The Problem with Labeling Children with a Psychiatric DisorderThe way we label children who do poorly in school has taken a dramatic turn — in many ways for the better, in some ways for the worse.

In yesteryear, kids who didn’t perform well in school would have been labeled as no-good, lazy, defiant, incorrigible, or just plain stupid. They would be disciplined by being shamed, blamed, hit, scolded, punished, ridiculed or simply written off as hopeless cases.

Progress has been made. For the most part, we have eliminated such verbal and physical abuse. But we still must question the progress that’s been made when we replace the old labels with psychiatric diagnoses that refer to kids as ‘disordered’ or ‘disabled.’

Some of these “new and improved” labels include:

  • Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD)
  • Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD)
  • Learning disabled (LD)

Even pervasive traits such as introversion can be labeled as “Shyness Disorder,” while “misbehaving” can be labeled “Conduct Disorder.”

So, what’s the alternative? To pretend that a kid has no issues?

This is not helpful either. What is helpful is to describe a child’s behavioral and learning problems in a descriptive manner, such as:

  • Has a short attention span
  • Always in motion
  • Has a rebellious nature
  • Learns better by doing than by reading

I prefer to envision a “can’t sit still, class clown” child as a budding Robin Williams with a unique personality rather than as a hyperactive kid who needs to be medicated.

I prefer to envision a dyslexic child as a potential Cher, Whoopi, or Warhol who will develop her unique talents in her idiosyncratic way rather than as a kid who is doomed to fail.

Some labels may indeed assist us in understanding a child’s problem. The danger, however, lies in the child becoming the diagnosis. Hence, Karl becomes an ADD child; not a child with ADD. Val becomes an LD child; not a child with a learning difficulty. Don’t think that little twist makes a difference? Think again.

Apply it to yourself. Let’s say you have trouble controlling your temper. Would you prefer to be labeled as an “impulse control disorder” or as one who would benefit from learning anger management skills?

Or perhaps you react dramatically when life presents you with the unexpected. Would you prefer to be labeled as a “histrionic personality disorder” or as one who would benefit from learning how to cope with the unexpected?

To label a child with a psychiatric diagnosis should be our last resort — especially when that diagnosis readily leads to a long-term dependency on psychiatric drugs that have sometimes-dangerous side effects. Taking a pill is easy. Alternative methods of dealing with difficult kids are slower and more complex. It may require altering parenting styles, learning environments, preconceived expectations, daily routines, diet, exercise, and allowing for increased physical activity.

This type of approach requires creativity, innovation and patience. Too bad that with our rush, rush, quick-fix world, so many of us find it difficult to slow down enough to restructure how we deal with a struggling child’s needs.



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    Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 12 Sep 2013
    Published on All rights reserved.

APA Reference
Sapadin, L. (2013). The Problem with Labeling Children with a Psychiatric Disorder. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 30, 2015, from


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