diagnosing kids

Labelling our kids: Are we failing them with our diagnoses?

Do we need to keep labelling our kids? Must we prod and probe every behaviour, mood, emotion, flip out, tantrum and bad day until we have a definitive name, strategy or prescription? Could we sometimes just take a step back and take each kid on their own merits? Maybe look at their individual circumstance? Or do we need to constantly evaluate and categorise in order to give each child the best chance at collective strategising and access to the best start in life?

Firstly let me say there are definitely occasions when a diagnoses is warranted and should be sought out to give kids the greatest chance of living with certain conditions. We know that early intervention can have an enormous impact on the outcomes of children who suffer certain challenges . So that is not who I am talking about.

I read recently that ‘toddler tantrum syndrome’ was actually being discussed as a psychological disorder to be added to the DSM-V, which is the official medical diagnostic journal put out by the American Psychiatric Association and used by the medical profession worldwide. Actually it will be called Temper Dysregulation Disorder. I didn’t make that up.   I also read that there is a possibility grief will be added as a psychological disorder as well.  This scares me to say the least. It may seem far fetched but with diagnoses like these, doping a kid up with some drug to curb the effects of toddler tantrum syndrome could be an all too common reality.

Does giving a diagnoses of ‘something’ give people an excuse to continue certain behaviours? Do we miss whats going on due to the ‘get out’ of a label? We now know more and more about the ability of the brain to make changes over time and be worked on like any other muscle. If we label someone, are we assuming this is not possible? Are we assuming it is what it is and we ought not try to change?

When I worked for an organisation that counselled kids, nearly every single child I saw came with some preordained ‘condition’, ‘illness’ or ‘diagnoses’. In the end I started to ignore these as despite more often than not being incorrect, they stopped me from being able to look at the bigger picture. The boy that was apparently suffering ‘ADHD, Conduct Disorder and had been on and off depression medication since he was 5′ was in fact suffering from ” a father that willingly left him to make a new life with a new family and a mother who was never home due to trying to hold down 2 jobs’ syndrome. I also counselled a girl whose “willful anger management issues” were more to do with not having a bed to call her own and a mother who cared less if she turned up to school rather than some inbuilt psychological disorder. It was a bed, support and good role models that were needed rather than anger management strategies.

Sometimes labels are good. They give people answers they have craved. They give them strategies. They give them support. They may even give them funding and  access to resources. Sometimes there are not always labels for our kids however. Sometimes they don’t fit neatly onto any spectrum, disability or disorder evaluation questionnaire. For these kids no label means they may in fact be further disadvantaged. Had they fit nicely into a group of behaviours or disabilities, they may have had greater access to help and support.

This is where the labels frustrate me. I hope one day we can look at each child as an individual. A child that needs to have all aspects of their life assessed to see where the help is needed and why. I hope one day a child can just have a range of issues that need addressing individually. I hope that we can teach our kids to their  strengths rather than moulding them into the ‘norm’ or making allowances because of their ‘label’.  Sometimes I think it is heading that way, then I hear about medical professionals, educators and parents trying desperately to explain why Johnny has a tantrum that is unreasonable, or  why Sally prefers her own company at preschool to others. Is it so bad to call little Johnny or Sally just a bit ‘different’ to some of the others? Maybe there are other elements at play.

“I read in a book once that a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but I’ve never been able to believe it. I don’t believe a rose WOULD be as nice if it was called a thistle or a skunk cabbage.”  L.M.Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

What do you think about labelling our kids? Are we over doing it? Do we need to take a step back and let them be kids for a while. Or is this too simplistic? I would love to know your thoughts. Or if your chid was diagnosed with something, how does that label help or hinder your child? Do you know their thoughts on being given a label? 

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This Post Has 39 Comments

  1. Interesting question. I can only speak to our experience. My girls were variously called “Naughty” “Disobedient” “Challenging” “Clingy”.

    I would rather have the label “Autistic” than “Naughty” or “Disobedient”… knowing what drives their behaviours makes a big difference in how I respond to them.

    It reminds me of something our marriage counselor said “you are either a complete asshole, or you have Aspergers”… because if the behaviour was done intentionally then yes the first label applied, but it was not done intentionally, in fact he was completely unaware and we needed to work on different strategies.

    1. Thanks Marita and absolutely, being labelled ‘autistic’ is preferable than ‘naughty’. For kids on the autism spectrum we do know that the understanding that comes with a label gives so much more in terms of knowing how to respond to them as well as what drives them. Interesting quote form your marriage counselor! It does make you wonder more about those kids who are now adults who were never diagnosed and what difference (or not) to their lives a label would have made.

  2. This is so refreshing to read. Thank you. Going through the milestone mill has left me wondering if we are too focused on moulding kids to fit norms rather than celebrating difference.
    The thing that concerns me about widening the net of labels is it may make it easier to prescribe drugs. I realise they have there place, but I think they should be carefully monitored x

  3. I agree with this. Of course there are children who NEED a diagnosis of what is causing them to struggle with things that other children don’t. But theses are not ‘labels’ as such, they are a diagnosis.

    Sometimes there really is little regard for the importance of a totally safe home, a loving family and a supportive environment. What many of us take for granted in either having ourselves or currently providing our children, other children do not have. I don’t have a solution for this though, other than as a society we push to promote the importance of looking after children, the importance of providing a safe place for little people.

  4. Sometimes labels are warranted, absolutely, but I know in my therapy with families and individuals, I try to remove the ‘label’ and help families see beyond it. So often I see people get caught up in the label and can be blinded by other things. Labels and diagnosis’s are there for a reason, a good one in fact, but we also have to try and move away from them and see beyond them as well. Great post x

    1. Thanks Tahlia, we seem to be very much on the same page here.

  5. Yes Yes Yes! I know some parents who just keep changing Drs until they get some kind of diagnosis for their kids. If they looked at their parenting and the food they gave their kids, they would often see amazing results. I think it is sad how much people want to label children rather than look at solutions in their own lives first.

    My daughter has always been very active, we control this by lots of sport and very minimal addictives in foods. People often say she will be an ADHD kid and no she is not, she is happy and busy.

    1. Unfortunately Eleise I think what you say may be very true of some parents. They may see it as easier to give a label and live with it than to continue to search for other answers to help behaviours. Lots of sport and little additives sounds like a great thing to encourage for all children. I love that the main focus for you for your daughter is that she is happy.

  6. I had this exact conversation with my mother yesterday. A little boy can’t just be hyper and a bit naughty because he’s a kid ( and they do that sometimes ) – they have to have ADHD. You can’t just be shy, you must have social anxiety disorder. You can’t just be sad, you have to have depression. Everything has to be ‘something ‘, you know? I have had depression and S.A.D and its very different to just being upset for a week , or being the wall flower at a party. At the same time I wonder how many kids growing up in the 60s/70s/80s would have benefitted from being diagnosed as autistic, not just the ‘weird kid ‘ ?

    1. Thanks Amy. Yes that is the dilemma isnt it? Some kids may well be ADHD and need earlier intervention where as others may just need to let off steam, run around and grow out of it!

  7. I think we are over-doing it a bit. I think society as a whole nowadays (oh God, using that expression makes me feel so OLD!) likes to use labels, and sometimes they can be to the detriment of those who get labelled.

    1. I know I often find myself using those ‘elderly’ expressions!

  8. Totally agree with you Martine. My 2nd son was born tongue-tied and his tongue wasn’t released until he was 2. His speech was obviously affected and this led to him being frustrated and it did bring about some impressive tantrums.

    Anyways, his tongue was released and we attended a speech therapy play group that he did not enjoy. Firstly, he was a clingy child; still is. And secondly he was 2. So he had some impressive tantrums there too. The therapist pulled me aside and said she was going to recommend behavioural therapy for him because if he acts out now at the age of 2, you can only imagine what he’ll be like when he’s 4.

    Here I am thinking that at the age of 2, you can pretty much have your tantrums because as you mature, so will your behaviour. She made it sound like if it wasn’t all sorted out by 2 then it was down hill from there.

    Part of his problem was that he’d been seeing doctors and professionals his whole life because of his tongue-tie that he was immediately suspicious of anyone he didn’t know. Honestly, we would walk into anything that looked like a consulting room and he was burrow his head into me.

    I rejected her recommendation and spent a lot of time with my son getting him to use his words when he was frustrated, and not just wail about.

    He’s 7 now and he is one of the most empathetic, well behaved children around. And I’m not saying it because he’s my child.

    Love & stuff
    Mrs M

    1. Wow , thats amazing Maria. Unfortunately I think we have got out of the habit of spending lots of time to look at why our kids may be frustrated. We live in a society full of experts and quick fixes. I love that you trusted your own instinct and worked hard to reap the rewards and now have beautiful well behaved children. If a parent can say that then I am pretty sure that is the case!!

  9. Awesome post!!! It concerns me that everything needs a diagnosis! Like you said, somethings definitely, but other things are jut personality, or very sadly, life.

    1. So true Jess….I have 5 children who are all very different in personality and all need different tactics to manage some of their behaviours!

