4 Ways to Fight Stigma: Your Child Is Not Their Diagnosis
Parents often have mixed feelings when their child is diagnosed with a mental health condition. On one hand, it can be a relief that your child will be getting help. On the other hand, there’s a lot of stigma about mental health conditions – and people, especially kids, can feel defined by their diagnosis. They might think, “I am my ADHD” or “I am an anxious person.” Even worse, they might think that they are somehow “wrong” or “bad” for having a mental health condition. You as a parent may also struggle with these feelings, wondering why your kid can’t be “normal” like other kids. It can become a cycle of shame between parents and kids that doesn’t need to be there.
Guess what? It’s “normal” to have mental health disorders. Mental health conditions are incredibly prevalent: It is estimated that 1 in 5 Americans experience a mental health condition in a given year (NAMI, 2019). This doesn’t even include people who have mental health disorders over their lifetime or people with undiagnosed mental illnesses. However, because of the stigma around mental health, a lot of people are too embarrassed to talk about their struggles. This makes it seem like less people have mental health disorders than they do, when your neighbors, your friends, and kids at your child’s school all struggle. Mental health is invisible: people who you might think “have it all” are sometimes living with mental health conditions.
If your child has been diagnosed with a mental health condition, don’t worry! Many other parents have been through the same thing. Remember that a diagnosis is just a diagnosis. Diagnoses provide helpful information to psychologists, but they don’t give the whole picture. You’re the one who knows your kid in all their nuances, complexities, and quirks. YOU know that your child isn’t “just” their depression, trauma, or anxiety, so don’t let your kid trick themselves into thinking that! Catherine is Catherine and Elijah is Elijah no matter what a piece of paper says. Want to reduce stigma for your child and maybe even for yourself? Here’s 4 helpful tips:
1. Educate yourself & your child about their mental health condition – what it is and isn’t
There are a lot of misconceptions out there about mental health conditions. People don’t tend to discuss their mental health, so the media is our biggest source of information. While sometimes portrayals of mental health are nuanced, often, these portrayals do little to help educate viewers. For example, the portrayal of mental health in TV shows like Thirteen Reasons Why and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is not always accurate and doesn’t help reduce stigma.
Seek out trustworthy sources of information! Your therapist would be a great resource for mental health education. Therapists often have brochures or information sheets about mental health that they can hand out to their clients. Your pediatrician’s office might also have this information. Using Google can be a little risky for finding good information – try to stick to websites that you know are trustworthy. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI), the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), or the Mayo Clinic are all reliable, evidence-based sites.
2. Reinforce the positive - your child’s strengths & what’s going well
We can often get so bogged down in the stress of life that we forget to pay attention to the positive. The positive can seem less significant than the negative but it’s important to acknowledge what’s going right. Celebrate the small things. Billie made his bed today? Awesome! Why not tell Billie how much you appreciate it when he does that? Or, maybe Jamilla had a dance recital – be sure to tell her how proud you are of her and how well she did. Kids love to hear that they’re doing a good job. Focusing on the positive could also help balance your perspective on your kid & allow you to see their strengths.
I want to add a quick note here that it’s important to be genuine with your child. Reinforce positives that are actually present rather than telling your child white lies about their abilities. Say, for example, that Jamilla tripped and fell on her face at her dance recital. Instead of focusing on her performance as a dancer, help Jamila redefine success as getting back on her feet and finishing the recital. This is honest, and it reinforces something far more important than performing one dance recital perfectly: perseverance through challenging situations.
3. Explain that your child is not their condition: One thing doesn’t define who they are
A diagnosis can sometimes feel like the defining thing in your child’s life. After all, it’s what brought them to therapy, so it must be causing a certain amount of distress for them. And it’s probably causing you distress too, and your kid knows that. While going to therapy is absolutely the best thing to do for your child, therapy also emphasizes your child’s diagnosis. Sometimes it can feel like ALL your child talks about, whether in therapy or at home, is their mental health condition!
So, remind your kid that they’re a lot more than their diagnosis. Marnie has depression– AND she’s friendly, sweet, and has a great sense of humor. Labelling her as a depressed person and leaving it at that misses the point of Marnie. You might sit down with Marnie and ask her how she feels about her depression. You could say how proud you are of her for dealing with such a difficult thing and that you feel lucky to have a daughter who is smart, sweet, and funny. Mental health conditions don’t exist in a vacuum, and they don’t define who we are.
4. Show unconditional positive regard
I’ve left the most important part for last: show your child unconditional positive regard! Remind them that you will always love them no matter what. You might not always love their behavior, but you love them. This helps separate your child from their disorder so that they can feel safe and secure within the parent-child relationship. A secure parent-child relationship helps children grow, learn, and have the confidence to try new things. Many kids worry about trying new things because that could mean failing; if they know you’ll always love them even if they fail, it takes the edge off that.
Practicing unconditional positive regard is also an opportunity for you to build the parent-child bond. It’s important to intentionally show your kid affection and tell them you love them. Many of us take for granted that our family loves us and we love them, but there is power in saying (and hearing) those words. It’s nice to know that people care, especially for a kid who is struggling. If it’s not something you’re used to saying, it might feel awkward at first – but this embarrassment will pass with time.
Fighting stigma is important, both on an individual and societal level. Stigma puts people in categories that are narrow and confining. It doesn’t allow for nuance in a world that has many complexities and dimensions. You know that your child is more than their diagnosis. You can help them understand that their disorder is something they are dealing with rather than something that they are. A person who has heart disease doesn’t say “I am heart disease” – so why should a person who has depression say “I am depression?”
It’s also important to keep in mind that a lot of other parents are in the same shoes as you are. Mental health conditions are common, even if we don’t talk about them. Reduce stigma for yourself – you’re not alone in this struggle. By helping you and your child fight stigma, you’re contributing to part of a bigger, positive narrative about mental health. Remember that, and be kind to yourself throughout the process of change and growth.
NAMI. (2019, September). Mental Health by the Numbers. Retrieved January 03, 2020, from