Your Child May Have a Personality, Not a Disorder
I don’t wish to offend, which is why I am starting with disclaimers. Don’t skip over them and then say “How dare he!” 🙂
- I went to graduate school to be a therapist, and after about a year and a half of studying marriage and family therapy I found something I enjoyed even more: teaching. So I am not a practicing therapist and don’t claim to be. (I do, however, study and teach about parenting and child development and have a Ph.D. in the field.)
- Mental disorders are real — as real as the flu or a broken bone. Nothing in this article should be interpreted as dismissing the entire field of mental health. We as a society have made great strides in understanding and accepting mental health challenges…but there is still much to do.
- Medication is a great blessing when it is not used to replace therapy and/or an individual’s ability to act for oneself.
My family of origin and my extended family is riddled with mental health challenges. I have had my own struggles with anxiety and although I have learned much from studying psychopathology, I have learned even more by my own experience.
Everybody’s a Therapist
All that being said, I worry that with all the strides we have made in recent years that we may have over-corrected out of a skid. We often over-diagnose and misdiagnose. If we have a few bad days in a row we may begin to wonder if we have clinical depression. If a child in our classroom is more boisterous and active than the others, we may assume ADHD.
When my son, Carter, was about 3 years old we had invited some friends over for dinner. After watching my son bounce off the walls and shout with jubilation (like many 3-year-old boys do), one our friends asked, “Does Carter have ADHD?”
I wanted to respond: “Yes! Yes he does. And so does every other 3-year-old who is compared to the energy and attention span of adults.”
But I simply attributed it to age and temperament and dropped it.
More recently I have spoken with other good friends who said they plan to take their son to a psychologist to have him examined for mental health problems. I was stunned. I know this child quite well and see very little evidence for their claims. Granted, I don’t live with this child day in and day out, but I have seen him in many different settings. I believe that they are trying to do what is best for the family as he is prone to anger outbursts at home. (But so is my 7-year-old, Naomi. Seriously. You should see when she loses it. She can turn into the Hulk.)
Stories such as those that I just mentioned are far too common. May I be so bold to say that often the problem is not the child but the perception of the child. The child may not have a clinical disorder but perhaps a personality that is different from yours or other children you’re accustomed to.
Medication as the only Solution
To make matters worse, we not only over-diagnose at times, but we tend to use medication as the only solution. (Now I just opened a bigger can of worms, I know.) Consider what happened to Jacob in the first 6 minutes and 30 seconds of Frontline’s documentary: “The Medicated Child”
No wonder the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry has reported a 42% increase in the number of reported cases of ADHD since 2003. I have to wonder how Jacob’s life would have been different if his parents were given this type of therapy that might include effective parenting strategies and skill building that help them adapt their family dynamic to Jacob’s personality.
Unfortunately, Jacob’s story is the story of thousands of children who have personalities and temperaments that need tailored guidance and teaching.
As mentioned in my article “Parenting isn’t Rocket Science…it’s Harder!” we always need to be asking, what does the child need and how can we meet those needs?
Sir Ken Robinson gives a powerful example of what can happen if we go about this the right way. Here is a clip from his TED Talk below:
Please understand that mental health professionals and psychoactive drugs can and should be a blessing in the lives of those who need them. We should realize that the mind can get sick just like the body.
Even so, the quick and easy strategy for the mother and the therapist mentioned in the TED Talk would have been to medicate. Kudos to the therapist for seeing the girl’s movement for what it was–a gift. Maybe drugs alone are easier for professionals and their clients than the longer, more difficult process of other kinds of therapy and education. Surely insurance companies prefer the medicated approach. Or maybe it demands too much of us as teachers and parents to work harder to help meet a child’s needs.
So, if you are a parent concerned about your child’s behavior, please keep the following in mind:
Be Your Child’s Advocate
Get as much info about the child as you can. Does your child have this behavioral problem at school, with friends, and at home? If not, then perhaps it is the environment (home or school) that needs to adapt to the child’s needs. If a teacher tells you your son has ADHD, watch him in the classroom if possible. Is the teacher incredibly strict? Boring? Is your son different or similar to how he acts at home? Most classrooms are not conducive to a diversity of personalities and learning styles.
Not All Therapists are Created Equal
If you do take your child to a clinician, understand that they vary in quality and specialty. Meaning, you want to find someone who is trusted and has a broader vocabulary than only medication. It’s also okay to get a second and third opinion.
If your child needs or is currently using medication, be sure that both your family and the child are employing other approaches as well. Another question to ponder:
Do the side effects from the meds make things harder on my child than they were before the meds?
See Strength and Develop it
Dr. Robert Jergen tells of his own experience with ADHD. He decided to see it not as a weakness, but as a “super-ability” that he could learn to channel…and he did. Try to see the strengths that can come with your child’s unique personality.
So before you assume your energetic child needs medication, take a look at all the factors. How does he or she behave in various environments? Does your child have a unique temperament or personality to be catered to? While medical help can be needed at times, make sure you don’t take short-cuts with your child for a quick-fix. You’ll be glad you took the time, and so will your child!