When I was 28 years old I started my Marriage and Family Internship. At this point I was still in my Masters program. I will never forget seeing my first client, who was 3 years old, along with his mother. My supervisor at the time told me I had to come up with a diagnosis within the first session so medical will pay for the therapy. I was shocked and overwhelmed since at this point I had only read about the diagnoses and I felt I had no idea what I was doing since I didn’t have enough time to get to know the client. How was I going to be able to diagnoses within 50 minutes and come up with a plan that made sense in one session?
Fast forward ten years later as I’m still working with families and I take a different approach. For me, when a parent starts to tell me about the labels their child has received, I stop the conversation right away. I don’t want to hear about what they have been labeled because that doesn’t tell me who the child is as a person. I want to get to know the family and the family dynamics before I come up with a treatment plan for the child and family. You can’t just work with a child in a box and think things will change; it is the entire family who has to do the work.
When you tell a child that they need to work on things themselves, what message are we sending to them? The parents have nothing to work on and I’m the “Bad Child”? The message we are sending to our children is so important, since you don’t want them to feel that they are the only ones with the problem and they are the “Bad Child”. Talk about lowering their self-esteem, which then creates more behaviors in the household. One approach I see parents using is to tell the child what the diagnosis is, sometimes a multiple diagnosis such as anxiety, impulsiveness, ADHD, hyper activity, and the list goes on. They will start to believe what they are hearing and it will become a crutch for them as they are in school and as an adult. It will start to be their excuse for their behavior and they won’t take responsibility for their actions. Is this helping the child?
Last week I saw a child who in 40 minutes gave me an excuse every ten minutes such as I have impulse issues and that is why I can’t stop talking. When I asked him to stop talking, he did as asked, and I told him I was confused about his impulse issues because he stopped when I asked. How about the child who has been diagnosed as ADHD and they will make up an excuse for why they can’t do the work nonstop in the classroom, when before they heard the diagnosis they were doing more work. I understand about telling the child what is going on, but some children are hurt more than helped by this. What is wrong with saying, “I know this activity in school is hard for you, so let’s see how we can make it better?” Come up with a plan with the child so they have ownership in what they are doing. Let’s start with listening to the child and see where they take you. They need to have responsibility in their actions just as much as anyone else.
As educators, therapists, parents, and caregivers, it is really important to look at the child as a whole person and not a label. Everyone has something they are working on in life and it is important to teach children if something is hard to work through it and not use it as an excuse to give up and to take responsibility for their actions.
By Vanessa Kahlon, MA
Founder of Kahlon Family Services