Underneath a diagnosis: Helping your child harness their “superpowers” to reach their goals

Notes from a therapist’s desk…

When an individual starts therapy, they are often given a diagnosis of some kind. A diagnosis does not define a person. No two individuals with the same diagnosis are alike. What’s more, underneath a diagnosis and the challenges your child experiences lies a strength or “superpower,” that can be harnessed to help them overcome difficulty and reach their goals. 

Sometimes receiving a diagnosis can provide a sense of relief. When a child and/or their parents feel like they’ve gained a better understanding of the challenges the child is experiencing, and learn things they can do to help the child manage or recover from their condition, it feels empowering. 

A diagnosis may be especially useful when a child’s symptoms initially don’t make sense. A therapist can help by providing a name of the condition the child is experiencing and describing why the child may be experiencing specific challenges. They might also explain that many other people experience the same challenges.

Other times, however, receiving a diagnosis can feel stigmatizing. Other people, or society-at-large, sometimes paint a negative picture of mental health challenges. Children and parents may internalize these messages and feel like there’s something wrong with them. This can lead to feelings of hopelessness, guilt, and/or shame. Children or parents may feel resentful, and wonder why they have been given such a heavy load in life. They may not not see the opportunities that lie ahead. At these times, it may be especially important to talk to a therapist who can help you and/or your child identify the “stories” you are telling yourselves about your situation, and shift your perspective.

Beyond Diagnosis

Identifying a diagnosis may help therapists and other mental health professionals know what kind of therapy might be most useful for your child. An insightful therapist also understands that while a child’s symptoms may indicate the child meets criteria for a particular diagnosis, in order to truly help a child, they need to learn about the kinds of experiences that shaped the child and led to their current situation. More and more, therapists are shifting their own perspectives, and instead of focusing on the question, “What’s wrong with you?,” they want to know, “What happened to you?”

Mental health professionals and physicians use the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) to diagnose mental health conditions. In order to pay for therapy services using health insurance, insurance companies require a diagnosis from the DSM, as well as some justification of why the diagnosis was made. This helps the insurance company know what they might expect in terms of treatment. In addition, when a child needs accommodations at school to ensure that they can fully engage in learning, schools require a diagnosis from the DSM in order to develop a 504 plan or Individualized Education Program (IEP). A diagnosis may help school staff figure out what kind of accommodations might be useful.

So, who created the DSM anyway? And how was it developed? The first DSM was published in 1952 by psychiatrists and it has had several revisions since then. The way the book classifies mental disorders has sparked debate on many counts. Some feel that the DSM encourages a focus on deficits and does not readily support a strength-based approach to mental health concerns. For this reason, some mental health professionals developed manuals of strengths that can be used by professionals and members of the public, to help people identify their unique superpowers. 

To give you a sense of some of the hidden strengths underneath different “disorders,” a few of us at Intuition Wellness Center put together a list of different types of mental health conditions and possible, associated “superpowers.” Keep in mind, this list is mostly based on our experience working with children, teens, and young adults to help them overcome their challenges. Although some of the correlations between diagnoses and strengths listed below may be backed by clinical research, that may not be the case with all of them. Each child, teen, or young adult has a set of strengths unique to them, regardless of diagnosis. This list represents a drop in the bucket when it comes to the wide range of strengths that children and adults possess. Our hope is that this list helps you start to think critically, and identify what your child’s superpowers might be.

Common Diagnoses and Possible, Associated “Superpowers”

Depression- A heightened capacity to feel deeply, both one’s own feelings and others’ feelings. A strong ability to engage in introspection (examination or observation of one’s own mental and emotional processes). A strong ability to engage in perspective-taking (examination of how a situation appears to another person or how another person is reacting cognitively or emotionally to a situation).

Anxiety- A deep sense of caring about one’s own well-being, others’ well-being, the world, etc. A future-orientation that can support deliberate planning. An ability to feel a deep sense of excitement.

Obsessive Compulsive Disorder- A strong ability to attend to detail and perceive nuances in people and things around them.

Autism- Honesty, Loyalty, and Nonjudgmental Listening. A laser focus. Math, computer, musical, linguistic, and/or artistic skills. Thinking outside the box. Seeing situations with a unique perspective.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)- An abundance of stamina and energy to do things (hyperactivity). An intense interest in and/or sensitivity to the world around them (distraction). A sense of spontaneity that can support improvisation. 

How To Help Your Child Harness Their Strengths

Once you’ve identified your child’s superpowers, you can work together as a team to brainstorm ways they can use their superpowers to overcome their challenges. You may want to consult with a therapist, teacher, and/or other types of professionals during this process. They can help you gain other perspectives on how your child might use their strengths to meet their goals. 

Below are some other strategies that might help you and your child think out of the box and brainstorm how they can use their strengths to overcome persistent challenges:

-Do some journal writing about the topic. 

-Take a brisk walk and let your mind think and brainstorm. 

-Make lists.

-Do some clustering to brainstorm ideas.

-Read and watch videos about others with similar challenges and how they used their strengths to meet their goals.

With patience and commitment, change is possible. I wish you well on your journey and encourage you to reach out for support if needed. At Intuition Wellness Center, we specialize in health and wellness services for children, young adults, and their families. If you think you would like some extra support, we’re here for you.

Written by: Debby Urken, LMSW

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