I spend a lot of time thinking about labels. I've written about them before, and they're especially important to me because I don't believe there's any such thing as an "authentic" self. We create our sense of selves and our place in the world based off of the way we position (and are positioned) with and against the world around us.
There are many reasons to resist labels. They're overly simplistic, denying the complexities and messiness of real lives. They can become shorthand ways to dismiss and deny.
But they're also unavoidable. We use labels because we need language to make sense of the world, and that includes making sense of ourselves. Having terms for who I am and where I see myself helps me to function on a very basic level.
It's with all this in mind that I find myself at a parenting crossroads. My daughter has always been headstrong and "spirited." In fact, a friend of mine posted this Scary Mommy post about spirited children that reads like the field notes from someone observing my child. She is fearless, opinionated, passionate, and stubborn.
Many of the traits that wear me out most are ones I am sure will serve her well. I am heartened when I read posts like this one from Role Reboot about the phrases we need to teach little girls. "Stop interrupting me." "I just said that." Those are right up there with my daughter's go-to favorites "I'll do it myself" and "Hey, watch this!" Especially when I compare my daughter's spirit and drive to my own childhood anxiety and shyness, I am convinced that she has many, many strengths for facing a world that will try to wear her down.
But the realities of those perceived strengths are harder to figure out. She's been in daycare settings since infancy, and even before she could talk I got reports from her teachers about her defiance. As the expectations put upon her to cooperate and follow directions grew, so did the negative feedback. "She doesn't listen." "She won't sit still." "She argues with her peers." "She throws tantrums."
She'll grow out of it, I told myself. In the meantime, I worked on sticker behavior charts tied to rewards and lost privileges. We read books about good manners. We role played. We worked and worked and worked. Some days were better than others, but the reports from school continued, and her behavior at home grew worse. There were meltdowns over minutia. She started hitting and kicking and screaming. I dreaded going to a restaurant or grocery store. Her behaviors seemed typical for a two-year-old, but she's four.
I started eating up friends' Facebook posts about their own behavioral challenges as signs that things were fine. I would watch other children on the playground and play compare and contrast even though I knew that wasn't the way to go about this. But feeling like it was normal was a comfort, so I sought out confirmation.
Until I couldn't anymore.
I started to get anxiety about picking her up from daycare, the time of the day when the meltdowns were the worst. Some days it would take half an hour to get out of the building, and even though I'd sit and finish her puzzle with her, look at all the classroom projects of the day, explain the plans we had at home, I'd still end up carrying her screaming and red faced over my shoulder as she kicked her shoes into the street. She'll be too heavy for this soon, I thought to myself. What am I going to do?
Some days her behavior was so bad that I felt trapped in my own home, afraid to take her anywhere. I would break down and cry uncontrollably after the fourth meltdown in as many days, exhausted and isolated.
Often, her screams would turn to sobs. Between hitched breaths, she'd pant out "I don't know how to stop, Mommy. I don't know how to listen. I want to be good, but I don't know how."
That was the trigger for me: watching her struggle and say that she felt out of control. It wasn't just that she couldn't find a way to fit into the expectations of the institutions around her; she couldn't find a way to fit into her own expectations.
So I took her to a therapist, and she loves going. They play and play, and somewhere in there she works through the things that are bothering her. Last week, the therapist met with me to talk about her progress. "I think she has a sensory processing issue," she said. "I'd recommend occupational therapy."
I left the meeting and bought an e-book version of The Out-of-Sync Child, hungry for information, for answers, for help. I found checklists like this one and felt waves of relief as I ticked off each and every symptom. Yes! This is it!
Everything from her nonexistent response to pain to her desire to climb to the highest point of the playground and jump off to her tendency to chew the neck of her shirts into oblivion were on the lists. And it all makes sense when you read about it. These needs for sensory experiences seem connected and meaningful.
More than anything, though, it makes me feel less powerless. If she needs more stimulation in very specific ways, then I can do that. I can buy trampolines and plan more activities that require pushing, pulling, and spinning. I can look at Pinterest boards of games designed to cross the midline. I can do massages. I can sing the "Hokey Pokey" ten times a day. I can do something to help her.
Part of me really wants to embrace the label. Does she have Sensory Processing Disorder, a controversial condition that isn't recognized as a clinical diagnosis but that is nonetheless getting placed on thousands of children?
Like any label, there are risks and benefits. And, like any label, those risks and benefits tend to fall along lines of belonging and exclusion. Labeling her can bring assistance, but it can also push her to the margins. Labeling is always a double-edged sword, but when you're so young, it feels particularly sharp.
Maybe it's not a disorder. Maybe it's just a typical expression of a spirited child pushed up against growing societal demands that kids sit still and follow directions at earlier and earlier ages. But if the treatment is jumping, running, lifting, pushing, pulling, and playing, then is mislabeling really so bad?
This feels like such a tightrope walk to me, and I want to make sure that I'm walking it with her interests in mind instead of my own. I don't want to grab onto a label to make myself feel better if it ends up hurting her, but I also don't want to push away a real problem in an attempt to make it disappear.
I'll tiptoe slowly and do my best, as seems to be the course of so many parenting crossroads.
Photo: Allison McDonald, SpDuchamp, Snugg LePup