Diagnosing Boys Who Behave Badly

Earlier this week I felt anger and sadness over watching a little boy I know fading into the black hole that sensitive and artistic little children can go into.  Today it seems that the obvious must be stated: boys are different than girls. They start different, and they end up different. They act different at school, and they are often punished for that. However, since children can no longer be hit or shamed by teachers, the methods of punishment and control used in the classroom have changed. Today, schools slap the child with a label, not a ruler.

What’s happened over the past 20-30 years is that the schools and counselors have changed the labels they give little boys who don’t fit in, but they haven’t changed their intolerance for little boys, or big boys, for that matter. It’s a well-documented fact that boys develop differently and, in some areas, more slowly, than girls. Girls tend to be better academic performers because they are often good with language and details, and want to please the teacher; boys tend to be better at athletics and manly feats of strength and daring, and want to please or impress other boys. This, of course, causes problems for the classroom teacher who is attempting to teach and control 25-30 students, about half of whom are boys behaving badly (i.e., like boys). There’s good research to support the idea that boys ought to start school later than girls, and that starting them in academics too early can have negative consequences. If boys must start school early, and must jump through the same sorts of hoops as girls, then (we’re told) they’ll do better if they can learn in female-dominated classrooms.

The fashionable label 10-15 years ago for boys was ADD or ADHD. These became such catch-alls that a cautionary backlash occurred, which in turn resulted in a diagnostic balancing act. The referral worked this way:

  1. Boy acts like usual self.
  2. Boy annoys teacher mightily.
  3. Teacher sends notes home.
  4. Boy annoys teacher more and, with other boys, disrupts classroom.
  5. Teacher sends notes home and calls parents.
  6. Boy has Incident and is sent to office, and parents are called.
  7. Teacher, parents, and principal meet.
  8. Behavior checklists and pre-diagnostic checklists are sent home.
  9. Mommy fills out checklists; teacher fills out checklists.
  10. School counselor meets with all, and it is determined that Boy is, in fact, the Spawn of Satan and must be Diagnosed, Medicated, and sent to the Specialist-Who-Tutors-the-Demonically-Possessed.
  11. Child is removed from classroom for several hours per day/per week/forever, and Teacher is now happy.
  12. Child has a special label to wear for the rest of his school years, which comes in handy whenever excuses are needed.

Last week, I read up on autism out of concern for the child I wrote about, and it turns out that young boys are increasingly being diagnosed with it. This is due, in part, to changes in criteria, which has been reported in several places. Increased public awareness about autism and a definition that was broadened to include children with normal IQs probably also contribute to the increase in diagnoses. Having said this, however, I return to my hypothesis that autism is the new ADD/ADHD: it is boys behaving badly, or artistic boys being confused with autistic boys (as seems to be the case with the boy I wrote about earlier this week).

The reasons why a child doesn’t quite fit in are as myriad as the number of children who don’t fit in. I think that we’re too ready to label and diagnose children these days, and that we can make debilitating mistakes by so doing. Every child who is out of step is not diagnosable; some children are just at either end of the bell curve. The child may be a budding artist, musician, or the reincarnation of Carl Jung or another luminary who didn’t “fit in.” We will never know if we medicate the child into oblivion.

Another possibility is that the child who doesn’t fit in is what Elaine N. Aron calls a Highly Sensitive Person (she has a new book out about the highly sensitive child). A checklist for assessing whether your child is highly sensitive can be found here.

The criteria include:

  • Is aware of subtleties in the environment.
  • Is affected by the moods of others.
  • Tends to be sensitive to pain.
  • Needs to withdraw from too much stimulation.
  • Is especially sensitive to caffeine.
  • Can be overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, loud noises, etc.
  • Shows evidence of a rich inner life.
  • Is deeply moved by the arts or music.
  • Startles easily.
  • Is easily stressed.
  • Is sensitive to the suffering of others.
  • Is overwhelmed when too many demands is made of him.
  • Is troubled by violent movies or TV.
  • Doesn’t deal well with change, but needs help in new situations.

Children who are not highly sensitive, but who have highly intuitive personality types, may also have similar challenges in the classroom. Gender or personality may account for behaviors that take a child from the curve of the bell to either end of the spectrum, but by no means ought to be grounds for labeling a child who started out within normal limits for a human being.

