Children’s mental health is something we hear a lot about. We have learned how environments that are rich in free play, down time, and rest are necessary for kids to have a healthy mental and emotional balance. We have heard all about mindfulness and yoga for building children’s ability to stay focused and calm. And everyone knows what a fidget spinner is.
Yet children who experience mental health concerns that include outlandish behaviors or social and emotional difficulties are still highly likely to face negative judgements from their peers and many adults in their lives.
I am talking about stigma. It is quiet but strong, like a current that flows beneath the surface of many diagnoses identified in childhood, such as ADHD, Autism, Depression, Anxiety, and Sensory Integration Disorder.
These “labels” alone are seemingly wrapped in a shroud of negative and unfair beliefs about what they actually are, and why they occur. Even the fear of stigma can prevent amazing parents from seeking out professional help for a child truly struggling with a mental or behavioral health issue. This makes it hard to find help, answers, and the much-needed proverbial light at the end of the tunnel for so many overwhelmed moms and dads.
If you are one of these parents, you are not alone.
Some of the concerns that stigma can bring up for parents worried that their child may be experiencing behavioral or emotional symptoms go like this:
People will assume my child is stupid. People will think we are just making excuses. My kid will use this as an excuse to never to do anything again. Grandparents will think we are doing something wrong. If I put my child on medication, people will think I am a bad parent. We should be able to do this on our own. My kid will think something is wrong with him. Everyone will think something is wrong with him. It is my fault.
I am a therapist who has worked with many remarkable kids and families who have voiced these fears and concerns to me in despair over how to come to terms with what their child is going through. I have thought these things myself for my own son.
Even the most insightful and intuitive parents will grit their teeth, try to work with their child, tirelessly give and bend and hold firm and cry and pray that their child will eventually calm down, figure it out, grow out of it. They avoid talking about a cause, the root of the frustrating and heartbreaking rollercoaster the whole family rides on every day. The fear of others’ judgment, in addition to the very personal ongoing struggle, can be paralyzing.
Before my son was diagnosed with ADHD at the age of six, I knew he had it. He refused to follow directions, he threw a tantrum with any transition: going somewhere, leaving somewhere, anytime he had to get dressed or go to bed. He ignored regular toys, preferring to take objects apart. He broke almost everything he touched. He ran instead of walked. Screamed instead of talked. Cried instead of called. He also laughed with a deep joyful belly laughed, and hugged with his whole little body.
His attention span only lasted one second, but he could do really big things with that second. Like climb the neighborhood trees and jump from extreme heights, strip naked on the driveway and cover himself in blue chalk, dart away from me in Target, and steal my heart with a funny dance and a joke. It is always a wild ride with my remarkable child – a frustrating and terrifying one at times – but overall, one I know I will look back on as being something unique and beautiful. Maybe even epic.
About the time things were the hardest they had been, his emotions the highest, my tolerance the lowest, when I thought I was going to break and things couldn’t get any worse, I realized that I had a choice. I could keep trying to fix him myself by forcing him fit into this idea I had of who he should be (one that looked like all my friends’ children, who knew how to sit still and follow directions), or I could put myself aside, quiet my fears and the societal expectations, and really look deeply into my kid. I could work to see every aspect of who he is and what he needs through a lens of love and acceptance and, yes, imperfection.
I chose the latter, and made an appointment to see a psychologist. I knew it was time to put a name to what my son was going through so we could face it together. I wanted him to know that there was something giving him trouble, and it was not his fault. Maybe I needed to know, too, that it wasn’t mine.
Oddly enough, even as a therapist myself, I still panicked. I sat in the psychologist’s office, on the other side this time – the parent, not the expert – and I worried that she was going to look at me say, “Your son just needs a better mom, that’s all. One who can make him listen to her.” She would laugh at me say, “You need more rules, more boundaries,” or, “Remember that time you let him wear his pajamas for a week and never brushed his hair because he would scream every time you tried? You taught him to act like that!”
But she didn’t. She understood. She validated that he was telling me what he needed all along, soft jammies and messy hair, that it was okay, and that I was a good mom for hearing him.
She diagnosed him with ADHD after all, not with a negligent mother (phew!). While we still talked about some better ways for me and my husband to work with him and strategies as a family to make things work for all of us, she told me something else that I didn’t even know I needed to hear:
“You are doing a great job. And your son is an amazing kid.”
That was two years ago, and I have never looked back. I still worry sometimes that people will hear that my child has ADHD and judge him or treat him differently. But what I’ve found is that the more I tell people, the more I normalize it, and the more others embrace him. The stigma starts to fade away and the real, vibrant, colorful, incredible picture of my boy takes its place.
And let me tell you, it is awesome.
The other remarkable thing that has happened since we have embraced my son’s ADHD is that he has learned to embrace himself. He is eight years old now, and there are some tough days when he hates his ADHD and cries, wishing it would go away. But most days, he is a happy, confident kid. He has found he possesses some incredible talents that may even exist because of his ADHD.
Having the label has helped in ways we never anticipated, like the fact that there are so many genius actors, singers, writers, and artists out there who have ADHD and speak out about their own struggles as kids. Most will tell you their diagnosis has not only benefitted them as adults, but has also contributed to their unique creativity and success.
My son looks for these connections, and when he finds them, like in Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian in the world, and in his favorite author Dav Pilkey, the mastermind behind the “Captain Underpants” series, he feels inspired and dives deeper into his own passions like art and writing, and, yes, video games.
There is no guarding against the judgements of others. We cannot control what people will think of us or our kids. I can tell when someone disagrees with me medicating my child. I don’t care. I can hear the tone when someone doesn’t actually believe in ADHD and feels certain I am feeding my kid a diet of candy and video games. It hurts, but I ignore them.
At the end of the day, what I really care about is that I did everything in my power to set my kid up for success. He deserves to know that he is good, to have confidence in himself and control over his body and his emotions. I believe it is my job as his mom to make sure, in a world that often tells him he isn’t good enough, that he believes he is.
It is also my job to make sure he feels loved and that he is known for all of what makes him who he is, ADHD and all.