Once upon a time, children who were adopted were rarely told that they were adopted until they were adults. This would be a devastating revelation because by that time, they felt that their whole life had been built on a lie.
Keeping a child’s diagnosis from them is the identity lie of the 21st century.
We would only commit the lie of omission because the thing we hesitate to reveal is bad, right?
As much as you may not understand it, a mental health diagnosis is part of who your child is. Even a diagnosis we learn to overcome, such as anxiety or OCD, leaves grooves and scars, and shapes us in ways that a neurotypical person will never understand. If someone you love has a diagnosable condition, you may feel and even hope that if you ignore it, they can ignore it also. Life doesn't work that way.
Any health condition, and any mental health condition, is something that is going to make life more difficult in some way for the individual. If the atmosphere in your house is that “we don’t talk about this,” then the individual will probably feel that they shouldn’t talk about their difficulties. They should try harder to be normal, or at least look and act normal. The fact that this is a struggle when it seems to be so easy for everyone else is a cause for depression, heightened anxiety, mood disorders, self-harm, and even suicide. This isn’t hyperbole or a scare tactic. Children who commit suicide overwhelmingly deal with the struggle of trying and failing to fit in.
Ignoring the issue won't make it go away. It makes it worse.
No matter what you do or don’t do, your child will know that they are different.
On the other hand, knowing that it’s not all in their head, or that there are others like them with the same struggles, and that it isn’t their fault for not trying hard enough, can be a bittersweet relief. In our desire to fit in, even finding a seat with your name on it in the Island of Misfit toys brings the comfort of community. And there is a community with your name on it.
So when should you tell your child about their diagnosis? Right now!
How should I tell my child about their diagnosis?
The diagnosis should be revealed in a positive way. Parenting isn’t about you, it’s about them. You can have your cries in the dark corner of the Target parking lot, or get drunk and compare parenting notes at the next Moms' Night Out. And if you haven’t found your local special needs parenting community, that should be your next mission. They’re out there. But when you talk to your child about themselves, it’s about them, and your struggles parenting them shouldn’t have a voice in the conversation. Their identity shouldn’t be tangled up in improving your life.
My son was quite young when I started talking to him about his autism for the first time, and his receptive language skills (the ability to comprehend what’s being said to him) was low, so I kept it simple.
“Your brain works different than a lot of other people. That’s a good thing! The world needs people who think different. My brain works different too.”
As he and his comprehension grew, so did his questions. I got books that we read together. He spent a lot of time among non-typical peers, and among our special needs community. We could both relax around other families who don’t blink an eye at odd behaviors; the ones that make everyone uncomfortable in neurotypical groups.
And like that, autism has always been a word in his life. There are no bombshells, no feeling isolated because he’s not like anyone else, and he doesn’t feel any negativity about his diagnosis or himself. He’s actually rather proud of his differences, while still understanding the extra struggles that it's brought him.
Talk to your child about their diagnosis, keep it on a level they understand, grow the conversation as they grow, and keep it positive. Find your community of non-typical peers and parents who laugh in the face of a meltdown.
Gaynell Buffinet Payne