Last week, as I was pondering how to begin this blog, I received a call from a worried mother of a five-year-old boy. Her son, Jonathon (not his real name), was about to be thrown out of kindergarten. He constantly argued with his teacher and refused to comply with the simplest of requests--such as lining up to go back to the classroom after recess. Jonathon insisted on bringing his toys to school, even though it was against the rules, and had a fall-down-on-the-floor tantrum if his teacher tried to separate him from his toy. The teacher and the school principal had been very patient with Jonathon, but now they thought that he had oppositional-defiant disorder (ODD) and needed medical treatment. When his worried mother took Jonathon to their pediatrician, the doctor pronounced that Jonathon was "just behaving like a boy." When her husband heard the story, his opinion was that Jonathon was simply a spoiled brat who needed more discipline. "What's the difference between a child who has ODD and a spoiled brat?" she asked me.
Good question, I mused. The short answer, of course, is "about thirty years of history." Three decades ago, before our society began labeling childhood misbehavior as a medical disorder, a child who was disobedient, argumentative and wanted to get his own way all the time was commonly known as a spoiled brat. Then, in 1980, the diagnosis of "oppositional disorder" first appeared in the manual of mental disorders used by psychiatrists, the DSM-III. The 1987 edition of the DSM revised OD to "oppositional-defiant disorder" or ODD. Now there was an official name for defiant, rule-breaking, argumentative children. Now there was a medical condition that could be treated with medication. Parents of difficult children need not feel blamed for being overly indulgent or inconsistent in their parenting. Their mischievous child had a medical problem. Progress was being made.
Or was it? By 2010, many parents, doctors, and educators were becoming alarmed by the widespread psychiatric medicating of children in America. Many people raised questions of whether children were being drugged for sound medical reasons or merely to line the pockets of child psychiatrists and pharmaceutical companies. In 2008, Senator Charles Grassley began a congressional investigation of conflicts of interest on the part of psychiatrists and drug companies.
But the most tragic side-effect of turning childhood misbehavior into a disease is often overlooked. Labeling and medicating kids who misbehaved not only removed blame from parents, it also removed the power of parents to help their children. Parents turned to doctors and medications
for their children instead of seeking solutions within the family.
Pills are not for Preschoolers attempts to remedy this situation. The book illustrates, with many cases from my own practice (of course, all details are disguised), that parents are not at all powerless to heal their troubled children. In fact, it is only parents and families that hold the power to truly resolve their children's problems. And this is the theme of this blog. I will explore with those of you who are concerned about the mental health crisis facing our country's children how families can be empowered to help children overcome the most difficult of challenges-whether school failure or school phobia, whether anxiety or excessive sadness, whether misbehavior or distractibility.
Along with exploring the power of families, we will look at the power of language to guide parents to helpful solutions or to mislead them with false promises. I'll keep you up to date about Jonathon, as well as many other children. And we will explore which language is most helpful to our children in the final analysis: "ODD," "spoiled brat," or "just behaving like a boy."
Copyright 2010 Marilyn Wedge, Ph.D.
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