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How to Keep Labels from Limiting Our Teens

Hello, PATH parents!

Recently, I had the honor of guest speaking at PATH’s Lunch & Learn Lunch Tables. (If you can attend, I highly recommend these valuable monthly sessions!) It was so wonderful to connect with you all, sharing some helpful strategies for communicating with your teens as well as gaining YOUR insights on the topic as both parents and mentors.

In the breakout sessions following the presentation, we all joined various “tables” where we could chat with other parents and mentors about what was shared. I was asked a question right off the bat that many other parents may be wondering: “How do you communicate with a teen who has something like ADHD?”

My group then had a great conversation around the hearts of teens, about how labels that are meant to help are sometimes not so helpful when teens latch on to them as the sum total of who they are.

This is where we as parents are critical. I was discussing this dynamic with a dear friend who has worked as a psychologist for many years, Dr. Melissa Sprinkle. She said several things that were quite profound:

“A person is much more than a label or diagnostic code.”

“Our choices and energy as parents can make a significant difference. Our
response can have a powerful impact on a child’s interpretation of a situation.”

Wow! That puts a lot of power and responsibility in our hands as parents. However, we can use that power wisely, for good. If your teen has received a label of a learning disability, for example, your reaction to that label will influence your teen’s reaction to that label.

As parents, we need to always honestly navigate the realities of life with our teens. We do not deny that our teens have certain struggles or dynamics to face. We simply do not see or allow those struggles or dynamics to be the DEFINING FACTOR of our teen’s life. There is much more to our teen than a genuine neurological struggle with learning. It’s our job to make sure that OUR TEEN knows that, too:

YOU are not XYZ Learning Disorder. You are Elena, who deals with this
learning disorder. You have the ability to learn. It may take you more time,
repetition, strategies, etc., but we will figure this out as a family. You can move
forward from this point, and with our love and support, we expect you to learn
and to do your best, growing and developing.

​It is our job to partner with our teens and construct an honest definition of what they are facing. Because if WE do not define it, the world will define it for them, and they will most likely believe wrong things about themselves. (For example, girls like Elena will mistakenly think that they are “dumb,” a term sadly often used by students about themselves.)

This partnering is also important to do when the label addresses behavioral issues, i.e. ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder) or ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder). Sometimes labels regarding behavior can be either deflating to a teen (Since this is who I am, why even try to regulate my behavior?) OR it can be used as a crutch to excuse continuance of behavior (I have ADHD, so of course I’m going to act this way!)

Dr. Sprinkle recommends looking at the behavior a label represents. “In reality, a teen labeled as having ODD means he’s struggling with authority figures, being argumentative, and being defiant. Regardless of what you call it, we have to deal with the behaviors.”

​Again, we have the opportunity to remind our teen that HE himself is not ODD. That’s not all that he is or all that he has going on in his life. But since he is struggling with ODD behavior, we will, as a team, identify those behaviors, treat them, and move on from this point in a way that brings growth and improvement.

No matter what label our teen has been given, we can continue our journey together, intentionally reminding our teens of all the other labels we could use, too:
Funny. Intelligent. Creative. Gifted. Kind. Strong.

Words are powerful. They seep into our teen’s spirit. That’s why we need to make sure that our teens understand how precious and valuable they are no matter what challenges they are facing at a given moment. Take the time to speak so many positive labels over your teen, those words seep in, too.

I hope this encourages a lot of parents’ hearts today! YOU are so valuable, and we applaud you for all the love, time, and attention (no doubt some tears) that you invest in your teens, day in, day out, week in, week out, year by year! You are heroes to us and to your teens (who will most likely be grateful someday)!

Have a wonderful week,

Lisa Raftery