And this is the part where I slide with faltering steps onto thin ice: the child who began life within normal limits may not remain there if we make Big Mistakes by ignoring our gut and listening to others who aggressively tell us that they know better. I think we’re especially prone to ignoring our gut when our own parents served as role models for it and habituated us to it. If parents devalue their expertise and roles by out-sourcing their parenting roles and their wisdom to nannies, babysitters, day care workers, teachers, etc., then we are at higher risk of devaluing our own parenting wisdom. We don’t really believe we’re as important as all that: but we are. We may ignore what our wise minds and our guts are telling us.

Mothers and fathers, please listen carefully to your innermost selves. Don’t just assume that those butterflies in your stomach, or that sinking feeling down there, are telling you that something is badly wrong with your child. Certainly, it’s possible that something is badly wrong; however, it’s just as possible that nothing is wrong with your child, and that everything is wrong with the situation, the environment, the caregiver, or the teacher. Your highly intuitive boy may need to live in la-la land for another year, regardless of whether la-la land is part of his kindergarten curriculum. He may need only three hours of preschool rather than six every day; he may need no preschool at all for six months.

Your really active little boy may do better in a different school, or home schooled, or with a different teacher, or in soccer. Your highly sensitive girl may need a pet of her own to cuddle (when she is old enough), or may need some “lap time” more often and with more regularity. Your child may be a “them,” and not fit neatly into whatever gender role was assigned at birth, and may be struggling at school because they’re trying to figure out how to sort themselves. You may need to volunteer in the classroom, so you can see what’s really going on with your child.

One of my Boys Behaving Badly made his 5th grade substitute teacher cry every day for a week. This week occurred after many years of school, during which I went every single week to the office and conferred with the teacher and principal about this boy’s behavior. They nearly begged me to medicate this child, but I knew he was not diagnosable with anything other than Boyishness at the Far End of the Bell Curve.

In spite of my knowledge, I felt compassion for the poor teachers and the other students who were more “normal” and deserved more education than entertainment. I told my son that if he made the teacher cry one more time, I would withdraw him from school, he could kiss public school good-bye, and I would home school him until he became tame. He did, I did; he did, and I did. After five years of home schooling, that same Bad Boy was back in school, a star basketball player, and a stellar human being—and he remains a stellar human being to this very day.

Would Bad Boy’s ultimate outcome have been different had he been labeled and medicated, and retained by the public schools? Maybe, maybe not. There’s enough love and light in this family that handicaps of mis-labeling would probably be overcome later, but not without cost. I know, because I’ve made what I now consider to be parenting mistakes that have taken years to undo. I’m not talking down to other parents from an ivory tower, here.

I also don’t think that home schooling is the answer for everyone; but I do think that parents ought to approach labeling a child for life with the greatest caution. Being labeled can be a crippler that later takes much work to overcome, and it seems more effective to avoid labeling altogether or postpone it when possible. I’ve been privileged to help some adults re-frame their differentness with labels that are more useful than “learning disabled” and “reading disabled,” and “low-average IQ” and “ADHD” and a variety of other labels that usually only helped teachers and adults to cope with a child’s differences.

Mothers, when your instincts tell you that something is wrong, something probably is wrong: but the problem may not be with your child. Something else may need to change to help your child adapt to life in his (or her, or their) own time.  I hope young mothers will take courage by noticing that they usually know when something is amiss, and will follow through to an outcome that is as good as possible for that particular child, at that particular time, in that particular setting, and with those particular parents.

| Understanding Your Child’s Temperament | Mentor Mom |

16 responses to “Diagnosing Boys Who Behave Badly”

  1. The Miseducation of Children « The Third Eve Avatar

    […] been writing about the disturbing trend of diagnosing young children, particularly boys, with psychiatric disorders when the very behaviors that merit a diagnosis today […]

  2. Eve Avatar

    Mary Joan, I’d love to dialogue with you about the issue of medicating children, or read what you have to say about it on your blog.

    I read in the paper today about the huge recall of children’s cold medicine such as Dimetapp, Tylenol Cold, etc. for infants and children under age two. According to the newspaper article, there’s a great deal of evidence that the medicine was ineffective for children under age six years, and dangerous for children younger than two years of age.

