Pediatricians need to wonder when dealing with behavior problems

Last week, I again had the privilege of teaching pediatricians in training. These students were very bright, challenging and asked excellent questions. They all agreed about the limit of the pediatric model of “giving advice.” One resident, who had young children of her own, spoke of new mothers using blogs for emotional support. Many of these mothers speak less than kindly about their pediatricians, who they perceive as “not getting it” and telling them “what to do.”

We agreed that being given advice could be disempowering and that many parenting books, full of advice, actually make parents feel worse.

My seminar’s aim was to teach them about the application of contemporary ideas about child development into their practice of pediatrics. This research shows that when parents can think about the meaning of their child’s behavior, rather than respond just to the behavior itself, they facilitate their child’s healthy emotional development. I shared with them an example from my practice to show how they could support parents in this task.

3-year old Mary had prolonged tantrums at bedtime and was up several times a night. Her parents told me that they would hold the door shut while Mary screamed and threw herself at the door in increasing agitation. Finally after an hour or so of this, one parent would go in to lie down with Mary because she was so agitated, and then she would fall asleep.

My students found the story disturbing, as it was obvious to them that this experience would be frightening for Mary. But I asked them to resist the impulse to give advice about how to manage bedtime and instead asked them to wonder, why were her parents, bright loving people, doing this?

I showed them a slide from a recent lecture by leading researchers in developmental psychology, Peter Fonagy and Mary Target. The slide showed how when people are stressed, their ability to reflect on another person’s experience significantly decreased.

Rather than give these parents advice about how to manage this sleep problem, my task was to listen to their story, support them and even perhaps uncover the source of this stress. In doing so I might be able to help them think about what was happening from Mary’s perspective.

Because we had a full 50-minute visit, and they began to feel comfortable with me, they did eventually share what was going on. They spoke of a terrible upheaval in Dad’s family business and significant financial stress. They realized that Mary was likely responding to the huge amount of tension in the household. she was struggling to engage her increasingly emotionally distant parents. They understood that Mary was experiencing a kind of separation anxiety,and was looking for reassurance. Her anxiety came out most intensely at bedtime, which naturally precedes a long period of separation.

I gave these parents minimal advice about what to do. Instead, I helped them to understand a different way to be with Mary at bedtime. Within a few weeks her sleep problem resolved. My wondering about the meaning of their behavior led them to wonder about the meaning of Mary’s behavior.

One of the residents asked me “what do I say?” Residents are taught “what to do” and then tell their patients “what to do.” I hope that I conveyed to them that is not about what to say. Its about being present, open and emotionally available. Its about wondering. If they begin to wonder why parents behave the way they do with their children, they will be able to support parent’s efforts to wonder about the meaning of a child’s behavior.

I realize it’s a big leap. One resident in the group was doing a rotation in the neonatal intensive care unit . When treating a critically ill newborn, knowing “what to do” is appropriate. I am asking him to use his brain in a completely different way.

Practicing primary care can be a deeply rewarding experience if we use our relationship with families in the way I have described. But it is not easy. One must be able to switch from a “what to do” mode when dealing with a sick child, to a wondering mode when working with behavior problems, which can make up as much as 40% of primary care visits.

However, if we can do this, we are in an ideal position to promote the healthy emotional development of the next generation. When seen from this perspective, primary care clinicians should be the highest, not the lowest, both paid and valued providers in our health care system.

Claudia M. Gold is a pediatrician who blogs at Child in Mind and is the author of Keeping Your Child in Mind.

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