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The Moment My Daughter Taught Me to Look Past Her Diagnosis

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When my husband was awarded full custody of his children — children who had experienced chronic early-childhood trauma — we expected them to engage in some problematic behavior when they moved in. “But it’ll get better once they’ve been here a while,” my husband and I told ourselves. “All it’s going to take is consistency, patience and love.”

I can’t even begin to tell you how wrong we were.

Instead, we were totally unprepared to deal with the needs of my step-children. No one warned us sustained early-childhood trauma can negatively impact the brain’s development. We’d never even heard of Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD) and therefore were completely baffled when they reacted so negatively to our safe and secure environment. And we certainly didn’t know about the therapeutic parenting style we would adopt when they resisted our traditional parenting methods (often with screaming and yelling and kicking and spitting…).

I tried my best not to put too much stock into the RAD diagnosis, but eventually, subconsciously, I started automatically attributing any negative or odd behavior to their attachment issues. I lived in near-constant worry that our love wouldn’t be enough, they wouldn’t get better and that all of our valiant efforts would fail miserably. When I lost my temper or slid back into traditional parenting methods, I would dwell on the most negative thought of all: Maybe their behavior would get worse.

So you can imagine my reaction when my middle child told me about “The Good and Bad Maps” in her brain that make her “do good or bad things.”

I emailed her mental health counselor immediately and asked, “Is this a sign she’s having delusions? My daughter’s family tree has some mental illness in its branches. Should we look into other diagnoses for her?”

The therapist asked me to make a note when she brought up “The Maps,” but said she wasn’t too worried about it. My daughter is very artistic, and her therapist thought she was just using visuals to explain how her mind works.

My daughter brought up “The Maps” a handful of times that month, but nothing major. Satisfied she wasn’t experiencing dissociation or hallucinations, we let the subject drop. But in April she started going into great detail about people in her brain who made her do bad things. She vividly described their appearance to me and even imitated their voices for me! I sent another alarmed email, but was again advised to make a note when she mentioned the “people in her brain.” I complied and tried to play it cool, but I was getting more and more convinced we were seeing the development of an additional mental health problem.

She kept talking about multi-colored people that lived in her brain and how they were in control of her thoughts and actions. I grew more and more worried as this discussion continued on and off for a month or so, until one day I heard her squeal, “Mom! Come quick! It’s them!” I raced into the living room to find her excitedly pointing at the television, jumping up and down. “There they are! The people in my head!”

I could only reply with an embarrassed, “Oh. OK, I get it.” It was a commercial for “Inside Out.” Mystery solved.

But wait… What about those maps she kept talking about in March? Turns out, her kindergarten classroom had a giant poster about choosing the right path. The poster included drawings of paths to success and paths to trouble. Paths that my daughter called “The Maps” in class. Poor thing. She was using her imagination so wonderfully, and there I was, a mother with no higher-level psychology education, trying to shuffle her into another serious diagnosis.

This story’s end may be amusing, but I hope it serves as a word of caution against relying too heavily on a diagnosis to understand someone (or even understand yourself). Although it’s important to understand the warning signs of mental illness, I shouldn’t let my caution stop me from seeing my daughter for who she is. I want to see her — not her diagnosis or a potential diagnosis. After all, it’s so much easier to laugh at the absurdity of childhood experimentation and logic when I’m not constantly asking myself, “What does this mean?

Follow this journey on Trauma Mama Drama.

Originally published: September 8, 2015
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