Unmasking Student Strengths

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

"Different" Doesn't Necessarily mean "Disordered"!

So many kids do things that seem odd or excessive at various points in their development. Though some clearly do need professional help, many of them are victims of a culture that’s far too quick to attach a label such as ADHD, social anxiety, or bipolar disorder to every child who’s hard to manage, hard to understand, or just doesn’t seem to fit in. In recent years, more and more children have been receiving psychiatric labels – and at younger and younger ages, for fewer and milder symptoms. In fact,hard as it may be to believe, nearly one-fifth of all American children currently meet the criteria for at least one mental disorder! We need to ask: Is there really something wrong with all these kids, or is there something wrong with the way they’re viewed, categorized, and treated? If so many kids are “disordered,” what’s happened to our concept of “normal”?

Maybe it's time to reclaim "normal" as a spectrum condition! Instead of pathologizing every quirk and struggle -- viewing every confusing, extreme, erratic, upsetting, or unusual behavior as the "symptom" of some big underlying emotional disease -- we need to pull the labels apart, zoom in to the specific traits, so we can really understand and help. We need to look at who a child IS, not what he or she HAS!

This mania for finding psychiatric labels for everything that makes us uncomfortable or afraid is disrespectful and fundamentally unhelpful. What makes it especially surprising is that, as a culture, we're becoming increasingly tolerant of diversity in adults -- sexual orientation, racial and ethnic blends, etc. -- but less and less tolerant of diversity in our kids! Every kid who's out of the box, complex, or intense gets one (or more) disease-based labels.

It's so much more empowering, however, to look at a child's specific traits and temperament (none of which are inherently dysfunctional - after all, the same trait can be a problem in one setting and an asset in another)and figure out the features that lie behind the behavior, to work with a child instead of simply trying to "fix" him. Make sense? So how to get the word out that there's a better way? If this message resonates with you, please check out my website:, and email me at to let me know what you think!


Diana Tokaji said...

For seventeen years of motherhood, I have agreed with what you've written. Let me add that I'm an artist and a yoga practitioner and teacher, a vegetarian and a believer in organic foods. I say this to preface my comments, and to "place" myself since I'm unknown to you.

I am just coming to terms with the abnormal behavior we have lived with in my older son since toddler years. He has never been diagnosed, his traits have skirted any label. I believe that we have suffered enormously as a family, and that he has had an "unsuccessful" life thus far, and that I have done him an injustice because I was not, until this conference, able to match his traits to a label. The injustice is that I (remember the organic part!) could have found medication for him years ago, had I understood all this. I was resistant to labels, seeing it as the trend that it is, and was against what labeling often leads to, namely medication.

So, while I applaud everything you say, I say this as well, and I'm sure you're well aware of the following sentiment. Yes, the labels have been abused, AND, equally true, many of us out there who desperately needed or need a label in order to proceed ACTIVELY, have suffered because we did not have one for a child who is not easily diagnosed. When I say "suffer", I mean something more than my words can capture here in a blog at midnight. I mean a life that has served far less good than it should have/could have, and has done far too much damage - though not dramatically and publicly enough, obviously, to attract a label. My son, an unlabeled ADHD person, and our family around him, have danced a dance that didn't need to happen. That's life...I accept that. But it is infinitely sad, as well. And with all my agreement with your words, I must add to them: AND, there are people like my son who should have been diagnosed and were not, perhaps because we did not want to lend ourselves to the very trend you've exposed.

Thank you for your words which I realize come from a place of great respect for human creativity. And which are true, but for this but.

Barbara Probst said...

Diane, you speak truly. Though it is never the whole story, the label can be an important piece of the puzzle and a way to stop blaming the victim (or his/her family). The problem comes when the child is seen only or even primarily through the negative lens of that label, as if it captured all that was essential about him, without taking into account all the things he loves, is good at, gravitates toward -- his humor, love of nature, joy in movememt, etc. -- all the things that are the seeds of his individuality and fulfillment. That's why I called my book "When the Labels Don't Fit" rather than "Let's get rid of all the labels!" As you say, interventions -- like people -- are multi-faceted. The point is to broaden the way we look at kids. Thank you for sharing your deeply touching story.