When we label, it’s our way of attempting to make sense of the world, a situation, or a person. Labeling helps us wrap our brains around something so we can make a plan of action.
And it isn’t always negative. In a now famous quote, Fred Rogers stated, "When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother's words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers – so many caring people in this world."
Knowing who a “helper” is or being able to recognize “caring people” both have distinct advantages based on our ability to place people into categories.
There’s a dark side to labels, however. Labels like “slut” and “macho” leave lasting marks. They can change the way we treat people and the way in which people define themselves.
In an article entitled “Trying Differently: Rethinking Juvenile Justice Using a Neuro-Behavioral Model,” Diane Malbin provides a case study all too familiar to foster parents, teachers, and therapists, “At seven, Fred already had a history of multiple foster care placements and traumatic abuse. His accumulated diagnoses included Failure to Thrive, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Attention Deficit Disorder, Serious Emotional Disturbance, and Oppositional Defiant Disorder. He was further described as explosive, controlling, avoidant, resistant, socially inappropriate, and easily frustrated.” One can assume that in several more years, Fred will likely show signs of conduct disorder, characterized by aggression and deceit.
Malbin goes on to show how the current model for addressing these behaviors (i.e. labels), including treatment, is based on erroneous thinking, “We proceed on the basis of pre-verbal assumptions that others’ brains work pretty much the same as ours.” She then explains how the prevailing wisdom actually ensures that Fred will not improve and will instead continue to deteriorate. She emphasizes the importance of identifying the nature of the problem rather than focusing on the “superficial” symptoms.
A New Way of Thinking
In Fred’s case, his circumstances likely explain each behavior along with significant underlying factors. FASD, trauma, and disrupted attachment can all significantly impact neurodevelopment. This means that Fred’s “explosive, avoidant, resistant, and socially inappropriate behaviors” are not the problems but rather the symptoms of something much deeper. Furthermore, they may be adaptive behaviors which were once crucial for his survival. Viewed in this light, negatively labeling Fred’s behavior only adds injustice to an already unjust life. As Melbin observes “I can think of no shift more profound than that of ‘won't’ to ‘can't’. The associated shift in emotions is from fear and reactivity to understanding and compassion.”
This point was illustrated for me on a personal level this weekend. I’ve long suspected that my son has sensory processing difficulties. On Saturday morning I piled into a basement conference room with roughly 60 other caregivers for a sensory processing workshop. There I learned about how children are labeled as difficult or defiant when they in fact have differently wired brains.
At one point the occupational therapist giving the presentation discussed how “sensory kids” often have difficulty with extreme temperature changes, such as getting out of a warm bath into a cold bathroom. I thought back to the many, many times my son has been extremely distressed about getting out of the bath, becoming inconsolable as his feet hit the cold tile. He did so to an extent I found annoying and dramatic and entirely unnecessary. Sitting among other parents seeking explanations for puzzling behavior, I finally recognized that I’d fallen into the trap of erroneously labeling my child’s behaviors, and by extension, him, rather than understanding his experience. That stung a little.
Behavior As Communication
We must believe that behavior is communication. This is true for all children. This doesn’t mean behavior is communication except when it’s annoying or egregious or from a kid we don’t like. It's communication for high functioning kids and kids with neurological differences. Focusing on behavior does a suffering child a great injustice: at home, in the classroom, and in life. Rather than labeling behaviors, let’s see them for what they are, a message that we need to look deeper into the soul of the child and the need inside waiting to be uncovered.