The Healing Power of Empathy
I don’t have ADHD, but I am the keeper of ADHD knowledge in my family. My husband is too focused on actually living and coping with ADHD to study any of the heftiest, most insightful books about the condition. So I act as resident “expert,” explaining to him the neurological reasons behind his behavior. As […]
I don’t have ADHD, but I am the keeper of ADHD knowledge in my family.
My husband is too focused on actually living and coping with ADHD to study any of the heftiest, most insightful books about the condition. So I act as resident “expert,” explaining to him the neurological reasons behind his behavior.
As I type that out, I realize how annoying I sound! But I swear my husband is genuinely interested in why the ADHD brain works the way it does. Most of the time, he actually welcomes my explanations because it means he can get knowledge his favorite way – from conversation, rather than from a book.
The drawback? Sometimes I forget that researching and living with an ADHD brain are two very different things. I read so much that I begin to think I know all there is to know about ADHD, completely forgetting that I will never really, truly know it.
It’s somewhat like a male doctor delivering babies: He can know everything about childbirth; he can be sympathetic, amazing, and perfect for the job – but he’ll never truly empathize with the pain his patient is experiencing.
Of course that doesn’t mean he’s not right for many patients, and it doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be delivering babies.
Like the male OB, I am overflowing with book knowledge when it comes to raising our daughter with ADHD. At the beginning of a frustrating emotional spiral, I can connect the dots to see she’s hyperfocusing on a punishment instead of seeing the big picture. When she tells an untruth, I can see it isn’t a devious lie – she’s actually ashamed by her actions and is trying to minimize what she did so she doesn’t feel so bad.
I can see the behavior and understand which elements come from ADHD – and that helps me to have compassion (in my better moments).
My husband, on the other hand, sees the same behavior but doesn’t mentally calculate the ADHD component in the same way. Instead, he feels what’s happening in her brain. He doesn’t have to go through the logical steps my brain does because he can empathize from a very real place – he’s been there.
He knows the shame of acting impulsively, and so he’s able to help minimize it quickly, not wanting her to feel terrible about herself. He knows how difficult it is to get out of hyperfocus mode, and he can gently coax her away from the cliff’s edge – because he knows what snaps him out.
When he met with our play therapist, she recommended the two of them develop a bond over ADHD. “Explain to her that your brain works the same way as hers,” she said. “When she’s so upset about a punishment that she can’t focus on anything else, you should be the one to talk to her. Tell her you know how it feels. Explain what’s going on in her brain.”
It works better than anything I can do.
Don’t get me wrong – I can do a lot. I talk to my daughter about what’s going on in her brain too, and it relaxes her. But she finds true peace when my husband can say, “I know how hard it is because I’ve been there.”
They’ve developed some sort of understanding code – he knows how to talk to her, and she loves to listen.
My compassion and understanding is not minimized by my husband’s more solid empathy. Like the male doctor successfully delivering babies over and over, my book knowledge is invaluable and helps me encounter emergencies with calm and purpose.
But thank goodness my daughter’s father has ADHD just like her – because that real empathy is priceless.
Updated on May 10, 2021