never give it a voice. If I want to offer a suggestion, my words go unheard. Loved ones turn away, and there’s a distance between us. If I label my children lazy, messy, or disorganized — even if it’s just in my thoughts — those negative labels stick.

My thoughts become actions. And no matter what I say, my child knows what I am really thinking. Judging others turns me into a negative thinker, which harms me more than it does anyone else. When I see the world through dark-colored glasses, there is no room for love.

[Self-Test: Could You Have Emotional Hyperarousal?]

Cellar or dungeon of the ADHD mind
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Step Four: Practice a Growth Mindset

ADHD fatigue is real. Some days, I struggled to get out of bed and face the challenges ahead. The door to my dark mental dungeon would open quickly and pull me in. Then I discovered that each day I get a choice: adopt a growth mindset, or adopt a victim mindset.

If I see myself as the underdog whose life is a mess, the dungeon door opens and in I go. But if I see my challenges as opportunities to grow, my attitude changes and I feel empowered to do battle. I know that whatever is coming at me will make me stronger. Only when I’m pushed to my limits do I change. When I realize that all the day’s pushes and shoves are molding me into a warrior, that is when strength bursts forth.

Man standing on mountain above clouds meditating
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Step Five: Meditate to Control Your Mind

I used to think that if I could sit still in a meditative state, I would magically become calm, cool, and less chaotic. But the idea of sitting quietly with my thoughts was terrifying. How could I sit and face the fears I was running from? How could that help me?

I wasn’t sure meditation would chill me out, but I desperately wanted mental peace. So I started slowly. I learned to listen to my breath. The more I practiced, the more I noticed my thoughts were evolving. Negatives became positives. I felt grounded and calmer.

From meditation came the realization that the only things I can control are my thoughts and reactions. How I respond is my choice. Whether it’s an argument I refuse to join or a meltdown I refuse to take personally, I have a choice. I don’t always know what I will choose right away, but I do know that I don’t have to react immediately to everything I think or feel.

Meditation teaches me that I am the boss of my thoughts; they are my employees. I run the show and they follow my lead. The skill of thought control indirectly leads to less a calmer, cooler, less chaotic life.

Sorry We're Closed on shop door
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Step Six: Ask Repeatedly: Who Am I? What Do I Want?

Do you know what you need? Do you know what makes you happy? I didn’t. I lost myself in caring for others. I didn’t exist. I lived responding to the needs of my loved ones. I lost sight of what I wanted — beyond a better life for my child. But that was something I couldn’t magically make happen, so I was miserable. And when Mama isn’t happy, no one is happy.

I had to find me, but I didn’t know where to look. The first thing I had to learn was how to say “No.”

“Yes” is my go-to word. Pleasing others is what I do. But I didn’t realize that my attempts to make everyone else happy were also an attempt to define myself as the wish granter. When I gave so much to everyone else, I forgot about myself. I became exhausted and empty.

Balance the scales of an ADHD family
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Step Seven: Balance the Scales of Fun and Work

Kids with ADHD require so much time to accomplish homework, chores, and responsibilities that there isn’t much time for anything else. As an ADHD family, our ratio of work versus fun was way off balance.

I’m not proud to admit it, but when my kids were young, fun was my first choice. My child with ADHD felt the same. He couldn’t concentrate on his work until he had some time to play. Homework right after school? No way. When school became more demanding, I spent my days micromanaging, instructing, maintaining systems, and trying to keep calm through the chaos.

When family fun time rolled around, I was worn out, fatigued, and uninterested. The couch is where I wanted to be. In my ADHD family, I had to figure out how to balance the scales between responsibilities and fun.

"Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."
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Step Eight: Practice Compassion

Compassion is harder than it looks. I knew my child’s ADHD challenges were not a choice, but at times my patience was just gone. My soft words turned into loud screams or unstoppable tears. I fell into an abyss more than once.

Was I forcing my child to do something he was not capable of? Did I put too much pressure on him? Or not enough? If you don’t have ADHD, it’s hard to imagine what your child goes through in a day. If you do have it, then you know the struggles are real.

As a mom with ADHD, I was hypersensitive to the challenges my son faced. Of course, I wasn’t a fidgety preteen boy. My understanding was limited. But I knew the feeling of overwhelm; when the workload was piled high and he couldn’t get started fearing the roadblocks that lay ahead. I knew what it felt like to read the same boring paragraph over and over again and not comprehend a single word. I knew the space that was in his brain — the distance between reading and then writing it on paper.

His struggles became my struggles. Sometimes, I tried so hard to help him through his struggles that I forgot his challenges were his to manage, not mine. I forgot to show compassion to him — and to myself. I had to stop being so hard on myself. I had to know that I was doing the very best I could, and that had to be enough.

Yoga feet meditating for ADHD
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Step Nine: Recruit Your Support Team

Our ADHD family needed a lot of support — individual help and team assists. Support groups, therapists, and a strong family team carried me through the toughest times. I also found comfort in spirituality.

At first, I expected the support of others to telepathically heal me. But then I found out I had to support myself. I dove into yoga, meditation, heavy lifting, and a spiritual community. In yoga classes, when I opened my body into a pose, I let go of my struggles, the mental anguish, and worries. I learned to be present in the moment, to embrace the now. With every stretch and every breath, I let go of the tension, the tightness, and the stress. When I went to the gym, heavy lifting empowered me, mentally and physically. When I took a walk, I became one with nature, knowing there was something greater guiding me through. Finding this support provided such great solace, and strength.

Dad and children on a hike
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Step Ten: Enjoy Your Child

ADHD kids often choose a different path. Sports might not work for them, but drama classes might. Boys may want to take ballet and girls want to play football. It was a hard adjustment to accept that my child wasn’t going to follow the script I had written for his life. But, over many years, I learned to appreciate (and enjoy) his choices.

The solution came in letting my child lead the way to do what he enjoyed while I stood on the sidelines and supported his activities and hobbies. The time had come to rewrite my script.

[ADDitude eBook: A Collection of Essays from Parents of Children with ADHD]