  10. Great post Martine 🙂

    We as a society are so stuck up on labels that quite often , the real issue is missed. Yes, use labels where necessary and diagnosed but lets not stereotype a bad day by saying it’s depression or an anger outburst as a disorder.

    Excellent reminder, thankyou xx

    1. Thanks Sabeen, I think that is the most important element in all this…the chance that we may miss other things or not see the whole picture.

  11. Love this post, and totally agree! It’s so easy to put labels on people, but sometimes things are less complicated (or more complicated)! Certainly the idea of treating so many problems with medication frightens me immensely!

    1. Yes the medication is a definite concern. Certainly medication has its place but some of the figures are quite frightening

  12. The labels are a convenient way for overburdened public medical and community services to “process” these children. This is not a criticism of the people within these services, many of whom are struggling to do their best with almost no resources. But is does highlight the fact that there needs to be a fundamental shift in the way government and policy makers values these services and our young people. Very sad but a great post.

    1. Thanks Rachel and I agree there is certainly an element of ‘ease of processing’ inherent in diagnoses. I know in trying to get funding for my own child it was an extremely difficult process as he didn’t have a label as such, but rather a range of different issues that needed addressing.

  13. Great topic. Excellent commenters adding to the views. As a school principal there were occasions I needed to request the parents of a child to get a specialist paediatric opinion. It was always about the school needing more information to give (& receive funding for) the support needed. For example if the parents & teachers had real concerns & had yet to seek a medical diagnosis I would suggest (never insist) that a general check GP up might be a good idea – always the basic first of sight & hearing. Often the parents have waited for a child to “grow out of whatever it may be” & things come crashing down when a more formal learning environment is where the child is. The idea of labels is not good – for anyone at anytime – I’m a fat elderly woman – me no like!!
    Back to the diagnosis issue and labels, the NsW Dept of Education’s funding requirements for supporting children with some learning needs were of a diagnosis from a specialist medical practitioner. The medical profession is definitely label driven & unfortunately for some families it seems to give more “attention” to their plight.
    Oh my, I read Maria’s comment. Yep, a 2 yo doing what he had to at speech therapy. Really!? Our 3 yo GD refused to co-operate for any speech therapist. The world is needing to “calm down” oh…is that a diagnosis??!! Denyse

    1. Thanks Denyse for adding to the fabulous comments. I know it is unfortunately something principals have to sometimes rely on especially when they are trying to get funding. I know with my own child it was all about using the right words and labels in order to be successful in applications. And for the record you are certainly not a fat elderly woman……you are an inspirational super educator and all round gorgeous person! x

  14. This is an excellent question Martine. I think in some cases labels can be extremely helpful. My brother has Aspergers, but he wasn’t formally ‘labelled’ until he was 16, at which time they also discovered he had a genetic disorder which coupled with the Aspergers made for some interesting behaviours. For my Mum it was a relief to have that ‘label’ as it meant that she was able to finally access some help and have some explanation for people for his behaviour and quirks, and it also meant that she was able to read and learn and we all learnt new ways to interact with and speak to him that have made a world of difference, even just simple things like how you ask him a question or ask him to do something, has changed all of our lives for the better.

    But on the other hand, I think there has been a swing towards over labeling as well. Where before kids who genuinely needed that label didn’t get it, and thus didn’t get the specialised help they needed and were made fun of and misunderstood, a lot of parents now almost seek out the label as a way of absolving them of the responsibility of seeing beyond the behaviour to the causes of it, because often the parents are large contributors to the cause of the behaviour and no-one wants to admit that they might not be a perfect parent. Its far easier to give a kid a label and a pill than to listen to them and work towards finding the root of the issue and resolving that. And that is a massive disservice, not only to the kids who have issues that need working on, rather than labels and pills, but also to the kids who genuinely need those labels and pills, because society will get to a point where every second kid has some kind of ‘behavioural disorder’ and it will make people much less sympathetic and understanding of the kids who genuinely do.

    I remember reading an interesting study on the link between sleep apneoa and ADD. In many cases once the sleep apneoa was diagnosed and treated the ADD disappeared. Because the child wasn’t attention defecit, they were just really tired from not having good sleep and this manifested in their behaviour during the day.

    1. Thanks Kylez for another wonderful comment. I am sure that for many the diagnoses is a great relief as it as with your brother. As most of the comments seem to attest, we can conclude that there are often factors and circumstance that need to be looked at first before rushing into a diagnoses. Whilst I don’t show signs of ADD when i am sleep deprived…I am sure I could be labelled with numerous other things!

