21 April 2019
Parents tend to overreact to their children's emotional and learning problems when almost all kids may experience them. Photo: Internet
Parents tend to overreact to their children's emotional and learning problems when almost all kids may experience them. Photo: Internet

Avoid medicalizing kids’ learning problems

As a psychiatrist, I often meet schoolchildren with learning, emotional or behavioral problems.

Nowadays, if a child is performing badly, falling behind in class, displaying poor learning attitudes and disobeying their teachers, society would tend to put the blame on their mental wellness.

The same thing goes for those who refuse to go to school, study or do homework, or those who fail to get along well with their peers, attempt suicide and get bullied. 

The greatest fear shared by teachers, parents and social workers is that these anomalies are caused by developmental disorder such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and/or mood disorder.

That’s why a growing number of children are being referred to professional assessments by educational psychologists, clinical psychologists and psychiatrists.

Whether a child is having psychological or mental problems depends on how we define “illness”. Assessing a child patient would require descriptions and observations made by relatives and friends, teachers and caretakers.

That said, whether a child is ill or not, depends on the viewpoint of society.

“What is ‘normal’?” is never an easy question.

From a medical perspective, diagnosing if a child has learning difficulties or mood disorder requires an assessment that does not take the subject in isolation.

Each aspect of development — including communication and social skills, ability to learn, capability to take care of oneself, and relationship with caretakers — would be compared with that of their peers of the same age.

A child should only be diagnosed and given intervention if he or she is showing obvious delays or emotional problems that have seriously altered his or her social and school life.

However, adults tend to over-interpret children’s behavior.

I have come across some cases where students were being taken to mental assessments by parents or teachers after they suddenly got “poorer” grades, dropping to 80 percent from 90 percent in tests.

According to their own definition, only students that can attain “reasonable” high marks of about 90, instead of the traditional 60 percent passing mark in exams, can be considered “normal” learners.

Those who make careless mistakes occasionally are deemed to have attention deficit disorder.

And when they are bad-tempered, refuse to cooperate with parents and are reluctant to go to school, these students are described as having mood disorder.

In short, before concluding if a child is “ill”, there is plenty of room for special arrangement that can be done by schools and at home.

Various stakeholders should reflect upon the fact that these problems have arisen as a result of shortcomings in our education system. These are not the fault of the children themselves.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on April 26

Translation by John Chui

[Chinese version 中文版]

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FHKAM (Psychiatry)

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