Sticks And Stones Got It All Wrong

Years ago, I vividly recall telling my son that words hurt as much as, if not more than, a physical action.  This was when he was experiencing daily torment by classmates in school because he was "different" - a book reader, creative, and not into sports.  Even the word different bothered me because it came with baggage that I wanted him to shed. On last night's news, there was a story about a man who ended his life after what appeared to be a lifetime of struggle.  The reporter said that the man "was mentally ill" and all kinds of images came to mind, even for me who has spent years advocating for children/young adults with a range of diagnoses and labels.  I then wondered how people without any frame of reference reacted to this statement vs. how they may have responded if the reporter said... the man "suffered for years with mental illness" or the man "struggled for years with depression."  Perhaps it would have softened - and brought a level of humanity and understanding - to an otherwise tragic situation.

Much attention is being paid these days to three topics - issues of mental health/illness, bullying, and struggles of our youth in the LGBT community - and all for good reasons.  Our mental health system is in shambles and many children, teens, and adults cannot access the services and supports they so desperately need.  Not a day passes when we don't hear about another child who has been and continues to be bullied in school.  And several days ago, I read words written by a student on a college blog about feelings of desperation - and wanting to die - because of being gay and excluded.

Many of our children and young adults are struggling and suffering, the results of which are often devastating for them and others.   Diagnoses and labels are often affixed with little regard for the weight of the words themselves and without the cushion of support needed after these words/terms are affixed.  Autism.  Bipolar.  Gay.  One single word can change everything for a person ... whether they're accepted, included, supported, loved, hired.   Imagine having your life defined by a single word or phrase.

No question ... short snippets of information and catchy terms often help us hook on and remember something.  But many times the thing that helps us remember is also the thing that makes us forget ... that behind the label or term is a person.  A person who may be struggling, trying desperately to overcome obstacles that sometimes even they don't fully understand.

One of the statements I make frequently to parents, educators, and to groups is this ... a diagnosis or label does not "define" but rather it "describes."  A definition is fixed, but a description is fluid and provides more room for explanation and information.  Words can and often do change everything, particularly when the words are facing outward toward another person.  Words also can and do hurt, but they can also explain, empathize, embrace...and heal.  And we need as much healing today as we can get.

Struggling Kids Become Adults ... Then What?

Did you know that the costs to incarcerate someone is more than it is to educate them?  I'm sure this is the case in most states as would be the statistics that show that a fairly hefty percentage of the young adults and adults in prison have undiagnosed disabilities - learning, developmental, behavioral, emotional, mental. This isn't about scaring parents into thinking that their struggling children are heading to jail.  Rather, it's about asking parents to look toward the horizon, where high school graduation, driving, college, employment, and independent living comes into play.  It's about acknowledging that if your child is struggling today, they may well grow into a struggling adult.

No parent wants to know that their 4th Grader has dyslexia or their 9th Grader is bipolar.  No parent wants to think about how their 6th Grader is going to manage through the social challenges of middle school when their child has Asperger's Syndrome or how their gifted 12th Grader with ADHD is going to handle the demands of college.  But here's the reality - acknowledge and work to support it today, or know that the gaps grow wider and the consequences far more serious with each passing year.

Over the past few months, I've read actual posts from college students asking to pay others to write their college papers or take their online classes for them.  Nothing new as we've heard about this for some time.  And while I'll readily admit that some may be lazy or just not interested in doing the work, others may have been struggling with reading, writing, or math for years.   This creates enormous pressure for the child which morphs into serious challenges for them as adults, and while they learn ways to "smoke and mirror" their deficits, eventually the smoke clears and the mirror cracks.

Ask any college administrator about the increasing numbers of freshman who are taking remedial classes - and more than one or two and often for multiple semesters - because they are woefully deficient in basic academic skills and this tells us plenty.  Ask any college health services department about the exploding numbers of students seeking mental health counseling and this tells us plenty.  And ask any manager about the numbers of Gen Y employees who cannot write a well-developed report or develop a budget and this tells us plenty.   These issues didn't just appear...many have been hidden in plain sight for many for years.

Parents are stretched thin, often struggling to balance work and family with a host of other responsibilities.  And having just one more thing to do is often enough to tip the scale beyond being able to manage.  Yet I would bet that there isn't a parent who doesn't want their child to be able to live and function as a competent, self-sufficient adult.  For many, however, this is a goal that comes with additional requirements in order to achieve it.

Maybe your child won't be posting on Craigslist or a college Facebook page for someone to write their Sociology paper, and maybe your child won't find him/herself struggling with emotional issues that makes keeping a full-time job impossible.  But maybe they will.  Wouldn't it be better to look the needs in the face now, while they're young, instead of hoping they'll go away when they become young adults?  We give our children roots as well as wings to fly, but for many, they need far more.