Hey, I get it.
Your kid is struggling.
Maybe it’s behavior, maybe it’s anxiety… maybe it’s a really bad attitude.
For those of us who have kids who are neurologically outside the box (extraordinary), be it anxiety, ADHD, OCD’s, or autism, we know it can be incredibly stressful to live with a child who may express everything from defiance to severe behavior, or even extreme isolation or self-harm.
But, we as parents and caregivers should be very careful about throwing around pathological ideas about what’s ‘wrong’ with the kid. Especially because studies show, the parents of these children often suffer from extreme anxiety themselves. And, as we know, anxiety fogs our thinking and makes it difficult to see things for what they really are.
As parents we have to keep our own anxieties in check, which in a world of mental health obsessions and myths can be very challenging to do. It’s very important that we do not try to pathologize our worries and concerns.
Diagnosis is important, but it is also important not to over-diagnose out of anxiety. And remember you as a parent or caregiver are very influential in getting your child’s diagnosis correct. So check your anxieties before deciding that your child has a new diagnosis.
To be clear, I am using the literal meaning of the word pathologize here.
Pathologize: a VERB meaning: regard or treat (someone or something) as psychologically abnormal or unhealthy.
I’ve heard it too many times.
“My kid is manipulative; I think he has narcissistic personality disorder.”
“My daughter is happy and excited one minute, and an angry isolated bully the next. I think she’s Bipolar.”
“My son becomes detached and almost catatonic; he must be schizophrenic.”
I could go into all the pragmatic and logical fact-based reasons why these things are highly unlikely (especially in anyone under 14), but the truth is, society is currently so addicted to the idea of pathologizing every behavior a child has (in spite of the detrimental effects of doing so), that we often find ourselves so deep in the weeds, we are unable to see the child’s experience of the situation, therefore we are unlikely to come to the kind of conclusions which would actually help.
Instead of finding the root cause of a child’s behavior… which granted can be hard to do especially when many therapist and doctors would rather just label the kid and medicate them with promises that ‘this will change everything’, we hope to find a quick fix for the problems and stresses that frustrate and frighten us as parents and caregivers.
While medication can help in certain instances, the World Health Origination agrees, mental health medications are widely over prescribed and used without proper discretion, even in children.
What does all this mean?
Well, let’s take ADHD/ADD as an example of how easily pathologizing can get out of hand.
Common ‘symptoms’ of ADHD/ADD are:
What happens when these delays, which manifest with a diagnosis of ADHD/ADD are pathologized?
Well, first of all it’s written up, usually by a psychiatrist as a mental health disorder according to the DSM. And this isn’t all bad. It may help you or your child find the appropriate assistance especially in a school or work setting.
Remember: a psychiatrist’s main job is to diagnose and prescribe medicine to help manage mental health conditions, not to provide therapy.
Keep in mind, research tells us that ADHD is NOT a physiological problem that needs a medicine to cure it. There are volumes of research that prove ADHD/ADD has a root cause in attachment struggles, combined with natural proclivities toward anxiety and restlessness.
But now, after a visit to the psychiatrist, the parents have the first of what often times becomes multiple diagnosis. In addition to the ADHD, they will often be diagnoses with anxiety or depression among other things.
This brings out the parent or caregivers fears and anxieties and the pathologizing begins out of a desperate need to solve problems.
And so, the pathologizing doubles down and the meds are started, and sometimes things get worse, or at best, they are managed with a lot of struggle.
These kids often require more attention (ironic) and more connected parenting, but instead they are given either medication to cover the problem… ‘fix’ the kid, or special classes and therapies that often separate the child more, not only from the family but from the peer group too.
In these cases, the root of the child’s struggles are never addressed and life becomes more difficult.
Many neurodiverse kids show behavior problems and defiance, and as a result they often get additional labels like ODD (oppositional defiant disorder) which is really the defiant (fight part of fight/flight/freeze) piece of severe chronic anxiety and fear or better put, a lack of feeling safe. You can read more about that here.
Some will be diagnosed autistic because as the anxiety grows, the prefrontal cortex becomes severely delayed and the anxiety gets bigger and bigger resulting in OCD’s, more difficult behaviors, meltdowns and severe social emotional delays.
As these same kids become teens, and their anxiety and social issues grow, all while trying to navigate a very difficult and hostile teen peer group, some of these kids will become socially isolated, angry, and as their anxieties grow it leaves them feeling ostracized and exhausted… which leads to depression.
See how the cycle begins?
The kid, who started out with a need for extra attention in the areas of emotional safety, growth and connectedness, now believes they have multiple mental health disorders.
And we all know that what a child believes, they become.
Some of these kids have been so severely treated with outdated and ineffective treatments, like some older versions of ABA (applied behavioral therapy, which although is considered the gold standard has no solid evidence of being effective in practice (learn more here) or other extreme behavior methodologies, that they are terrified and don’t trust themselves to think or behave in an appropriate way and they often do not trust anyone in a position of authority, even their own parents.
Combine this with extreme fear (flight/fight/freeze) and you have a potentially explosive and difficult situation.
Many will end up so over medicated, or medicated too young, their brain will now have permanent changes, some of which do cause the actual pathological diagnosis they were originally incorrectly given.
The bottom line is that children generally are not born bipolar, anxious or with ADHD/ADD. They may be born with some genes that are more sensitive to environments that encourage those things, but with out the stimulus to activate the gene, it will not happen.
Even though the science doesn’t back it up, our society is contributing to the belief that mental health is completely genetic and purely physical.
This does not mean that certain make ups aren’t more prone to having an anxious brain (which is in many cases tied very closely to a higher IQ (more here) or schizophrenia (for which there are literally hundreds of research articles showing it’s often caused or triggered by a diseases (more here) such as celiac, but doctors don’t test for that!
Maybe we have gone too far with not only pathologizing people, but with our deep and unfounded beliefs in the myths of mental health that are so profoundly rooted in our culture that even doctors give credit to things that are simply not backed by science and often are counter indicated by science.
It’s time for a revolution of thought on mental health and children.
It’s time we took back our kids from the therapies and doctors who don’t fully understand mental health and the root of behavior.
It’s time to heal ourselves and our children.
What we are doing isn’t working, so lets get to the things that do work like
connectedness, presence and meaningful relationships with our children.
Lets stop pathologizing and treating them as psychologically abnormal or unhealthy. Instead, we can look at individual needs and root causes and address them with intelligence and compassion and make real long term healthy changes.
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Hi! I’m Yvette Marie a Thought Wrangler (an intellectual nomad looking for understanding and hope in all things). I created this blog space because I believe Flexibility and Flow in Neurodiversity is not only possible, but necessary for living a full life of health and wellness.