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Helping Your Child Through a Diagnosis

by Julia Wreford
Young girl upset

If you have been given a mental health diagnosis, then you are already familiar with the impact that diagnosis can have. For some people, receiving such a diagnosis is a relieving or hopeful experience, and for others, it can be painful or confusing. Yet others may experience no reaction to hearing a diagnosis given to their experiences or condition. The same is true for a child.

Everyone is different when it comes to their experience of receiving a diagnosis and the words we use have varying impacts. That is why health professionals who are allowed to make a mental health diagnoses (e.g., psychologists, psychiatrists and physicians) often have extensive training in how to deliver a diagnosis, and can provide information about what a diagnosis actually means for an individual.

Below is some advice to help you and your child through the experience of receiving a diagnosis:

  1. Ask if your child can be present when receiving the diagnosis. When you are receiving information about your child’s mental health, ask if your child can be present for at least part of the meeting. If the professional suggests otherwise, see if he/she is open to having a separate discussion with your child. If not, ask questions about the best ways for you to explain the diagnosis to your child.
  2. If you are given a diagnostic report, read it and ask questions directly with the person who wrote the report. In many cases, you will be asked for your consent in order for the report to become a part of a child’s school and/or medical file. Because that report is then carried through your child’s development and (with your consent) may be shared with others who can support your child, it is important that the report is accurate and understandable.
  3. Connect to resources. The internet gives us access to resources and online support groups. I like searching the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the Canadian Mental Health Association and the Healthy Minds Canada websites for reliable information. Connecting with other parents (and if your child is up for it, connecting him/her to other kids experiencing the same diagnosis) can offer some relief. As the information on the internet is not always accurate, be sure to cross-reference any information you find with other reputable sources. It can also be really helpful to find kid-friendly books at the library or bookstore that can help your child understand their diagnosis (for example, for parents with a child recently diagnosed with ADHD, I’ve suggested “All Dogs Have ADHD” by Kathy Hoopman).
  4. Work with your child to see the “positives.” It can be difficult to see the positives in a diagnosis; especially when coping with multiple diagnoses. While acknowledging the difficult parts of a diagnosis, see if you can guide your child to consider the good parts such as getting the help they need, better understanding themselves and perhaps connecting to other people facing similar challenges.
  5. You will probably have to translate diagnostic findings to your child, and we are happy to help. Clarify any words that come up that you don’t understand such as percentile, subtype, DSM.  Because you might have to explain to your child or remind them of the diagnostic findings, it is a good idea to make sure that you understand the diagnosis. If your child is of an age in which they might understand the report, it’s a great idea to go through it with them, checking their understanding of it.
  6. Practice using person-centred language. Using person-centred language represents an important step towards tackling some of the stigma surrounding mental health issues. You likely don’t define your child by his/her diagnosis, so it might be helpful to use language like “my son, who has bipolar disorder” (instead of “my son is bipolar”) or “my daughter, who has a learning disability” (instead of “learning disabled daughter”). While some people might be more comfortable with language that puts the disorder first - for instance, some people with autism prefer to be called autistic - using language that puts the person first is often less problematic.

Hopefully this advice is useful if you ever find yourself in the position of guiding your child through a diagnosis.