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Saturday, June 7, 2014

Learning and Behavior Series Part 1: Labels - Why should my child be diagnosed?

This is the first in a series of posts about learning and behavior I will do over the next several months.


I see a lot of children with various behavioral and learning issues. Teachers and parents often first think of ADHD with any problem, but that isn't always the problem, or at least the primary one. It is simply one of the most common diagnoses. Since it is so common, I will focus on this topic often, but it can mimic other problems and it often co-exists with other issues.

I firmly believe that kids with learning and behavioral problems cannot just "work harder" to fix the problem. When I am sleep deprived, I cannot focus as well. I cannot read and comprehend what would typically be easily understood and retained. I lose track of things. I lose my temper more easily or get upset about the little things that usually wouldn't phase me. I must put extra effort into everything, which is even more exhausting. I liken this to how some people feel most of the time. How can we possibly expect them to just try harder without professional assessment and treatment?

One reason parents don't want to have their child diagnosed with ADHD or any other learning or behavioral problem is that they fear a label. What is a label? It is not a diagnosis, but the way we are perceived. Think about how many judgements and labels you make in a day. I try really hard to not judge because it's not my place, but those thoughts sneak into my mind all the time:

That person is rude. 
That's my shy (hyper, loud, smart, active, loving, etc) child.
That was a dumb statement. 
That group of giggling girls is too loud and out of control. 
I don't say anything with these thoughts most of the time because it's usually not my place. I often mentally rebuke myself for having them, but I still have opinions. The truth is that we all make judgements all the time. And when a child acts out a lot, he is judged and labeled. If a child never seems to be organized, she is judged and labeled. If a child falls behind academically, he is judged and labeled. It happens with or without a diagnosis. The label is there.

Wouldn't it be better to get a professional's evaluation and treatment? With proper management, your child might lose the negative labels and be able to succeed!

One of the problems with diagnosing many learning and behavioral disorders is they are difficult to test for since there is a continuum of symptoms of normal and atypical and there are so many variables (such as sleep) that can affect both learning and behavior. Even though ADHD is common, studies vary and disagree as to exactly how common it really is. Some experts think people are under diagnosed. Others claim too many are over diagnosed. The same goes for treatment: too few kids are medicated or too many kids are medicated. I think that all stems from the fact that the symptoms of ADHD are common to any neurotypical person, just to a larger degree, and symptoms often overlap with other disorders -- making a correct diagnosis difficult. There are still many people who think behaviors and focus problems are due to bad parenting. If it is a parenting issue alone, how would a medicine help? Probably in part due to this stigma, parents worry about how the diagnosis will reflect on the child and family more than any other diagnosis I know. If a child has an infectious disease or  a chronic condition such as asthma, there is much less hesitation to assess, diagnose, and treat the illness.

There are many reasons for parents to be hesitant to begin an evaluation when their kids are showing signs of a learning or behavioral problem. Some think it's just a phase. Many wonder if another few months of maturity will help the child. Some think the child is just misbehaving, and stricter rules or harsher punishments will help. Others think the child is just looking for attention and giving more praise will help. Some parents think it is because of the other children around -- you know, "Little Johnny is always messing around in class so my Angel Baby gets in trouble talking to him."

While I am all for looking for things on your own that can help a child's behavior and optimize their learning, I also think that avoiding the issue too long can lead to secondary problems: academic failures, poor self esteem, depression, drug/alcohol abuse, and more. Working with the school and seeking professional help outside of school can help your child succeed. If a parent is not wanting to start medication, there are other things that can be done that might help the child succeed once the specific issues are identified.

Why wouldn't you want to start a treatment that works? Asking a child with ADHD to just focus harder is like asking someone with nearsightedness to just focus harder. Without the help of glasses a person with nearsightedness can't see well. Without a medicine to help, some people just can't focus. If a child needs glasses to focus parents rarely say they'll just make the child try harder. They get glasses for the child. Without the glasses a child may have more injuries from not being able to see. He might have physical symptoms, such as headaches, from the eye strain. His grades might fall because he can't see the board. People see the vision issue as a medical one, yet when a brain has trouble with neurotransmitters causing focus problems, they often resist the medical treatment. Untreated ADHD also has consequences. The children suffer from poor self esteem because they constantly are reminded that their behavior is bad. They have a harder time doing tasks at school because they lose focus. They get distracted and miss important information. Children get in trouble for talking inappropriately, acting out or for invading other's personal space. They lag behind peers with social skills and often have a hard time interpreting how others react to their behaviors. Their impulsivity can get them into dangerous situations, causing more injuries. Older kids might suffer from depression and anxiety from years of "failures".

If you still worry about labeling your child with a diagnosis, think about what the root of your worry really is. Remember that the diagnosis is only a word. It doesn't define the best treatments for your child, but it opens the doors to allow investigation of treatments that might help your child. In the end most parents want healthy, happy kids who will become productive members of society. How can you best help them get there?

Many parents benefit from support groups to learn from others who have gone through or are currently going through similar situations, fears, failures, and successes. Find one in your area that might help you go through the process with others who share your concerns. If you know of a support group that deserves mention, please share!
  • ADHD: CHADD is the nationwide support group that offers a lot online and has many local chapters, such as ADHDKC. I am on the board of ADHDKC and have been impressed with the impact they have made in our community in the short time they have existed (established in 2012). I encourage parents to attend their free informational meetings. The speakers have all been fantastic and there are many more great topics coming up!
  • Anxiety: Many parents are surprised to learn how much anxiety can affect behavior and learning. The Kansas City Center for Anxiety Treatment has support groups for their current and former patients.  
I'll be writing a lot on this general topic over the next few months, so let me know if there are any specifics you'd like addressed!

More Quest for Health blogs on ADHD: