I recently connected with a former friend from many years ago in one of those "So, how's life been treating you" conversations. I'm not terribly fond of these catch-up calls, but he called me so I was able to ask questions and listen which I prefer to do.
In the course of family updates, my friend spoke of his nephew, saying he was struggling, was not terribly social, spent most of his time in his room, and said, "He’s a troubled kid.” My first reaction was - what an antiquated phrase - yet kept asking questions, hoping to perhaps offer some insights into how he could help him. Wrong assumption on my part. Understanding his issues and wanting to step in to help was far less important than conveying - multiple times - that he’s troubled.
After hanging up, I thought to myself ... why is this phrase still used to describe a struggling child? I can't ever recall hearing anyone refer to an adult as a troubled adult. It's not only a poor generalization, but it conveys nothing of substance. To me, it's like looking away from something unpleasant. You're aware of it or may have seen it but no...not getting involved.
We’re quick to toss around “labels” (both accurate and otherwise) when it comes to adults – he’s depressed, she’s bipolar. And while labels can be obstacles based in fear and the unknown, once *it* has a name, we've got a starting point. And this certainly holds true when we're talking about a child or young adult.
I understand well the reluctance of parents to label a child or teenager and many resist at every turn. It's easier to say that he's going through a phase or she's just introverted. But that's not good enough and certainly not for the child him/herself. Not only do parents need to know why their child is struggling, but sharing this information - and relevant details - is important particularly when it comes to family and those close enough to the child to try to make a difference. We already know the alternatives and few have positive outcomes. Not to mention the need for the child to learn self-advocacy skills based on their understanding of themselves.
We’re quick to label one of *those* kids as being in special education yet even today, many lack real understanding about just what this means. Just listen to the line in the film Admission where one of the college admissions officers exclaims, “The kid was in special education.” So what? The uninformed assume that this is an automatic roadblock preventing a struggling child from succeeding in school, college, or life. I think not.
Much continues to be said - and needs to be said - about mental health issues and our children. There’s a push to bring these issues to the fore to ensure that those who are struggling can access the support they need. And while our words (or labels) can harm if used as a weapon, they can also embrace. Failing to use the appropriate words to describe a struggling child is the same as looking away. It's not an easy choice to make and there are risks involved, yet the same applies to any new ground. The longer we remain in the past and keep looking away, the harder it's going to be to turn a troubled child into a supported child making strides forward.
- Debra I. Schafer, CEO