About ten years ago, we planted two trees in front of our house. They were the same size and the same kind of tree, styrax japonicus (Japanese snowbell). We made planting holes of the same size and fertilized the bottom of each hole identically. They receive about the same sun exposure and I watered them in the early summers, the very same amount. Water drainage may be slightly different as one of the trees is a tiny bit uphill from the other.

If those trees were my children, one could say that I loved them equally and that they both came from “good homes”.

This is what they look like:



The first tree is the picture of health. The second tree is about half the size and oddly shaped. This difference became noticeable several years ago. Although the size difference has increased, at least the little tree is looking healthier these days. It is actually going to bloom this year. It didn’t for a few years and I actually wondered if it was going to make it. The leaves, however, are already yellowed with age on the small tree but not the big one even though they have not had leaves for more than a few weeks. When the tree was misshapen and stopped blooming, I sought out advice and gave it extra care and attention. Maybe I’ve actually given that little tree more love than the big tree.

I really don’t understand why the little tree is making such poor life choices. I really don’t understand why it isn’t trying harder. I really don’t understand why that tree doesn’t care enough and isn’t living up to my expectations. Doesn’t it appreciate everything I’ve done for it?

Yes, those are really ridiculous statements about a tree, that for whatever reason outside of its control, has a much harder time growing and thriving than the tree next to it.

However ridiculous those statements are, they are applied to children daily. Yes, I know that children have brains and trees do not. But children are vulnerable and developing beings. They need much care and support.

And you know what else? Some of them, for whatever reasons beyond their control, have a much harder time growing and thriving than others. Some of these reasons have to do with mental health.

An estimated 20% of children and adolescents in the U.S. have at least one diagnosable mental disorder. That’s a lot of people and most of them do not receive mental health services. Most of the children and adolescents in my practice have more than one mental disorder. A lot of the kids I see display behaviors that are frustrating, irritating, and annoying to their parents and teachers. And sometimes the intensity of their misery and lack of thriving is downright scary.

Unfortunately, time and time again, children even the very youngest of them, are blamed for their mental disorder with quick explanations such as, “He is choosing to act that way.” “She just needs to try harder.” “He just doesn’t care.” “She shouldn’t be behaving this way anymore.”

Sometimes those statements are just plain wrong. And sometimes there is truth to them but they are not a solution. People act as though these statements are the final word and nothing is to be done. So I ask, “Why is it so hard for this child to make healthy choices? How can we help?”

I ask, “Why is it so hard for this child to motivate himself? How can we help?”

I ask, “Why is this child not meeting developmental expectations? How can we help?”

A good bit of the time, there are adults around the child who “step up to the plate” to help. They do so despite the amount of parenting stress. They do so despite the unfair number of students in their classrooms. We also need to provide more support to parents, teachers, and the other caregivers who are the most important influences in the early part of children’s lives.

These are very difficult roles that most of us choose to take on in life. Frustration is inevitable. Sadness is inevitable. Confusion is inevitable. But the children are not responsible for the fact that it is harder for them to grow, thrive, and meet our expectations. The fact that their jobs are harder to do often translate to our jobs being harder to do.

After all of these years, my little tree is very much alive and I actually think it is interesting and pretty. I wonder how it would have grown if I’d just yelled at it?