What If I Don’t Understand

Growing up, our family of four did life with many other families of four. Each relationship held unique traits, and yet a few core identifiers overlapped. There was a dad, a mom, a daughter, and a son. One family in particular stood outside of the predictable family dynamic: they had a son with a genetic disorder.

As a child, I recall being aware of differences both he and his family represented, although my understanding was extremely limited. In order to grasp the impact of his diagnosis, my young mind determined that the behavior he manifested, which was different than my behavior, was what it meant to have his particular diagnosis.

Along with that reasoning, I concluded that every individual with a particular diagnosis is predicted to act the same way. Saying that out loud feels ludicrous to me today, yet it has taken years of exposure to individuals with different abilities to relearn what my young mind grasped as reality.

Have you ever paused to think about what you believe to be true about different diagnoses? How do you believe an individual with ADHD behaves? What kind of responses do you expect from someone who is experiencing symptoms of depression? How do you anticipate anxiety showing up in an individual? Do you hold ideas about what it looks like to have autism? What kind of abilities do you expect some with Down syndrome to have?

Beyond a specific diagnosis, have you considered how you expect someone who has been adopted feels about her adoption? What about an individual who has experienced trauma? Do you assign behaviors or characteristics to them unknowingly? What do you believe grief looks like for children and adults? How do you presume the exceptionally gifted people in your life will think and behave?

From a young age we are exposed to cause and effect. We learn that there is a relationship between things, where one is a result of the other. Our human nature asks why or how. We want to know why something happens so we can either prevent it from happening again or foster more of the desired results.

Sometimes the connection between cause and effect is clear. Other times, determining the correlation is extremely difficult. What happens then?

This past summer my boys were enrolled in an inclusion program with a local summer camp. Four days in, it was apparent that our youngest son, the one without a definitive diagnosis, was struggling with the camp dynamic. By the second week, I was called out of work to pick him up early. When I arrived, I was escorted to a private room. Before the events of an incident were even explained, I listened as a camp director informed me that my son appeared to have severe psychological problems that could only be addressed by admitting him to a psychiatric hospital. Outrage pulsed through my body as I attempted to listen and engage in a dignified manner. Assumptions and accusations pelted my delicate heart, and by the time we walked away, I was questioning everything I knew to be true about my vulnerable and sensitive child.

The words of friends and therapists brought me back to what I knew to be true, and I settled once again, knowing that the director’s opinion was preposterous and unwarranted. However, the following weeks brought additional challenges. In an attempt to understand behaviors that were extremely reactive, we pursued testing with a neuropsychologist. While we waited for the results, I often found myself attempting to explain to others why my son responds the way he does.

Last month, my husband and I found ourselves on the couch of the doctor’s office as she reviewed test results and attempted to explain how the results might manifest in behavior. I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn that there is no clear-cut explanation for him. He struggles with attention; he has depressive and anxious symptoms; he is gifted; and he has experienced trauma. Each of these factors has a profound impact on his behavior, but they do not define who he is.

Sometimes we work so hard to understand the challenging people in our lives. We believe if we can understand how and why then we will be able to cultivate a more desirable effect or acceptable behavior. What if we actually aren’t meant to understand one another? Rather, what if we embraced one another as a mystery to behold? What might happen if we sought to know and to love one another instead?


Bethany Cabell, a lover of simplicity, is often inspired to write by the relationships she holds as a wife, mom, and a physical therapist. Bethany, her husband and their boys returned to life in Texas after wandering off to the Midwest for a season. What she once pictured her life to look like has forever been changed by her two sons. Navigating this messy and beautiful path of parenting two children each with their own unique challenges, she finds grace and beauty in the gift of each moment.