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Your Child is Not the ‘Problem’... It's Actually Society’s Narrow Lens

A young boy with a tie points to a drawing of the brain

Many years ago, during an especially stressful period in my parenting journey, a wise and thoughtful friend said something that I’ve never forgotten.

“What if there’s actually nothing at all wrong with your daughter? What if it’s our larger society that’s wrong, by insisting we only see her through one, narrow lens?” 

In that moment, I felt something inside me soften and shift.

My friend was saying something I didn’t know I needed to hear. A truth so obvious to me now, yet one I’m not sure I would have come to on my own over a decade ago (at least not as quickly). I could feel myself soften with compassion and relief to know — really know — that my daughter was not “a problem,” as her preschool teachers had concluded when we were invited to find a new school for her to attend. 

My friend’s comment opened up something in me as a mother, allowing me to freely accept my daughter in a new way. To see, so clearly, what my friend already knew: my daughter is not the problem.

The problem is society’s narrow view and interpretation of behaviors.

I have another vivid memory, shortly before my friend’s comment, of asking the Head Start physical therapist who was working with my then-toddler daughter, this question: “Do you think she’ll be in a mainstream classroom when she’s school age?”

And when the physical therapist confidently replied, “Yes,” I cried tears of relief. 

I look back on that exchange now, and regret that I put this therapist, working with a toddler, in the impossible position of needing to give me, a desperate and fearful parent, an answer that she couldn’t definitively know at that point in my daughter’s life. But asking that question was rooted, for me, in what I believed was the path to a meaningful, successful and happy life: a traditional educational path. Which I imagined to be a “normal” path without any specialized, supported learning environment. These values were ingrained in me by a society that, generally speaking, believed and promoted the same.

Here’s the thing:

My now-teenage daughter has never once been an independent student in a mainstream classroom. She will not graduate high school with a traditional diploma. There is very little that’s “typical” about her progress, when measured against what society tells us are the important markers of success in a teenager’s life. 

Yet, she is not a failure or a problem.

The problem is society’s narrow view of what it means to live a worthwhile and successful life.

There have been many moments since those early years when I’ve experienced sadness and indignation, reminded often that there will always be people in my daughter’s life who refuse to see her through anything but society’s narrow behavioral lens. It’s a view that’s deeply entrenched, and nearly impossible to avoid.

Where I see my daughter being overwhelmed, they may see defiance.

Where I see her experiencing extreme cognitive fatigue, they see laziness.

Where I see her lacking the essential cognitive skills required to assume another’s point of view or to “take the high road,” they may see self-centeredness or selfishness.

But there have also been countless moments when I smiled to myself, thinking of the unusual ways my daughter expresses herself, the ways she interacts with the world and those in it. I reflect on those behaviors and think to myself, “Wow, she really is an amazing kid…” Those in her life who have taken the time to see her through a lens other than the dominant behavioral lens would agree. 

I’m eternally grateful that I had this alternative, brain-based lens presented to me, and that I had the support  to remain curious about it and, over time, integrate it fully into the way I see my daughter. I don’t wonder whether or not she is “the problem.” I know with certainty that she is not, and that it’s society’s understanding of her — a young person living with a serious neurobehavioral condition — that is actually the issue.

After years of this work, I can anticipate the question that frequently comes up next, something along the lines of, “But what about my child’s behaviors that are not good, right, or appropriate? Are you saying they’re not a problem, either?”

It’s an understandable question.

A father speaks to his struggling son in an ad for a free webinar

Let’s take a moment to break it down a bit more.

When you have a child who frequently experiences behavioral symptoms that are not good, right, or appropriate — by anyone’s measure — it can be difficult, even for you as a parent, to reconcile that the behaviors are not the problem. It’s hard to make this shift, because it is your child who is squarely in the center of the chaos, causing disruption in nearly every environment they enter.

This is when it’s essential to look at the true, root cause of that disruptive behavior.

It begins with your child, who lives with a neurobehavioral condition, navigating the world very differently than what society expects, because society’s assumptions are based on “neurotypical” constructs. This means that society, by and large, expects that every person’s brain works “typically,” and that every person can meet age-based expectations that require the brain (cognitive skills). There is little to no recognition of brain-based difference, or what this means for the individual living with the condition. There are few, if any, accommodations offered. This creates a poor fit for your child; it increases their anxiety, distress, and overwhelm. 

We see this distress, anxiety and overwhelm reflected through challenging behaviors. 

If society recognized brain-based differences, and your child’s justifiable right to accommodations, your child would experience less distress. If society could recognize neurodiversity in a more affirming and accurate light, they’d see your child’s behaviors as communication, a reflection of a brain that works differently and a challenging, daily experience of navigating the world differently. If that was the case, those who hold the power in a given environment might offer empathy and support, instead of the typical power and control most frequently deployed.

So, please know this: 

Your child is not the problem when they can’t attend school regularly, because the environment is not adjusted in ways that prevent overwhelm. 

Your child is not the problem when their impulsivity gets the best of them, yet again, and there is still no recognition that they need more support and supervision than a neurotypical peer of the same chronological age.

Your child is not the problem when they cannot sit for extended periods of time, and listen as their teacher provides instruction, like their same-aged peers.

Your child is not the problem when they are expected to navigate complex social dynamics on their own, even as they’re still developing the cognitive skills required to do this successfully.

Your child is not the problem when they cannot complete their homework in the evening, because of their extreme cognitive fatigue. 

Your child is not the problem when they cannot independently get started on tasks that are complex (to them).

Your child is not the problem when they cannot remember, on their own, the routines or rules or steps that are required for success in a given setting, even months after they’ve been taught.

Society’s refusal to recognize these common “behaviors” as a symptom of a child needing more accommodations — that’s the problem. It’s a problem that comes from society seeing a given behavior and automatically assuming it’s willful and intentional.

If you’re the parent of a child with brain-based differences and challenging behavioral symptoms, I want you to hear me when I say that I know your child is not the problem.

If you feel like you are stuck in a place of embarrassment, disappointment or shame about who your child is, I want you to know I see a resilient child who has survived living in a society that does not understand them. 

If you are in a constant state of fear about your child’s future, because they are unable (not unwilling) to follow the traditional educational path, or they’re not meeting the typical developmental milestones for their age, I want you to know they are not a failure. And neither are you. The failure rests with society’s rigid perspective on education, alongside a lack of creative and alternative options for kids like yours and mine.

If you have a child who cannot “hold it together,” and seems to melt down at every minor frustration, I want you to know that I see a sensitive child with a fragile nervous system. One who feels and experiences things at such a deep level that they need to protect themselves from that overwhelm in ways that are misinterpreted as “anti-social,” “weird,” or “socially inappropriate.” 

And I want you to know that I see you, too, and all your efforts to make the world understand that your child is definitely not the problem.


Eileen Devine works in Portland, OR as a therapist and coach supporting parents of children with special needs. She is also a consultant for families impacted by FASD, PANS/PANDAS and other neurobehavioral conditions through her private practice, working with families nationally and internationally. She lives with her husband and two amazing kids, one of whom happens to live with FASD. For more information, visit


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