Thinking Out Loud

Let’s Use Normal Language with Kids

Often, we use words like depression, bi-polar, panic attack, generalized anxiety disorder, and more to describe normal reactions kids have to life circumstances. This can be dangerous and gives kids the wrong message about life and our ordinary human experience in response to adversity.

For example, a teenager breaks up with her girl friend and is feeling down and dejected. Saying she is “depressed” would be common. Today, it can mean something else—Depression with a capital “D.” In a situation like this, I’ve found it better to stay away from “terminology” and use ordinary words to describe what the kid is going through, rather then telling them they may “have” depression and implying (or actually telling) that they should be thoroughly evaluated.

The girl in our above example was dumped by her friend. She’s upset, hurt, sad, angry, and feeling really down. She probably should be feeling all of that, as well as being confused and feeling poorly about herself. She is going through the normal progression of experience in a typical human circumstance. She needs love, support, hugs, understanding, encouragement, and time.

I’m not pooh-poohing depression or minimizing the potentially devastating impact of clinical depression. But I am trying to bring balance and common sense to our observations of kids going through a hard time and subsequently our communication with them.

My first mentor, Ralph, was a child psychiatrist. He passed on a piece of wisdom over thirty years ago that I carry with me today. Paraphrasing: if you describe in detail the behavior and emotions of any teenager, they will qualify for a mental health diagnosis—and some pretty heavy duty diagnoses at that! Teenagers have mood swings, black and white thinking, irrationality . . . etc. I don’t mean this disparagingly. During adolescence there are enormous body/mind changes which are very unsteadying. Any of us adults in a difficult situation will exhibit many of these behaviors, as well. Drawing diagnostic conclusions, though, can be dangerous—especially with kids

Also, we’ve gotten more detailed and sophisticated in our terminology about human behavior but often at the exclusion of common sense. For example, I’ve found myself using old-fashioned terms like “nervous exhaustion” or “nervous breakdown,” when they seem more accurate and helpful. Other choices like “psychotic break” or “bi-polar disorder” just don’t fit and aren’t helpful, and we can all identify with being in a “slump” or “down in the dumps.”

Connecting with others in distress by being patient and emotionally supportive is the first order of business. Expressing kindness and understanding are always helpful, even if it doesn’t have an immediate, discernable impact. Knowing someone cares makes a big difference. It’s simple but true. And communicating using simple, descriptive language is always the best medicine.

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