  15. My 6 year old son had been having problems with listening, sitting still, impulse control, and anger management since he was 4. His home life was stable: no moves, no major changes in family size. He loved vegetables, ate very little sugar, and got plenty of sleep. I tried a variety of disciplinary techniques, different diets (sugar free, no artificial colours, whole food, vegetarian… you name it, I had tried it). But matters kept getting worse and worse. This year at school it got to the point that I couldn’t go 2 days without a call from the school saying that he had hit/pushed/kicked/low-blowed/choked another child.

    As it turns out, he has ADHD and anger management issues. I felt like the WORST PARENT EVER for sighing in relief for what amounted to the doctor saying, “There is something wrong with your child.” But really, it was the best thing that could have happened for him. I still feel like a horrible parent for labelling and medicating him, but he was a danger to others with his behaviour, and the medication has truly helped him. Now that he has a diagnosis there is funding for behaviour management classes and I can ask a qualified professional for advice on how to help him be the best he can be.

    Prior to the diagnosis, my son HAD labels: violent, spaz, bully, asshole (amazing the things kids will say around you when you wear disconnected headphones!). A label of ADHD Is far preferable to the others, I think. A label has helped him by opening doors to the help he needs. It bothered him at first. It nearly broke my heart when he looked at me and said, “But mommy, I don’t FEEL sick!” It helped him when I put Aladdin on and pointed out that Robin Williams, the genie, has ADHD… but he didn’t let it stop him from living his life. We talked about how learning self control was like learning math: some people just need a little more help and practice than others. They won’t be bad at it forever, but they will need to put in some extra effort to get good results.

    I, like a lot of people I know, believed that labelling kids was wrong, that medicine was not the answer. I argued that ADHD was just one of those things doctors made up to try to diagnose what was actually bad parenting or a poor diet. I will STILL argue that it is overdiagnosed. But I tried to do the whole “let kids be kids” thing… and wound up doing my son a great disservice, as well as put other children at risk because of his behaviour. Perhaps more doctors should be asking (and taking into account) what life at home is like before a diagnosis is given; perhaps doors should be opened for things like counselling, behaviour management, and PARENTING SKILLS to deal with non-medical issues. This way, if a diagnosis is warranted it can be given, and if help is needed it will be received… but one will no longer be dependent upon the other.

    1. Your situation is certainly one where a diagnoses is essential and has helped your son with his behaviours. Once you have exhausted other avenues as you obviously did, then it is logical to look further to find the cause. I understand the frustration too of having a label that is genuine and knowing that others are given it when it isnt always warranted. Thanks for your well thought comment.

  16. In my experiences labels have been so blooming helpful, I think with autism spectrum disorder you need it for sure at first. But I have still made sure that my son is treated as an individual as it’s so true that: ‘If you’ve met one child with autism, you’ve met one child with autism.’

    On the other hand, there are children I know at school who have no clearcut diagnosis, yet are very very distrurbing to the class, and even violent. I sometimes find that parents expect the school to cope and a label would be good to make the parents take more responsibility to get their kids the help and the parents the advice they need.

    I have one son who walks the line of an ADHD diagnosis, we see the paed about it again in May. An official dx won’t change any of behaviour, I know he needs extra help and extra mothering and I need help with helping him, whatever the label. We’ll see.

    Last thought; labels can terrify parents but I advice to use them as we need them, but we all need to treat each child as the individual they are. And don’t be scared of the scary diagnoses. A lovely quote from autism handbook: ‘The diagnosis does not change who he is, he’s still the child you loved when you walked in the door.’

    1. Thanks so much Seana for your great comment. Certainly there are kids out there who arent getting proper diagnoses and would certainly benefit from one. Like everything I guess we need to be responsible with the use of labels. And I love that quote…so very true.

  17. Fantastic post Martine! I am so nodding my head agreeing with you!

    Tahlia @ The Parenting Files summed up my feeling exactly with her comment 100%.

    I totally get where you are coming from and couldn’t agree more.

    MC xx

    1. Thanks Miss Cinders…and yes looks like we all in the same page!

  18. I agree wholeheartedly with what you are saying, Martine. ADHD especially gets a bad rap and thrown around too much when many a time, the home circumstances are more the issue. Yes, many kids do need a diagnosis to get help and funding. But this mama is still stuck on the bit where the DSM-V is dropping “Asperger’s Syndrome” and thinking about adding “Temper Dysregulation Disorder”? Fabulous.

    1. Thanks Twitchy, so great to get so many comments from parents who have been down the diagnoses path and living with the good and bad aspects.

    1. Thanks Sam…it seems to be the general consensus

  19. Great article Martine. One of those difficult topics which needed to be written. This will be a great help to many parents.

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