How To Tell The Difference Between ‘Disorder’ and ‘Choice.’

Author of 5 books, podcaster, parent trainer, husband and father.

Share This Post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on email
As parents of children with special needs, particularly Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder, we often receive the question, "How do you know if your child's behavior is a choice, or if it's their disorder?"

All I wanted to do was wrap my arms around this couple and hug them. We stood by the stage, just after I finished presenting to their foster parent group, and talked about the difficult child they were parenting. She was their first foster placement, and all signs pointed to adoption, until her bi-polar disorder forced a difficult decision. Now, she was no longer living in their home, and they were forced to visit her in a psychiatric unit. The outlook was bleak.

My heart broke for them for several reasons. Mostly over the fact that this was their very first placement as foster parents and the walls were collapsing on them. “Don’t give up on foster care,” I urged them. They both nodded and said, “We won’t.” Second, they were at a complete loss. Utterly hopeless. At one point in our conversation they asked me, “How do you know when the things your child does, or says, is a choice, or their disorder?” That caused me to step back and think.

I listened to some of their scenarios with their daughter, and answered as best I could. But later that evening, as my plane left the runway, I couldn’t escape their question.

“How do you know whether it’s a choice, or the disorder speaking?” I wondered.

The Big Difference.

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this over the past week. For a while I came up empty. Even though my child, who suffers from FASD, pushes me to the edge and sometimes beyond, and I should see it clearly, I found myself feeling cloudy over the major difference. But as I weighed the different interactions I’ve had with him over the past few months, the answer became clear. Here’s what I realized: A choice pushes buttons. A choice looks for a response. A choice causes unnecessary chaos, or aims to harm. A disorder rarely, if ever, does any of these things.

A disorder is a voice speaking from a place of trauma, or a place of damage that was out of the child’s control. While some side effects of a disorder, like FASD, can harm, it’s almost always the personal choices that do the most damage. For instance, my son was malnourished as an infant, before he came into our care. He was literally starving at one point. So, to this day, more than a decade later, he interacts with food as if it was scarce and he not going to get enough. We always provide balanced, healthy meals. But if he decides he doesn’t like it, or it’s not what he wants, he’ll say something like, “I hate this crap! Why can’t we have pizza or cheeseburgers? You never make me anything good!” That’s a choice. His intent is to push our buttons and subsequently, get his way.

A response from disorder would be something along the lines of, “Will there be enough food for me to eat? Or will I go hungry?” Often, these words may not even be articulated, but rather, acted out through anxiety or stress. They may not even come from a place that he or she fully comprehends.

More relatable to FASD, a choice would be to flip out, destroy belongings, verbally or physically assault family members and so on. The disorder speaking would be edginess, anxiety, frustration over sudden change, or obsessively asking the same question over and over again.

It’s a fine line, but you can differentiate.

Identifying The Characteristics.

So to reiterate…. choice is about pushing buttons, getting a reaction, or causing disruption or harm. Disorder is a voice that speaks from a place of trauma, a mental, or physical disconnect. Any time the words or actions from our children are acted out or spoken in order to get a reaction, or rise out of us, they are a choice.

The couple I talked with walked away from our conversation that afternoon with renewed hope and a sense of direction. The more I thought of the differences, the easier It became for me to relate to my children. Part of my struggle, and I’m sure yours too, is understanding and seeing the difference when the situation is tense or we’re already in a battle. The hardest thing to do in moments like these (but critically necessary) is step back and do a quick survey of the behavior you see playing out.

Then, ask yourself, “Is this a place of trauma speaking? Is this disorder? Or is this a choice?” The answer you come up with may be a game-changer in the outcome of a difficult situation.

Have you struggled to determine whether your child’s behavior is a choice or the result of a disorder? Share your story with us in the comment section below.

Share This Post

Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on linkedin
Share on reddit
Share on email
Mike and Kristin Berry are the Co-Founders of The Honestly Adoption Company and have been parents for nearly two decades. They are the authors of six books, and the host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.

Sarah Gray

Sarah Gray is the executive assistant to Mike and Kristin Berry. And she is the best in the land. In addition to providing a warm and friendly response to the many emails our company receives on a weekly basis, she also manages Mike and Kristin’s speaking and meeting schedules, and makes sure that team events go off without a hitch.

Nicole Goerges

Nicole Goerges is a Content Contributor & Special Consultant for The Honestly Adoption Company. She works with Mike and Kristin as a recurring co-host for the Honestly Adoption Podcast, and co-host of Kitchen Table Talks, exclusive video content for Oasis Community, along with Kristin. She is a fellow adoptive mom, and former foster parent.

Matt McCarrick

Matt McCarrick is the Content Production Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. If you’ve loved listening to our podcast, or enjoyed any of the videos trainings we’ve published, you have Matt to thank. He oversees all of our content production, from video edits, to making sure the tags are correct on YouTube, to uploading new videos to Oasis, to hitting publish on a podcast episode, he’s a content wonder!

Karen Anderson

Karen Anderson is the Community Engagement Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends the bulk of her time interacting with, and helping, people through our various social media channels, as well as providing support for Oasis Community members through chat support or Zoom calls. In the same spirit as Beaver, Karen is also passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and supported. Karen is also an FASD trainer and travels often, equipping and encouraging parents.

Beaver Trumble

Beaver Trumble is the Customer Care Specialist for The Honestly Adoption Company. Chances are, if you have been in need of technical support, or forgotten your password to one of our courses, you have interacted with Beaver. He is an absolute pro at customer care. In fact, he single-handedly revolutionized our customer care department last year. Beaver is passionate about connecting with parents and making them feel loved and encouraged.

Kristin Berry

Kristin Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Content Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. She spends most of her time researching and connecting with guests for our podcast, as well as direction, designing and publishing a lot of the content for our social media channels, blog and podcast. She loves to connect with fellow parents around the world, and share the message of hope with them.

Mike Berry

Mike Berry is the co-founder of, and Chief Marketing Specialist for, The Honestly Adoption Company. He spends the bulk of his time and energy designing and building many of the resources you see within our company, as well as social media and email campaigns. His goal is to use media as a means to encourage and equip parents around the world. He is also the co-host of The Honestly Adoption Podcast.