It’s something parents of children with special needs rapidly tire of hearing: “If he were my child, I’d just spank him and then that behavior would stop!” “ADHD is just a label for her bad behavior! The real problem is a lack of discipline!”

It’s painful to hear your parenting criticized in such a way. It’s even more painful to hear your child’s struggles dismissed so cruelly. Because there’s no blood test or brain scan for mental health diagnoses and learning disabilities, some self-styled experts claim these disorders simply don’t exist.

Parenting is hard. It’s a nonstop recipe for guilt, and most parents question themselves. Which means that most also question whether the problem is the child’s diagnosis or their parenting. So how can you tell the difference between a discipline problem and a mental health diagnosis? Knowing the difference can help ease your parental guilt, inspire you to seek help for a struggling child, and offer peace of mind that you’re making good parenting choices.

Dispelling the Myth of the ‘Bad Kid’

Parents sometimes worry that their child is just “bad” or “difficult.” Strangers and well-meaning loved ones can exacerbate this fear, insisting that a child is being “willful” or manipulative. It’s time to dispel that myth.

Children behave the way they do for three simple reasons:

  • Because they enjoy the behavior or what it gets them. That’s why kids steal cookies and try to stay up late.
  • As a way of communicating something to their parents. Hitting a sibling might be unkind, but it’s also a pretty clear way to communicate that the child is feeling left out of the family.
  • As a reaction to their own emotions. A child who lies in bed crying is not being manipulative. He’s trying to manage his own fear, anger, or loneliness.

So whether a child has a mental health diagnosis or not, his or her behavior happens for a reason. Your child is not bad. You are not a bad parent. In fact, one of the simplest ways to discern the difference between a child with behavioral issues and a child with a diagnosis is to look at the child’s behavior in the context of his or her environment. Ask yourself:

  • Does this behavior make sense in light of the child’s environment?
  • Is my child trying to communicate something?
  • Is this behavior a way for my child to manage his or her feelings?

Behavior that makes sense when you consider things from a child’s perspective is usually just a temporary annoyance, not the sign of a diagnosis, and certainly not a sign that your child is “bad.” The key here is to find ways to adjust your child’s life and environment to minimize the occurrence of the problem behavior.

What’s Normal and What’s Not?

Not sure whether your child’s behavior is the product of their environment or the product of a diagnosis? The next step is to learn as much as you can about developmentally typical behavior. Children do strange things. Lying, for example, is normal through much of childhood, as is an obsession with bathroom functions and difficulty with impulse control.

Talk with friends about the way their children behave. Look at what your child’s teacher expects. If your child’s behavior is substantially similar to his or her peers’ behavior, it’s probably not due to a diagnosis. Keep in mind, of course, that all kids are unique and every child develops on his or her own timetable. A few minor differences between kids do not a diagnosis make.

The Role of Expert Insight

If you had a strange mole growing on your skin, you’d ask a dermatologist if it looked suspicious. The same strategy helps when you’re not sure what to make of your child’s behavior. An expert can tell you what’s normal and what’s not. So consider working with a child behaviorist, a therapist, or your child’s pediatrician. The following strategies can also help:

  • Talk to your child’s teacher about classroom expectations. Does your child meet those expectations? How is his or her behavior relative to the behavior of classmates?
  • Ask your child’s pediatrician which behavioral milestones your child should be meeting. Is it realistic to expect your child to sit still, to communicate feelings, or to sleep through the night? If not, should you talk to someone about your child’s concerns?
  • Look into developmental milestones for your child's age. The CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics, and local pediatric practices are great resources. If your child is not meeting developmental milestones, it may be time to seek some outside help.

What a Mental Health Diagnosis Looks Like

If you think your child might have ADHD, oppositional defiant disorder (ODD), a learning disability, or a similar diagnosis, it’s helpful to know what such a diagnosis looks like. Children react to their environments and may behave differently in different locations. But generally speaking, a hallmark of a diagnosis is that the behavior is fairly consistent regardless of the circumstances. A child who struggles with concentration at school, home, and in sports practice is far more likely to have ADHD than a child who is wild at home but calm at school.

Some other characteristics of a child with a diagnosis include:

  • Your child might seem frustrated by their own behavior, or aware that their behavior is unusual.
  • Your child might have trouble getting along with other kids because those children see the child’s behavior as unusual.
  • Your child gets worse with punishment and changing the way you discipline your child does not work.

The only way to know for sure is to talk to a professional. Your pediatrician can refer you to a child psychiatrist or psychologist who will determine the best strategies for supporting your child.

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