The Power of Labels (Part 2)

It’s easy to label—and just as easy to forget how much it hurts. Children are frequently innocent victims of labeling. How many of us can think of a time when we were unfairly categorized or judged as a child?

I try to remember this when I work with kids. I don't need to know everything about a child when they walk into my group for the first time. In fact, it’s often better NOT to know.

Nine-year-old Tony comes to my mind. An active member in one of my groups in the Children's Program, he was respectful to all of his peers, participated fully, and was kind and cooperative with everyone. Tony was one of those kids who looked so relieved to be there.

The first day comes to a close. A co-worker and I sit down to review Tony’s history on the form that his guardian completed. We both chuckle as we read the information. This amazing, cooperative, intelligent kid had the diagnosis of Oppositional Defiant Disorder; was a “troublemaker,” and had been suspended from school several times. Hard to believe that a child with these labels had quickly become such an instrumental part of our group!

We spend the next three days with him: having fun, listening to his story, and watching him make friends. One thought dominates my mind—I am so grateful that I didn't know: that I didn't watch him walk through the door the first day and expect to see that “troublemaker.” I am so glad that I wasn’t aware of what this delightful nine-year-old had been labeled with. If I had, perhaps I would've expected bad behavior; I would have been searching for it. I may have treated Tony a bit differently, waiting for the ball to drop.

Instead, all I see is him.

A child in need of a safe place. A boy who wants to be seen as the amazing human being that he is, with all kinds of potential, no matter his circumstances or history. A kid who deserves to be viewed in a positive light, in spite of his many labels. A person whose version of their own life story matters.

I try to remember this in my own life. It’s essential to let go of the negatives and the categories that no longer work or define who I am. Like Tony, we all deserve to be the storyteller of our own narrative, to take responsibility and credit for who we are, and to let go of those labels that no longer work for us.

Peggy McGillicudyPeggy McGillicuddy has worked with young children impacted by parental addiction as a counselor, consultant and trainer for the Betty Ford Center. Having experienced familial addiction herself, she feels strongly that family recovery means including kids in the healing process. With an emphasis on reducing stigma and building resilience, Peggy writes from both a personal and professional perspective. This blog explores issues related to childhood, addiction and recovery.
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