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Does Your Child Have a Mental Disorder?

Rather than presume that your child has a pseudo-medical condition called a “mental disorder” when she is sad, anxious, or angry, presume something else instead. Presume that you do not know what is going on and that you need to ask some important questions of yourself, your child, the people in your circle, and, if they enter the picture, mental health service providers. Decide that you will think before you agree to allow your child to be labeled with some pseudo-medical-sounding “mental disorder” label and then “medicated.” Think—and ask questions!

Here are some questions to ask. This is not an exhaustive list. I hope that you’ll dream up more questions yourself. Better to ask too many questions than too few questions before saddling your child with a life-long label!

1. Is there a problem?

Let’s say that your child is exhibiting some sort of problem. First of all, is it a problem? Is it a problem that your child waits two months longer to speak than did Jane across the street? Why is that a problem as opposed to a natural difference? Is it a problem that he enthusiastically signs up for violin lessons and then wants to stop them after two weeks? Why is that a problem as opposed to a change of heart? Is it a problem that he doesn’t want to sit at the dinner table where you and your mate are always fighting? Why is that a problem as opposed to good common sense? You can call any of these a problem—a developmental delay, a lack of disciple, a refusal to obey—but where is the love, charity or logic in that?

2. Who has the problem?

If you belittle your child and he grows sad and withdrawn, your child certainly has a problem. But don’t you have one as well? Isn’t your habit of belittling him a genuine problem? If you are highly anxious and your child becomes highly anxious, your child certainly has a problem. But don’t you have a problem as well? Isn’t your anxious nature infectious? If you are rigid and dogmatic and your child rebels against your house rules, your child certainly has a problem. But don’t you as well? Doesn’t rigidity virtually demand rebellion? You can blame your child for his behaviors and take no responsibility for yours, but how righteous is that? The word “parent” doesn’t make you right and the word “child” doesn’t make him wrong.

3. What does your child say?

Have you asked your child what’s going on? Asking is very different from accusing or interrogating. Have you had a quiet, compassionate, heart-to-heart conversation with your child in which you express your worry, announce your love, listen to your child’s concerns, and collaborate with her on creating some strategies and tactics that might help her deal with the problems she’s experiencing? Are you in the habit of checking in with your child to understand what she is thinking and feeling?

4. What do other people say?

Have you checked in with the people in your circle: your mate, your other children, your parents, and anyone else who knows your child well? What are their thoughts on what’s going on? They may have nothing useful or productive to offer or they may have some very important insights into what’s going on. Ask the people who know your child what they think.

5. Do you love your child?

Human beings do not automatically love other human beings. Do you love your child? Do you soften in his presence and want to hug him or do you harden in his presence and want to scold him? Do you look at him with love or do you look at him to see if his fingernails are clean and if his homework is done? How reasonable is it for your child not to grow sad or angry if he feels that what he gets from you is not love but criticism or worse, revulsion?

6. Are you quick to accept labels for yourself?

Do you regularly believe that you “have” something—clinical depression, say, or ADD? If you too easily agree that you have a “mental disorder” that requires “medication” it is reasonable to suppose that you’ll find it easy to go along with the labeling of your child. If you say things to yourself like, “Oh, I have ADD and Bobby does too” or “Depression runs in our family,” please ask yourself, “Isn’t it time I really understood what a ‘mental disorder’ is and if I actually have any?”

7. Has my child had a full medical work-up recently?

What if her school difficulties have to do with poor eyesight or poor hearing? What if her lethargy, her pain complaints, or her sleeplessness are symptoms of an actual medical condition? Make sure that you rule out genuine organic and biological causes for the “symptoms” that your child is displaying. This can prove a complicated, frustrating experience: the root causes of human behaviors are not so easily traced back to medical conditions even when such conditions exist. As complicated and frustrating as the experience may prove, however, a medical workup should be part of your plan.

8. If you decide that your child needs some help, what sort of help are you looking for?

You may well decide that you alone can’t do enough to help your child reduce her experience of distress. But where should you turn for help? It amounts to a very different decision to take her to a child psychologist whose specialty is talk and who uses techniques like play therapy and to a psychiatrist whose specialty is “diagnosing mental disorders” and whose technical interventions are chemicals. There are many types of helpers, from school counselor to family therapist to residential treatment specialist to psychiatrist, each of who comes at problems from a different angle. Educate yourself as to what these different service providers are actually likely to provide.

9.  Here is the primary question to ask any mental health professional you encounter who announces that your child has a mental disorder: What is your rationale for labeling my child with a mental disorder and for prescribing chemicals?

If a mental health professional would like to give your child a mental health label, inquire as to his or her rationale for doing so. Ask questions like, “By ‘mental disorder’ do you mean ‘medical issue’? If you do not mean ‘medical issue,’ why do you want to prescribe medicine to my child? If you do mean ‘medical issue,’ I would like you to prove it to me at least a little. P.S. Opening up that flawed shopping catalogue called the DSM and pointing to a page will not to my mind constitute proof.”

Children are a vulnerable population. Their parents are their first line of protection. Taking your child’s side sometimes means actively disputing conventional ideas about “what is right” and “what is best.” The first step in defending your child’s right to be herself and to have a childhood is educating yourself about these issues. You may agree with me or you may disagree with me: I put it in your hands to become the expert you need to be.

If you want to learn more, here is a reading list of more than 60 books that dispute our current wanton mental disorder labeling system. Isn’t it your job to engage in this investigation?

This post was previously published on Psychology Today and is republished here with permission from the author.

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Photo credit: iStock



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