We hear a lot about mental health, and kids are no exception. Are there signs that parents should look for? How can you tell the difference between real psychological issues and simple bad habits brought on by too much TV, computer time, or whatever?
Recent medical and psychological research is finally suggesting what I’ve been saying for years: Much of your psychobabble surrounding fashionable labels like “ADD” are nothing more than haphazard “diagnosing” of teenagers, triggering a flurry of needless prescriptions. Of course, medical conditions that affect learning and temperament do exist, but I question the mental health industry’s wholesale labeling of just about every teenage kid as having a “disease” or “disorder.” Not to mention the free ride it has given to the drug companies.
Though occasional depression and emotional maladies such as rejection, disappointment and frustration are part of life, unpleasant emotions should be the exception, not the rule. But I urge parents, teachers and physicians not to rush to apply labels and all the counterproductive excuses that go along with them. I’ve learned over the years that even well-intentioned labels can become part of the problem rather than the solution.
Mental health terminology like Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Conduct Disorder, or Oppositional-Defiant Disorder can sometimes be intimidating. In spite of their pseudo-medical connotations, 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 control. Frequently they are behavioral problems related to factors such as stress, personality and/or environment. They require solutions, but the solutions are not purely medical. If they were, a trip to the pediatrician and a prescription would clear everything up. Most often, the solutions are a mixture of talking things out, maybe with a counselor, along with positive incentives coupled with rational discipline. Sometimes it’s as simple as more quality time with the family.
The media grossly oversimplifies what’s going on inside a child’s mind. For example, some mental health “experts” will maintain that your child suffers from “depression”, or the latest “disorder”, and that he needs “treatment”. Unfortunately, it’s not as simple and passive as a pill for the flu or setting a broken bone.
Many parents expect teachers and medical professionals to take over the responsibility for important aspects of raising a child. Though they can be supplements, even the best ones can never be substitutes. Children flourish when they receive attention, intellectual guidance and a sense that life is full of happy possibilities. Parents are in the best position to provide this, because kids spend most of their time with them and rely on them to communicate, mostly by example, what life is all about.
Many of today’s stressed-out households have a hard time providing much beyond video games and trendy clothing. These things are fine, but they’re not what’s required to raise a child. Families need to make time to eat meals together, talk together, and think and plan together. You can’t put a price on that, and you can’t excuse them away with complicated-sounding psychiatric labels. Young children will not develop a confident sense of life unless adults consistently communicate it through language and behavior. Pills can’t do it. Time and effort will.
Children must be shown that their thinking skills, not cool backpacks and iPhones, are the crucial components of self-esteem and happiness. Even the best teachers can’t tackle this responsibility alone. In fact, teachers and mental health providers can actually undercut a child’s intellectual needs by labeling him and walking on eggshells around him. The child now has a perfect excuse to dodge any responsibility he may find distasteful.
If you supply a healthy emotional and intellectual climate for your child, the rest, including psychological health, will usually follow. Mental health professionals can only provide ideas and support for the demanding job of being a parent.
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