Now that the new DSM has become even more loose and promiscuous in its diagnostic criteria, Ferris Jabr notes that “some critics worry doctors will dole out the diagnosis like lollipops to droves of tantrum-prone toddlers” and many others argue that “the volume still contains more disorders than actually exist, encouraging superfluous diagnoses–particularly in children.” (Jabr, 2012, pp. 30-32) Doctor Leonard Sax also weighs in on the issue, saying that “Over the past two decades, American culture has made almost any deviation from a continual smiley face into a psychopathology, especially for children.” (Sax, 2013) You can count me among those worried, because I’ve seen it happen way too many times beforeParticularly worrisome is the trend of turning normal childhood behavior into signs of mental illness. The DSM recently added “disruptive mood dysregulation disorder,” which would diagnose children who experience outbursts at least 3 times a week for more than a year. (Jayson, 12-3-2012) I’ve worked extensively with kids, and I have yet to meet one that hasn’t had at least 3 outbursts a week. And how do you define ‘outburst’? Is it shouting at your mother in a moment of frustration? Throwing a toy in anger? Stomping off when a friend upsets you? Slamming the door when your mom is scolding you? Throwing a tantrum in the store because you didn’t get your way? Crying when you’re tired and cranky? Raising your voice during an argument? Hitting another child or a parent?
The fact that the definition of ‘outburst’ is always going to be in the eye of the beholder is a perfect example of the subjective nature of diagnosis. When a psychiatrist asks a parent to retroactively determine whether a child has had 3 or more outbursts each week in the past year, he’s asking a loaded, suggestive question with an extremely low rate of accuracy in the answer. (Flipping a coin would actually be MORE scientific than this.) And since typically the reason the family is there in the therapists office in the first place is because the parent(s) assume something is wrong, these perceptions are going to heavily cloud the answers they give.
Traits common to children are now being used as evidence to diagnose behavioral disorders like ADHD. As Ferris Jabr notes, attention problems can seem almost ubiquitous in younger children.” (Jabr, 2012, p. 34) Children have shorter attention spans by nature, and they are easily distracted, especially when bored. Yet society has built institutions that expect children to sit alone quietly at a desk for 6 or 7 hours a day … a boring ordeal that goes against their basic human nature. Then when children struggle to adequately adapt to this task on a consistent basis we have the audacity to label them as abnormal. It isn’t the child that’s abnormal, it’s their environment.
Another example is sexual behavior. In the sexually repressive culture that exists in the U.S., any type of sexual acting out on the part of children has been made to seem abnormal and is listed as a symptom of pathology. Yet this view directly contradicts all scientific evidence. Research shows that not only is sexual behavior virtually universal in prepubescent children, but all manner of sexual behavior is commonplace from around age 3 or 4. (See our book”: Sexual Neurosis – The Silent Child Abuse Epidemic.) It would be abnormal for a child NOT to touch themselves or otherwise experiment with sexual activity Yet children caught acting in any sexual fashion are often dragged to the therapist’s office, and sexual behavior is listed as a symptom of disturbance on numerous checklists in the DSM.
This reflects a cultural neurosis; one that isn’t aligned with human development. Yet it’s continually used to indicate that something is wrong with the child. Imagine if astronauts had tried to do a moon landing while denying the laws of gravity and instead basing their navigation on what theology says the Universe is. It would have been disastrous. Yet this is essentially what the field of psychiatry is doing on a routine basis. Culture has decided the world should be flat in regards to certain issues, and so rather than sticking with science, the field of psychiatry has continually built its principles around the warped views of society.
The end result is that childhood itself is becoming a pathology. We’ve twisted the ideas about what we think children should be so far away from what they actually are that simply being a kid in natural form is enough to be labeled abnormal. The high number of worried adults shows “the very narrow range of normalcy allowed for children these days,” says behavioral pediatrician Lawrence Diller, author of the Last Normal Child. “Welcome to the age of anxiety, where more is expected of children academically and in self-discipline, while both parents are working, so there’s less support and structure.” (Elias, 9-4-2008)