Are Labels Really Necessary?

As a new therapist breaking out into the field, I enjoyed conducting assessments and enthusiastically handed out labels to educate parents on the types of language or learning disabilities their child could potentially have. Some parents often looked at me with pleas in their eyes, as if to say, ‘please don’t tell me bad news’ or ‘I am not ready to hear what you are telling me.’ Others would quietly beg that I not share the devastating news with their significant other. I could never completely understand their devastation as I was not yet a parent, nor did I have the experience to understand that labels could harm a parent’s emotional connection to their child. In those days, I passionately advocated for the importance of assigning labels. As a young clinician I was dedicated to my clients, but not sensitive to the fact that parents had dreams and aspiration for their children. In my naivety, I looked at labels as a way to conquer the disability that may prevent a child from being like their peers. I truly believed that with the label came the potential to provide services that would bring that child closer to what society deemed as ‘normal.’  Any parent that fought against the label I considered selfish, someone not looking out for their child’s best interest.  Don’t get me wrong, I saw their pain, but I did not truly understand it. I felt I was doing what was in the best interest of their child.

Years later, I became that parent that attempted to not label my child. Despite, suspecting a problem, I worked hard to deny the problem.  While I truly understood the importance of a label, I was afraid of how it would impact my family. It took ten years for me to get to a point of accepting and caring less about the label. It took seeing my free spirited gifted, nature loving enthusiastic child hiding homework or silently crying in her room, for me to come to my senses. I came to understand that the label did not define my child. It helped me become patient and empathetic. It did not lower my expectations, but reduced unnecessary stress. It  helped teachers understand that my child needed some accommodations.There was a relief that sipped through my veins the day I got my child labeled.

The news that my child had ADHD, was at first relieving as it took away my need to micro-manage and protect my child. Then it became devastating and confusing, given that my child did not look like she had problems as my child is super smart! This child can argue and charm the pants off you.  My child is labeled as a gifted child with ADHD. People know very little about my child’s daily struggles, unless my child chooses to share. It is a double edged sawed, as my child often hears the following from teachers: “You are very smart, but you are being LAZY,” “If you really focus, you would be the genius in my class,”  and best of all, ” Work on your attention and you will  be an A+ student.” 

Labeling my child did not change her, it did not change my expectations for her,  but the label allowed me to be more patient, educate teachers and helped her understand and advocate for herself. I believe in labels. Yes I continue to label, but now with more compassion. Today, I am more sensitive on how I share labels with families. When I do send parents to get labels for their child, I ask parents questions that will help me guide them to the right person. The person that will best support their family needs. I am more sensitive when parents walk into my office,  I know they care and want to support their child.  Who am I to decide the timing for their acceptance of their child’s label? My hope is that by acknowledging and being sensitive about  their child’s needs, I am helping guide them towards the right direction. Don’t get me wrong labels are truly necessary, but timing is also important.

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