So many parents hold such a deep-seated fear of having their child labeled, they do everything in their power to put off the inevitable. A diagnosis -- whether it's autism, ADHD, OCD or anxiety -- is about semantics. It's about a word, and a very important one at that because it's that little tag that ultimately gets your child the help they need to flourish and thrive.
While mental health still carries with it a degree of stigma, a diagnosis is not a life sentence. It doesn't make your kid a pariah. And these conditions exist, and will continue to exist, whether we choose to name them or not.
No one knows this more than Ann Douglas, author of Parenting Through The Storm. The parenting expert saw not one but all four of her children diagnosed with mental health conditions, including depression, Asperger's and ADHD. Though initially she experienced anxiety and sadness with each new label, over time her feelings began to shift.
"I started to see a diagnosis as a good thing as opposed to something negative or limiting," said Douglas. "And I came to understand that a diagnosis didn't have to be about limits: it could be about possibility -- about helping my child to have the best possible life while simultaneously coping with a particular challenge."
My kid's diagnosis was nothing short of liberating. Don't get me wrong. Hearing those four words, "Your son has autism" were accompanied by an emotional tsunami. But mostly what I felt was relief because finally, finally, my gut hunch had been confirmed. A battery of professionals had attested that my son's behaviors weren't the direct result of my useless parenting. I was finally free to love him without the weight of self-doubt on my shoulders.
Up until that point, for the first three years of my boy's life, I constantly questioned my abilities as a mother. Was I doing too much of this? Not enough of that? While some of that judgment came from peers and strangers -- with some people brazenly or subtly insisting they could do a better job if only my son were in their care for a while -- mostly the criticism came from within. Through every single stage of his life, I felt like a defective parent.
I had either failed to adequately discipline him or else I had mismanaged some element of his routine. And I'm not alone. Mothers still bear the brunt of blame when it comes to their children's overall behavior (See also the "refrigerator theory" and the MMR vaccine debate).
For Douglas, being upfront and candid about her own mental health (she has type II bipolar disorder) shaped her outlook on her children's overall health. "I came to realize that the diagnosis was just a piece of information about my child -- information that would allow me to zero in on the most effective parenting strategies and that would allow my child to tap into additional supports that might not otherwise be available to him at school or in the community."
Like Douglas, I live with a mood disorder, which I have largely come to regard as any other medical condition that requires ongoing management.
It's time for us parents to stop viewing diagnosis as a closed door. Rather, it is a series of doors we must travel through, each one opening up a realm of possibilities for our child that we hadn't previously envisioned. And once you're brave enough to step across the threshold, you'll no longer find yourself alone in the dark, but in a room full of new friends who've been there and understand.