    What was so interesting to me was that these medications have been given to children for years, and I remember a day when our pediatrician actually prescribed Dimetap for our kids. It confounds me that this type of thing keeps happening.

    So, yes, I notice exactly what you said, that once a med is generic, lo and behold, it has side effects and many are found to be dangerous. Let the consumer beware!

  3. Mary Joan Koch Avatar

    Wonderful post as usual, Eve. I loved the observation that now the boy is slapped with a label, not a ruler. Fortunately, when my two older kids were young, we first had the option of a more open classroom in a creative public school where they thrived. Our two years in Maine they went to a wonderful school with 50 kids from 5 to 18, and four gifted teachers. Otherwise, I probably would have tried teaching my second daughter at home.

    You know I share your beliefs on medicating young children. Since, as a manic depressive, I have taken some of these medications prescribed to children, I am passionate about my beliefs. Have you noticed that once a psychiatric medication becomes generic, its ineffectiveness and dangerous side effects are suddenly discovered and a new wonder drug emerges?

  4. Eve Avatar

    Francesca, hello, and welcome to this place! I’m happy to meet you, so thank you for coming over and also thank you for the link to your post. I’m going to read it as soon as I finish this response.

    I have several children who are diagnosable and who have been diagnosed, having adopted several kids who have ‘special needs.’ Over time, I’ve learned that every doggone person in the world has special needs.

    I haven’t medicated my children, which merely means that I’ve had to work harder and longer, and have sometimes wished that I had something I could take! LOL!

    Having said that, I’m not against medication for children if it’s absolutely necessary; I simply fall on the very conservative side of what’s necessary. Being a big fan of Carl Jung, who thought even psychotic people and addicts showed meaning in their behaviors and were, in fact, attempting wholeness in such difficult ways, I tend to try to look past the manifestation to the meaning.

    Granted, there may be a biologically based problem that no amount of searching for meaning can address. But I’m a skeptic in this area and it takes more than a few professionals to convince me to label and medicate my child. This has worked for our family so far, but it’s not for everyone.

    Now, I’m off to read your article!

  5. Francesca (stuntmother) Avatar

    I was referred here by a blogfriend because I just wrote something similar yesterday. I am heartened to read your post. I need solidarity of this sort in the fight against the diagnosis of what is my child’s essential self, not his purported illness.

    My post is, if you’re interested: http://stuntmother.blogspot.com/2007/10/my-child-my-little-one-my-own.html

  6. renaissanceguy Avatar

    I just wrote a blog post on my dilemma of whether to narrow the focus of my blog or not.


    I think that we would do well to step back to square one with our educational system and make it more boy-friendly. Teachers need more hands-on training in classroom management that includes techniques for keeping boys motivated.

    I have seen some children–mostly boys–who have benefitted from ADD treatments. They not only were able to do their schoolwork better, but were more content all around with their new-found ability to filter sensory stimuli effectively.

    Having said that, I firmly believe that medicine is often prescribed (1) at too young an age, (2) by doctors who are not specialists, (3) to too many kids, and (4) before other interventions are tried.

  7. Eve Avatar

    P.S. I’d prefer relationships to traffic. I’ve had name-brand recognition already, so the traffic isn’t necessary. I’m really thrilled to be meeting young parents who are really dedicated to parenting and living authetically… it gives me so much hope for the future.

    And hope that my kids will be able to find other healthy, normal people to marry some day! ;o) Haha, Eve

  8. Eve Avatar

    Bubandpie’s mom, what a great way to adjust to Bub’s temperament. I was one of those kids who really hated eating strange food or at strangers’ houses (not restaurants so much… just peoples’ homes). I have vivid memories from age 4-5 years of spending the night at a friend’s house and how messy and smelly the home was. Her mom gave us oatmeal for breakfast, but with a huge pile of laundry behind the table on the floor, I associated the oatmeal with dirty socks.

    I didn’t eat, and went home quite distressed (held it together at the friend’s house, tho). That was the last time I did a sleepover for several years. A few of my children are that sensitive, too, and I try to be understanding. But it sure takes a lot of extra time and effort, eh?

