Replace Labels with a Healthy Outlook

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I love it when I hit a nerve. Apparently I stirred things up a bit with my article questioning the effectiveness of ‘multitasking.’ You know, the process by which one does several things simultaneously—but none of them well (my definition).

Most of your responses centered on my comments on the shifting opinions regarding ‘ADD,’ ‘depression’ and the other fashionable labels we stick on kids. Many of you agreed with me that this haphazard diagnosing of teenagers (and the resulting flood of prescriptions) has gotten completely out of hand. Of course, medical conditions can and do exist that can affect learning and temperament. But my concern is with the mental health industry’s wholesale labeling of just about every teenager as having a ‘disease’ or ‘disorder’—not to mention the free ride it’s given to the drug companies.

We hear a lot about mental health, and kids are no exception. Are there signs that parents should look for? And how can you tell the difference between genuine psychological concerns, and simple laziness or bad habits brought on by too much TV, computer time, or whatever?

Occasional depression and other emotional issues—rejection, disappointment, and frustration, to name a few—are part of life. But unpleasant emotions should always be the exception, not the rule. If your child, or any loved one, is sad or down more often than not, then there’s obviously a cause for concern. But I urge parents (and their teachers and physicians) not to rush to apply mental health labels and all the counterproductive excuses that often go along with them. I have learned that even well intentioned labels often become part of the problem rather than the solution.

Mental health terminology can sometimes be intimidating. Expressions such as Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Conduct Disorder, or Oppositional-Defiant Disorder are only a few examples. In spite of the medical ‘ring’ of these somewhat unapproachable terms, parents need to remember that none of these things are diseases in the usual sense of the word. They’re almost never entirely physical problems over which the child has no choice or control. Frequently, in fact, they are behavioral problems related to any number of factors, including stress, personality and/or environment. They are problems that require solutions, but solutions that are not purely medical (if they were, a couple of trips to the pediatrician and a prescription or two would clear everything up). Most often, the solutions are a mixture of talking things out (maybe with the help of a counselor), positive incentives coupled with rational punishments, and simply more quality time with the family.

The media grossly oversimplifies what’s really going on inside a child’s mind. For example, some mental health experts will maintain that your child suffers from ‘depression,’ or ‘attention-deficit disorder,’ and that all he needs is ‘treatment,’ as if the solution were as simple and passive as a remedy for the flu or setting a broken bone. It almost never is. It’s also tempting to expect teachers and medical professionals to take over the responsibility for important aspects of raising a child. While it’s true that they can be excellent, even crucial, supplements, even the best ones can never be substitutes. Children flourish when they receive attention, moral and intellectual guidance, and a sense that life is wonderful and full of happy possibilities. Parents are in the most powerful position to provide this. Why? Because kids spend most of their time with their parents, and naturally rely on them to communicate what life is all about—mostly through example.

Many of today’s stressed-out households have a hard time providing much of anything beyond video games and trendy clothing. These things are fine, but they’re not what’s really required to raise a child. Families need to make time to eat meals together, talk together about events of the day, and think and plan together. You can’t put a price on these activities, and you can’t excuse away their absence by coming up with a complicated-sounding psychiatric label. Young children will not develop a happy and confident sense of life unless adults consistently communicate it through language and behavior. Pills cannot accomplish this. Time and effort will.

Children must be shown that their minds and thinking skills—not cool backpacks and iPods—are the most crucial components of self-esteem and happiness. Even the best teachers can’t completely tackle this responsibility. In fact, teachers, parents and mental health providers can actually undercut a child’s intellectual needs by labeling him and walking on eggshells around him—providing the child with the perfect excuse to dodge any responsibility he may find distasteful.

If you supply the kind of psychological, emotional and intellectual ‘climate’ your child requires, the rest—including mental health—will usually follow. Mental health professionals cannot provide quick fixes. They can, however, offer ideas and support for the complex and demanding job of being a parent.