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When I Realized What I Say Isn't Always What My Son With ADHD Hears

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It’s one of those days. A day seemingly like any other, where I wake and go through my normal routine of breakfast, packing lunches, yelling about getting socks on and to stop sitting on each other’s heads — a day where everything seems “normal” until it’s not.

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My son asked me to come watch a video with him. He’s been talking about these videos all weekend and asking me to watch. I haven’t been paying attention but have managed to successfully nod and murmur at appropriate times while saying, “Not right now.” I had just said no again, was putting the dog in his kennel and thinking about my to-do list. I looked up to see him standing there. His hands were twisting around one another, his shoulders slumped. He looked at me, frowning. I didn’t understand what was happening and was about to give him grief for not getting his bag together and standing there
with no socks on, but there was something about the way he looked that stopped

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“You just said you don’t care,” he says to me. My first response was to say quickly, “Oh no I didn’t,” and move on. Because I truly didn’t. My stomach clenched because I felt something coming, and I was nervous.

“Why are you standing there like that?” I asked, almost not wanting to hear the answer. He shook his head, pulled his eyes away from mine and went to put his socks on. Motherhood pushed me forward gently. I bent before him. “Why were you just standing there looking at me like that?” I asked, looking him in the eye, at his level, my hand on his knee. I felt it before I saw it, that gut-wrenching feeling as you watch someone you love deeply hurting. He crumpled. He wouldn’t meet my eyes, but I could see the tears in his. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. But I heard him, and it did matter. I didn’t know what “it” was, but it mattered.

“Please talk to me,” I said softly, still close to him.

“You just said you don’t care,” he said, working so hard to hold back tears. “I asked you to come watch the video and you said no and you don’t care.”

That was the realization. What I say is not always what he hears.

Heather's son at home
Heather’s son at home

My son is and always has been a very feeling boy. He is so in tune with my moods and emotions, he can tell when I have a migraine, when I’m tired, when I’m stressed and when I’m happy — all without me saying a word. He knows when my left eye droops, it’s a bad headache. He knows when I am pale that I am tired. He knows when I sigh deeply, I am stressed and thinking about something.

It hit me in that moment that my son might know me better than I know him.

This person sitting in front of me is someone I think know better than anyone. I know his voice, the way the right side of his hair curls up in the front when it gets too long. I know his sense of humor, his hobbies, his struggles. I know. So when it hits me that there is something I don’t know, I’m stunned.

I don’t know how my son sees his world. He has ADHD, and his world is so different than mine, we might as well be on different planets, speaking different languages. And I think at times, maybe we do speak different languages. Because my son is noisy, continually moving, forgetful, persistent to a fault, eager, excitable, messy and more. His days are filled with people around him telling him to stop. Stop talking, humming, doodling, moving. Stop to clean up his mess, do his homework and remember his socks. Stop asking questions, fidgeting – just stop. It gets tiresome even for me and I’m his mother. Others don’t have the tie to him that I have, that fierce Momma Bear feeling that comes out and wants to protect him from everything — all the hurt, pain and
judgment that comes at him daily because he’s a little different.

So when I realize that I have now become one of those people, someone who discounts him, who just wants him to be, well, not like him, it crushes me. When he gets into something, he gets into it with all of his being. The stuff he gets into is important to him, all-consuming at times, and because it is important to him, he wants to share that with the people he cares about. But because he ends up being so persistent, not knowing when to stop asking, not knowing when to take no for an answer, he ends up hurting. Because people get tired, tired of saying no, tired of him asking the same question different ways, hoping to get the answer he is looking for.

Our conversation makes me see that he is so used to hearing no, so used to be discounted, ignored and making people upset that he hears everything through a lens of negativity. My simple no translated into “I don’t care about your video. I don’t care about you.” My actions were telling him everything else was more important.

I could sit here and argue with him, explain why he is wrong, tell him that’s not what I said — but instead I say, “I’m sorry I hurt you. I do care. Right now we need to get ready for school, but how about we plan to watch the video tonight after dinner?” That’s all it took. He perked up and sat straighter and said, “You promise?” I nodded.

I do promise. I promise to keep kindness in mind. I promise to remember it only takes a second to hear someone and let them know they’ve been heard. This is vital for all relationships, but even more so for my son. I promise to work to change “no” to “not right now, but how about …” I can’t always say yes, and I won’t. But I can be gentler in how I reply. I can work to ensure my words accurately reflect my intent. I don’t always have to be interested in his stuff, but I can be interested in him.

I promise. I can listen. I care. It hurts how much I care.

Originally published: January 11, 2016
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