Labels Are For Jars…or are they??

Author: Karen Copeland

I started my parenting journey with very clear thoughts on what kind of parent I would be, what kind of parenting strategies I would employ. I will be honest. My strategies worked very well with my older child. But as I wrote about here, I wasn’t experiencing the same kind of parenting success with my younger child.

There was a great deal of confusion, frustration and worry in our family unit as we tried to understand what was happening for our child. This led to me doing a LOT of research, both online and at the library – learning and discovering what fit, what worked and what didn’t. As my understanding and knowledge grew, I became better at supporting my son AND my daughter, because the new strategies I was employing benefited her as well.

Even though my husband and I had a pretty good idea of what was going on for our child, we were unable to get an accurate diagnosis for several years. This in itself created a great deal of stress and worry. Our child continued to struggle and experience significant challenges with school in particular. Not to say everything was rosy at home, but he certainly did (and does) feel safer in his home environment.

Some people might question WHY we continued to pursue assessments and consultations with professionals all these years. It could be argued that as his parents, we have a very good understanding of what our child’s strengths are, what his challenges are and the strategies of support that work. This would all be true and accurate.

But what we wanted, what we needed, was the label [diagnosis].

[[Insert shocked gasps]]

But wait…aren’t labels for jars, NOT people???

Image Credit Kendra Hartmann:
Image Credit Kendra Hartmann:

I have connected with many families over the years who have been discouraged from pursuing learning assessments or other diagnostic testing because “you don’t want to label [diagnose] your child!”  You will hear various reasons accompany this statement.

  • The behavior being demonstrated is determined to be “typical” by the professionals, when your gut feeling is telling you that what is happening is in fact, far beyond typical

Sometimes, it does not serve us well to ignore our instincts. We had noticed for several years that our child struggled with fine motor skills. Testing finally targeted this in grade 4, where it was discovered that this area was significantly delayed. With this discovery, it made sense that behavioral challenges were occurring when it was time to do a writing assignment. Accommodations were made to use alternative ways to communicate learning. What might have happened if this had not been discovered?

  • You know your child best, you just need to communicate it to the professionals and then your child will get the support he/she needs

The reality is that a formal [label] diagnosis IS very often required in order to put formal supports into place for the child. Also, I would love it if we lived in that world where the parent voice was always considered and valued, but we simply aren’t there yet. Please go read my post “Pondering Expert“.

  • Having a label or diagnosis isn’t going to change how we support your child’s needs.

This is true. A label or diagnosis does not mean that suddenly everything changes. It doesn’t. Your kid is still the same kid. Your life is still the same life. But, I would argue that when we have a clearer picture of what is happening, we have a better idea of how to respond. What approaches may work best. It could very well be that your child is already well supported without the diagnosis or label, and that’s awesome! But what happens when your child moves to a new grade, and gets placed with a teacher or administrator who does not understand? The diagnosis adds some legitimacy to the supports and interventions that are being put into place, as well as can provide parents with an advocacy tool should they require it.

  • The label [diagnosis] will stick with your child forever and limit his/her potential

The cold, hard truth is … our son had already been labelled. Defiant. Oppositional. Manipulative. Lazy. Unmotivated. Bully.

Even worse and most concerning, he began labelling himself. Stupid. Dumb. Idiot. Loser. Worthless.

The danger of labels is when we let them limit or define us. Certainly labels that have been used in this way have helped solidify stigma in our communities.

But what happens when the label or diagnosis becomes an explanation, a guidebook of sorts, to assist us to discover the potential, to look at things from an alternative perspective and acknowledge previously unrecognized strengths?

What if that label [diagnosis] generates a new understanding which in turn leads to more acceptance in the community?

And I just have to say, having a label [diagnosis] that fits is infinitely better than any of the ones my son gave to himself.

What are your thoughts on labels and diagnosis?



  1. Ah, so interesting! As the mom of a son with a visible syndrome (diagnosed at birth), I’ve figured out that the diagnosis/no diagnosis experiences are all over the map. Have one, and the world immediately stereotypes your child and sets expectations low. Don’t have one, and educators/health professionals are at such a loss, they struggle to meaningfully support kids at all.

    Your son’s labels of himself are the part we should listen to – no matter what us parents think, or what clinicians or educators think….it is what he thinks that means the most.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. As with so many things in life, labels can be used to promote the good or to promote the not-so-good. Your point is very well made. Labels help when we use them to explain–and to then take action on what that explanation informs. If we stop at the first step, the label as explanation, then we are at the level of “labels are for jars.” “Oh, he has ADD, well that explains it,” is where we get ourselves and our world into trouble. “Oh, that’s a jar of beans. That’s not on my shopping list.” We stop at the explanation. It is only when we take that label, that explanation, and turn it into action that we have made it useful. “Oh, he has ADD. That explains a lot. What adaptations can be made to remove barriers to his success? How can I respond differently so I can be successful at guiding him?”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for a very interesting and thought provoking post! I agree that diagnosis are important door openers to get sufficient support and for some a diagnosis can answer questions and be a relief. However, I have also seen that getting a diagnosis can be very difficult to cope with. I heard someone say that a diagnosis is an explanation of what has been, and important to get help to move forward, but it is not connected to the future (meaning it does not have to follow you for the rest of your life). I liked that.

    Liked by 1 person

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