Kids' health: What's in a label?

We just love our labels! But psychotherapist Liza Finlay warns parents of the perils of branding children's behaviour.

Photo: iStockphoto

Photo: iStockphoto

What’s in a label? As it turns out, a fair bit…

We just love our labels. These days, it seems that every parent who comes into my office wants an official diagnosis. They want their kid labelled—ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder), ODD (oppositional defiance disorder), GAD (generalized anxiety disorder), you name it.

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What do all these labels have in common? The brand “disordered.” That’s a problem. Oh, believe me, I get it. The label confirms a parent’s suspicion that something is wrong—and that can be a bit of a relief, since, in some cases, a formal diagnosis can facilitate access to a broader range of resources.

But those possible upsides come with a heavy weight of downsides. There’s danger in too readily branding a child and labelling behaviour. Labels are loaded…

• When we label a child we imprison him; we give him the feeling of a life sentence. When we diagnose children with anxiety, or impulsiveness, or attention deficiency, we have given them a formal “condition” that offers glum prospects. (And indeed, we’ve offered them a great excuse to sidestep any efforts at improvement—“I can’t possibly sit through class because I have ADHD.”) In fact, each of the aforementioned “conditions” are nothing but behaviours. We choose behaviours. And we can choose to adopt different behaviours.

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• When we label a child, we hem her in with our expectations, we stop expecting our child to do what she’s capable of because she’s [insert label here]. But when we drop the bar, we effectively downgrade our child’s potential. Once you’ve branded your child as anxious, you stop expecting her to take risks—and thus, guarantee that she never will. Once you’ve diagnosed your child with attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder, you stop expecting that he’ll behave at the restaurant; then, you stop going, and his restaurant rehearsals come to an abrupt end. A child’s capabilities become narrowed not by his potential but by his parents’ conditioning. Instead, try focusing on what a child can do. Seeing strengths is the parenting equivalent to fertilizing a garden—what you attend to grows.

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• When we label children we pathologize them, and in so doing, we create a rigidly narrow range of so-called “normal.” Thus, we contribute to the crafting of a culture in which homogeneity trumps diversity. If we want to model tolerance for differences, then we need to see life through a wide-angle lens, one that includes everyone (in all our glorious idiosyncrasies) in the definition of normal. When we label, we unwittingly exclude, we create outsiders—and no good comes from feeling like you are outside the pack.

So how about we work together to create the kind of world that is inclusive, not exclusive? Let’s create a pack mentality that supports mental health.

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