“What’s Wrong With My Child?”

It’s a question I’ve heard more than once from a worried parent. The anxiety and concern is real, and often warranted after exposure to trauma. When people begin to understand their child is having behavioral problems, it is natural to desire answers. When I hear this question from clients, I usually offer 2 responses. First, I try to remind them that behavioral health problems are incredibly common. Some studies estimate that more than 1 out of 4 Americans will suffer from a mental illness during their lifetime, and many of those mental health problems can be traced back to childhood exposures to traumatic events or incidents. But childhood usually presents the best opportunity for treating these mental health problems.

The problem with “Stigma” The second thing I tell them is that a more appropriate question to ask is, “What happened to them?” That’s because mental health problems usually occur due to factors that are beyond the active control of the person suffering from mental illness. Unfortunately, the social stigma and negative judgment experienced by those with mental health problems is all too real, and it often presents the biggest barrier to recovery. The most difficult part of suffering with a mental illness is the recognition that something is wrong and you have no control over it. This often leads to feelings of isolation, withdrawal, depression, anxiety, shame, and other sequelae that were not present in the original disorder. Stigma is reinforced when someone asks, “What is wrong with them?” and that is why I will reframe this question when asked by a client. Although the reasons for stigma are complex, the solution can be simple. In fact, reinforcing the belief that the sufferer can overcome their difficulties is one of the most powerful tools available to aid and hasten the recovery of victims of mental illness.

​Randy R. Ashford, MS, LMHC

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