When I worked with teenagers in a highly intensive treatment facility I was constantly reminded of the issues associated with their mental health diagnosis. The manifestation of symptoms like self-mutilation, acting-out, depression, and resistance to authority, served the purpose of giving me direction as to how to best treat and care for them. Yet, like many therapists, I never truly realized the magnitude of the terms "diagnosis and disorder" until I was the one sitting on the opposite of the desk. Recently someone I know was diagnosed with a mental health condition and all of the sudden nothing made sense anymore.
Asperger's Disorder, DSM-IV: 299.80. I know what Asperger's is. I've studied it. I've treated it. I was never scared of it—until now. Suddenly, I felt the cold, harsh sting of reality as I realized—for better or for worse—how the parents of my young patients must have felt when I handed them their child's psychological evaluation. How their hearts must have broken to read in black and white type a synopsis of what was wrong with their child instead of what was right. Saying the diagnosis to a parent was something I had done many times, but hearing it was quite different. In this moment, you can no longer separate and compartmentalize the disorder as someone else's issue, you subconsciously own it and in an instant, it becomes very real and very personal.
The Grieving Process:
Grieving is a natural process when children are diagnosed and one that is not often addressed. Sometimes parents are embarrassed or feel impolite admitting that they feel emotions that are not politically correct. They are typically upset, angry, disillusioned, anxious, and depressed about what has happened to their child. Yet parental grieving is absolutely necessary to move on and help their children succeed despite a report that often says they can't.
Many parents feel that they have lost part of their child—her hopes, dreams and her childhood. They even lose the dreams they had for her. What they don't realize is how much they've gained—the ability to understand, sympathize, and work toward building a strong relationship with her by knowing what she needs and how to best give it to her. By acknowledging how one feels and addressing it, parents can learn how to accept and adjust their expectations as well as find peace and healing for themselves and their family.
The most difficult part for many parents is admitting that they have any of these feelings to begin with. After all, it's not popular to look at your child's therapist or your best friend at a dinner party and say, "I'm so angry about this! What did I do to deserve it? Why can't I just have a normal kid like everyone else?" Not only are these feelings natural, they are necessary to get to a healthy place where you can truly focus on your child's needs and help them achieve their dreams.
Six Healthy Ways to Cope with Your Child's Diagnosis:
The journey that lies ahead for you and your child will have it's share of difficulty, heartbreak, joy, and pain, but it is one well worth taking. Now that I know what it means to be personally invested in a diagnosis, I've found I'm a better friend, mother, sister, spouse, and therapist. I am more sensitive to the needs of my patients and the needs of my loved ones because I have a better understanding of how to help them and how to help myself. And, with time and courage, so will you.