Suffer the Children: The Case Against Labeling and Medicating and an Effective Alternative
by Marilyn Wedge
I rarely write individual blog posts about specific books that I couldn’t finish, preferring instead to mention them and the reasons for my abandoning them in my weekly Sunday Salon recaps. But I’m making an exception here for Suffer the Children: The Case Against Labeling and Medicating and an Effective Alternative by Marilyn Wedge because what I have to say about this one won’t fit into a Salon post.
It has been awhile since a book has gotten me so angry and frustrated – and it is rare when a book does that. This one accomplished both.
For starters, I’ll admit that I only lasted 17 pages with this one, so maybe I should just shut up already. The premise, however, was a promising one. From the book jacket:
“As a society, we are accustomed to believe that medication is the solution to the problems of our children, and we accept psychiatric labels for normal childhood behavior. There is a pill for every childhood woe: a pill to curb unruly behavior, a pill to calm irritability, a pill to cure sadness, and a pill to stop mood swings. Yet many parents, educators, and pediatricians have begun to realize that medication is only a quick-fix solution that doesn’t last and that, even worse, medication can have dangerous side effects.”
OK. Agreed. Go on.
“In her provocative new book, Suffer the Children, Marilyn Wedge offers a much-needed alternative for parents: strategic child-focused family therapy. Family therapy, as practiced by Wedge in her California office, includes meeting with everyone from the child’s siblings to her pediatrician. Wedge proposes that, instead of diagnosing and medicating children, we listen to the child and offer solutions that do not involve a psychiatric label and drugs. A normal child may feel sad or bored, but that doesn’t mean she has ‘clinical depression.’ She may also be rambunctious, as most young children are, without having ADHD and requiring medication.”
I’m a big fan of therapy – be it individual or family or what have you. Been there, done that, will probably do so again before I check out of this Earth. And I commend Ms. Wedge for her holistic approach – which I agree with and support – of treating the entire family and/or the key players in the child’s world. I think more professionals should adopt this mindset and I think it’s unfortunate that not more do so.
Parents As Pushers
My issue with this book is its stance that, for the majority of kids, therapy is being prescribed as the end all and be all – whereas medication, while helpful for a small fraction of children (in Ms. Wedge’s view), is simply not needed or is being pushed on them by anxious, overbearing parents.
“I have come to realize that more and more parents in our society rely on a psychiatric diagnosis and medication for their troubled children without turning to counseling or therapy.
I have no doubt that parents who bring their children to psychiatrists have only good intentions. They want their sons and daughters to have the best chance of succeeding in school and in life. If a psychiatric diagnosis and medication help a child become less fidgety and more focused in the classroom, or less oppositional and moody at home, I can certainly understand how parents are willing to accept this route.
Sadly, though, it seems to me that parents are so pressured by the need to see their child at the top of the class and en route to the Ivy League that they sometimes take leave of their own good common sense. Parents today seem more distraught than the mothers and fathers I’ve seen in the past. Often, because teachers are so concerned about school performance, parents are anxious to resolve their kids’ problems immediately and to set their children on a ‘normal’ path. They are thus more willing to embrace psychiatry’s nostrums for their ‘mentally ill’ children. This state of affairs is, I believe, at the heart of today’s crisis in child mental health.” (pg. 6-7)
Um … do you know any parents like the ones described here? Sure, we can all probably think of an acquaintance or two who is a little bit of a overbearing helicopter-parent freak. But is that parent one who is plying their kid with meds just because they want them to be the freaking valedictorian?
I’m sorry, I don’t buy it.
With such loaded (not to mention, in my opinion, somewhat condescending) statements like these, you’d expect to see some statistics backing up the claims that parents are flocking to psychiatrists, begging them for meds. But there aren’t, at least as far as I got in the book. In fact, this is a very anecdotal book.
I wanted to read this as a counterpart to Judith Warner’s We’ve Got Issues: Children and Parents in the Age of Medication, which I read last fall and liked immensely and would highly recommend over Suffer the Children. Warner initially had the exact same theory as Wedge: that parents were medicating their kids willy-nilly. She found that this was NOT the case.
So what accounts for the stark difference? I honestly don’t know.
What I do know is this: while I can’t speak for every parent and certainly not every parent of a child with special needs, I believe that the decision to medicate a child or a teenager is not entered into lightly. Rather, from my perspective, it is one that families struggle with, are sometimes at odds with, and emotionally wrestle with. It is heartwrenching. No parent WANTS to see their child on medication. And I’d be willing to bet that therapy (yes, including family therapy) has been tried on several occasions and that medication is almost a last resort, not the first step.
In Suffer the Children, Wedge shares the story of Olympic swimmer Michael Phelps, who was diagnosed with ADHD when he was in sixth grade and subsequently placed on Ritalin to help him focus. As a teenager, Phelps wanted to go off the medication and his mother was concerned that this would be a detriment. He eventually got off the Ritalin and used swimming “as an outlet for his extra energy and angry feelings. Phelps discovered for himself an intervention that every family therapist uses with children who have ADHD symptoms. We recommend that parents involve their child in soccer, tennis, softball, basketball, swimming, gymnastics, or any other sport that their child is interested in as an outlet for his or her extra energy.” (pg. 15)
An “intervention” that EVERY family therapist uses? Every family therapist recommends sports for a child with ADHD symptoms? Really? (Ours hasn’t.) Sure, sports might be an incredibly positive outlet for many kids but again, I can think of many children for whom it would be disastrous because of the social issues. (My Boo being among them.)
In the end, it was one sentence that caused me to abandon this book, and for that we come back to the Phelps family. Obviously, I don’t know Mrs. Phelps but I couldn’t help but feel a bit like the ghost of Bruno Bettelheim was lurking as I read this line:
“Although Phelps’ mother worried that he would not be able to control his behavior without drugs, she apparently wasn’t worried about the side effects of Ritalin.” (pg. 16)
WHAT THE FUCK? And we know this … how, exactly? That was it for me, as I got so frickin’ angry that I knew I wasn’t going to be reading any further. How does Wedge know what Mrs. Phelps was or was not worried about? Did she interview her? If so, the reader isn’t told that. (At least not in this section and in just glancing through the rest of the book, I didn’t see any other mention.) Like the other statements that I read in the first two dozen pages, it’s not backed up with any facts, just as the nebulous statement that parents (like, presumably, Mrs. Phelps) are medicating our kids to make our lives all the more easier.
Oh, if it was only that simple.
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