  9. Eve Avatar

    Hi, Charlotte! Wow, it’s so great that you came over here to visit! I love your blog, so a compliment from you is a compliment indeed. Thanks. :o)

  10. bubandpie Avatar

    I had a conversation with the caregiver yesterday, and we agreed to reevaluate at the end of October – we’ll keep trying until then, and if we don’t feel good about where things are at by that time, I’ll have to find something else. Bub’s former caregiver had a baby a couple of weeks ago, so she tentatively plans to be reopening her home-care sometime in November – so that may be an option by then.

    As of today, I’m making a change that I hope will help. Bub is eating his lunch right now with me at home so that when he goes over to his day-care, he will have some time to play freely, rather than facing the immediate demand to sit at the table and eat food that is unfamiliar to him. I think that’s been setting the tone for the afternoon – not to mention the fact that he’s been going through the afternoon on an empty stomach. So I’m cautiously optimistic for now.

    Re: blogging. You have to evaluate your goals – are you aiming to generate a lot of Google traffic, or are you content to build relationships? I think most readers are prepared to read posts on a variety of subjects, but a more targeted blog definitely attracts more one-time random visitors.

  11. charlotteotter Avatar

    Eve, what a brilliant post. I have a little son following in the footsteps of two rather conscientious daughters and I will watch out to make sure his special boy energy doesn’t get constrained or labelled.

    I have always thought that people are far too ready to medicate “difficult” children, because it’s convenient to do so rather than find alternative ways to meet their needs.

    About blogging, I have also read that a blog needs to be focused. However, it’s your blog and you should include whatever material you like. I for one would be happy to find all kinds of different topics here. I do the same at my place and feel completely justified in doing so, because it’s my blog.

  12. Eve Avatar

    TIV, wow, thank you for the tip of the hat from a colleague by profession and parenting. I’ve mulled over whether I should bring parenting issues into this blog or start another one, but I don’t like seeming to splinter myself like that, y’know?

    You and others seem able to write about a variety of issues without it seeming too piecemeal, so I guess I’ll follow your good example. I started out only focusing on the development of the whole self, but if parenting isn’t part of that, I don’t know what is.

    At least, it has been for me.

    Did you find that what you posted changed over time? I’m new to blogging (obviously) and read somewhere that a blog ought to be focused. However, my life is kaleidoscopic so I’m not sure how to pretend it’s not in a blog that comes from the heart.

    (Advice appreciated!)

  13. Eve Avatar

    Bubandpie, your mom instincts are ‘spot on,’ I think, and your little guy is so lucky to have you. Sometimes parents can be like teachers, and try to get the kid to fit their approach, instead of reversing it; you seem to know your son very well. Not every parent works to achieve your level of understanding because it’s such hard work.

    What do you think will eventually happen with your caregiver? Will Bub win out, or stress out, develop more coping skills, or will you find another caregiver?

  14. the individual voice Avatar

    I like the way you talk about childrearing on your blog. I’ve been searching for new links and I can tell you will not disappoint.

  15. bubandpie Avatar

    It’s hard when the need for “classroom management” comes into conflict with the needs of an individual in the class. That seems to be what’s happening at Bub’s home-care (even though it’s not a classroom). This morning, Bub refused to leave for nursery school, and it took me 10 minutes of negotiating to reverse that decision – I had to break it down into increments and secure his agreement for each step: Do you want to walk to the door, or do you want a ride? Do you want to put on shoes or sandals? Which book do you want to take with you? Ten minutes later, he left the house of his own free will.

    My sense, though, is that his home-care provider considers this kind of negotiation to be more individual attention than she can spare (there are two caregivers with eight kids). I think she tends to offer him one or two chances to comply, and if he doesn’t then they either force the issue (resulting in a meltdown) or simply accept his refusal so that he misses out on the walk/backyard/whatever is going on.

    It’s hard for me to be the parent who says “Give my child special treatment.” And the caregiver is concerned that Bub’s bad example will be catching – that the other kids will see his non-compliance and imitate it. So in the balance between his individual needs and the smooth running of the program, it’s the program that’s winning out.

    Forgive the long anecdote – I guess the application I’m seeing here is that it’s easy for caregivers and teachers to assume that when an approach works with all but one or two kids, it’s the remaining one or two kids who need to be altered, not the approach. And even if they’re willing to try alternate approaches, the resources also need to be there to support that.

  16. renaissanceguy Avatar

    Thanks for brining up this important topic.

    I have a lot that I could say, but I need to think first.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Create a website or blog at WordPress.com

%d bloggers like this: