A Facebook friend of mine posted this video with the comment, “Can I get a f*%cking-A!?” It’s a powerful video with a powerful message. In it, children and young people are shown with psychiatric labels across their chests – oppositional defiant disorder, bipolar disorder, general anxiety disorder, ADHD, etc. The kids then start tearing off the labels to reveal more positive labels underneath – philosopher, revolutionary, activist, etc.
The tagline is “Childhood is not a mental disorder.”
And a big part of me wanted to stand up and scream “Yes!” Because I am the first person to rail against pathologizing normal human behavior – especially in children. It breaks my heart to see parents agonize over a rambunctious boy for fear he has ADHD, to see a mother worry that her sassy little girl has Oppositional Defiant Disorder, to see the deep worry on a father’s face as he reads about autism and worries that this is what’s “wrong” with his late-talking toddler. Most kids are just fine, and many parents worry themselves sick over normal variations in development.
But my own very personal experience keeps me from giving an unqualified “f*%cking-A!” to this provoking video.
I have a kid with a label. And I know with everything in me that having that label has dramatically changed this child’s life for the better.
I think when we discuss these issues we need to be careful not to polarize along ideological lines. Are many completely normal kids given inappropriate labels? Maybe. Are some kids labeled and medicated for the convenience of adults? I believe it happens. Do some kids have legitimate mental health concerns or behavioral challenges that can benefit from intervention? My experience says yes.
It can be tricky to tease out problematic behavior from normal, healthy development. When do normal childhood fears and concerns become an anxiety disorder? When does a tendency for daydreaming or propensity for fidgeting become ADHD?
These are not easy questions to answer. We do not help children by pretending that every ADHD diagnosis is made up. Labeling a child with general anxiety disorder as an activist (as they do in the video) does not help the child live with what may be a very real and very debilitating anxiety that keeps him from enjoying his life. But we must make sure that in “helping” a child, we are truly seeking to help him live his life as the best and truest version of himself. Our goal should be to help all children develop their strengths while learning to manage their weaknesses.
My child’s therapist (you can have no idea how much it pains me to use those words) speaks of therapy as providing an “owner’s manual” for the type of brain my kid has. The goal of therapy is not to change who my child is, not to make this child fit into an ideal mold for our convenience. But before therapy, this child could not do things normal kids do – things this child wanted to do. Play on the playground? Interact with friends? Go to school? See a movie with a grandparent? Sit on the couch in our own house and play a video game? These were things the child wanted desperately to do, but the disorder prevented it. With therapy, the child can now enjoy these activities. Yes, my child needed therapy in order to sit on the couch in our home.
Seeking therapy was one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. I was always the one shouting against labeling and medicating kids, about putting young children in therapy and making them feel something was wrong with them, about squashing rather than embracing who a child actually is.
But my kid was hurting. I had to put aside my own fears and anxieties and ideologies and help my kid the best way I knew how. And that meant making an appointment with a psychologist. And that was hands down the hardest thing I have ever done.
And perhaps the most rewarding. Today that child is thriving. We have all learned skills to manage the disorder in a positive and supportive way rather than being completely befuddled by and sometimes angry at this poor kid who really was hurting.
If I had let my fear or my stubborn belief that no child should be labeled stop me from seeking help, my kid would still be struggling, still be hurting, still be suffering. How does that serve any child?
So yes, we should absolutely be careful of pathologizing childhood. We should be incredibly conservative in labeling children and even more conservative in medicating children. But messages like the one in the video above simply serve to further confuse parents who are already confused and hurting as they try to help their children. We need to be careful of polarizing messages that prevent children from getting the help they need and shame parents who seek help for their kids.