Labelling – when is it a good thing?

Posted: 29/11/2016

In exploring strengths-based practice, we navigate the term ‘labelling’, and how using labels can be a form of power-over, can affect people’s identities and behaviour, and confine what is possible for them.

Some labels are certainly devisive but when are they useful and helpful? When can labels enable a pathway through?

A friend of mine has spent five and a half years agonising over his daughter’s behaviour; wondering whether it was autism or another condition, or worse—that his daughter’s behaviour was ‘normal’ and that they were just awful parents. He said that it was a relief to finally have both a diagnosis and also a holistic plan in place.

He went on to say:

It’s official, (though not a surprise to those who know her), but she has finally been formally diagnosed by a specialist as having moderate to severe Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). This means there are thought to be two chemicals (dopamine and norepinephrine) that she makes too much of, and this causes the messages between her neurons to be transmitted too quickly. This particularly impacts the parts of her brain responsible for executive control, but in time may also lead to nervous tics and other co-morbid conditions such as dyslexia, OCD, ODD. But we’re crossing our fingers that they won’t. We still have a way to go to determine if she has the more strongly Inattentive Type (so more ADD) or Hyperactive Type (HD) or, as we expect, if she has both.

‘For us the formal diagnosis is good news. While we acknowledge that her condition will require ongoing treatment, monitoring and refinement on her part and ours (for some, ADHD is a life-long condition), we are overjoyed that we have finally exited our bewildered phase and are about to embark on the enlightened phase of our journey with our beautiful, smart, joyful daughter.’

When labels are used we need to ensure:

  • They are respectful, bring hope and are validating
  • They recognise uniqueness and, at the same time, expose our commonalities and similarities
  • They expose people’s expertise and reflect people’s strengths and capacities rather than reinforce weaknesses
  • We avoid framing people as the problem by recognising the wider structural context of people’s lives
  • We open up other possibilities and solutions, create greater understanding and accept that we may be wrong.

(McCashen W 2005, The Strengths Approach, ‘Taking Care with Labelling’, Chapter 2, p. 25)


It seems that we need to acknowledge the appropriate use of labelling. Actually, naming the condition, but respectfully separating it from the person, is important. My friend’s beautiful, smart, joyful daughter is just that. But now, her known condition can be treated with love and care so that she has the opportunity to grow and learn.

Georgena Stuckenschmidt

One response to “Labelling – when is it a good thing?”

  1. Lesley says:

    I have a 5 year old grandson with a genetic condition – he (at this stage) has limited speech and is not toilet trained. He is attending a mainstream school at the advice of all the therapists who have worked with him since infancy. Throughout his preschool and reception (1st year of primary school) year his parents have seen the negative consequences of “having a label”. Comments such as “of course he doesn’t understand what we are saying”, “he will never be able to write because he can’t hold a pencil” (one of the symptoms of his condition is poor muscle tone – in his case his fingers are affected) “he needs to go to a special school because he can’t open his lunch box” or professionals literally saying ” I’ve never worked with one of “those” before – have no idea what to do” this from a physiotherapist, people continually react to his diagnosis, not to him as an individual – most of his needs are similar to those required by people on the Autism spectrum, of which there are quite a few at his school, but he is the only one with his diagnosis. It is a diagnosis that carries a particular stereotype and most people base their opinions on outdated, negative medical information. As a family, it has been very difficult to deal with the attitudes and opinions of people whose decisions could have a profound impact on his learning, his self esteem and in fact his entire life. Yes, diagnosis is important it can result in a child and their family receiving much needed financial and practical assistance, medical treatment and therapy, and give parents assurance that they are doing ok, but it can also be a double edged sword when it is used to put a child in a box because of illinformed people making decisions based on perceptions and outdated information.

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