Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. Through stories from my behavioral pediatrics practice (with details changed to protect privacy) I will show how contemporary developmental science can be applied to support parents in their efforts to facilitate their children’s healthy emotional development. I will address factors that converge to obstruct such support. These include limited access to quality mental health care, influences of a powerful health insurance industry and intensive marketing efforts by the pharmaceutical industry.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

Antidepressants for Girls: Are We Putting Future Mothers in an Untenable Position? (When There are Alternatives)

A significant unintended consequence of over-reliance on psychiatric medication for children was brought to light in a recent study  showing that children exposed to SSRIs (selective serotonin re-uptake inhibitors- a class of psychiatric medication used to treat anxiety and depression) during pregnancy were diagnosed with depression by age 14 at more than four times the rate of children whose mothers were diagnosed with a psychiatric disorder but did not take the medication. This study follows on the heels of another showing an increase in risk of autism in children whose mothers took SSRI’s during the second and third trimester of pregnancy.
Such reports are usually met, appropriately, with an outpouring of reassurances from clinicians who take care of pregnant women, who need to protect their emotional wellbeing in whatever way they can.
From my perspective as a pediatrician specializing in early childhood mental health our attention must be on prevention. Our culture is quick to medicate young girls without thought to the increasingly well-recognized slow and difficult process of withdrawal from SSRI's. With multiple studies like those cited above producing a cloud of uncertainty, and limited data on the long-term developmental outcome for a fetus exposed to SSRI’s in utero, we are knowingly putting future mothers in an untenable position.
In addition, recent alarming reports of a tripling of the suicide rate for girls age 10-14, in the context of rapidly rising rates of prescribing of SSRI's suggest that this approach is failing.
There is another way. Extensive evidence reveals that when parents listen for the meaning of a child’s behavior, they support development of emotional regulation, social adaptation, and overall mental health.
In contrast, when the standard of care is to name and then eliminate problematic behavior, often with a pill, listening is devalued both culturally and monetarily.
A question from a review course offered by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) exemplifies this standard. Presenting a case of a 7-year-old girl with separation anxiety since preschool, bedtime resistance, and frequent tantrums, we are asked to choose the correct treatment. We are told that parents are divorced, she is an only child, and at her father’s house she expresses fear that something would happen to her mother.
While cognitive behavioral therapy to “work on skills to manage her distress” is the “correct” answer, an SSRI is recommended as a second line of treatment.
An explosion of research at the interface of developmental psychology, neuroscience and genetics shows us that rather than labeling behavior and seeking to “manage” or eliminate it, the road to healing lies in listening with curiosity to discover meaning.
Did this young girl observe conflict, perhaps even violence, between her parents in the years preceding their divorce? Is there a family history of anxiety, suggesting a genetic vulnerability? Does she have sensory processing challenges that cause her to be overwhelmed in a stimulating classroom? Some combination of all these factors might exist. Only when we know the story can we find the path to healing.
In my practice, eight-year-old Sophie, diagnosed with anxiety disorder by her previous pediatrician, came to refill a prescription for Prozac. After several hour-long appointments, some with her alone and some with her mother Linda, I learned that, like the child in the vignette, she had divorced parents. During every-other weekend visits with her father Mark, he drank heavily. Quick to explode in rage, he frequently verbally humiliated Sophie and her mother. The primary problem needing treatment was his alcoholism. Sophie's behavior represented an adaptive response to a frightening situation.
Parents share this kind of information only when they feel safe. Safety comes when we offer time and space for nonjudgmental listening. When parents can make sense of their child’s behavior, they are in an ideal position to support that child, helping to name feelings, identify provocative situations, and develop strategies to manage these challenges.
Another vignette offers a view of both the problem and the solution.
Beth, mother of 3-month-old Logan, a patient in my behavioral pediatrics practice, could have been the girl from the AAP vignette 15 years later. She struggled with feelings of anxiety. Attempts to stop SSRI’s, which she had taken on and off for years, were unsuccessful. Despite reassurances from many doctors, she was plagued by guilt over the possible effects on her baby, who was now “colicky” and not gaining weight.
I worked with the family, drawing on an evidence-based treatment known as child-parent psychotherapy. We sat on the floor, with Logan’s father, Peter, joining in. Logan began to gain weight in parallel with his mother’s improved emotional state.  My aim was simply to listen, and to support Logan’s parents in reflecting on the meaning of his behavior. By six months he was thriving. Beth’s anxiety abated and she was able to come off the SSRI. 
Over-reliance on psychiatric medication in children has negative impact on this generation and the next. The unknown effect of psychiatric medication on the developing fetus is but one unintended consequence. As I describe in my new book The Silenced Child: From Labels, Medications, and Quick-Fix Solutions to Listening, Growth, and Lifelong Resilience we silence communication and miss opportunities for prevention. In contrast, when we offer space and time for listening to parents, starting in the earliest weeks of life, we have the opportunity to set development on a healthy path.

Monday, April 18, 2016

Mind-Altering Drugs and the Toddler

When statistics regarding the significant rise in prescribing of antidepressant and antipsychotic medication  for children under age 2 made its way into a New York Times article, the outpouring of comments revealed an understandable outrage. World-renowned child development researcher Ed Tronick, who was quoted in the article, accurately summed things up with his comment, "it's just nuts."   Efforts were made to figure out where blame for this clearly unacceptable situation lies. Is it big Pharma? Is it the doctors who write the prescriptions? Is it teachers who pressure doctors to medicate? Or perhaps parents who beg doctors for help?
Interestingly my colleagues and I from Tronick's InfantParent Mental Health Post Graduate Certificate program were at the time having a conversation about the non-productive, and possibly destructive notion of assigning blame. When people feel blamed they become defensive and shut down. They stop listening.
In Tronick's program, individuals from a wide range of disciplines come together to learn about current research in supporting healthy development of the brains and minds of our youngest members of society. We learn the tremendous value of listening with curiosity. This kind of listening promotes development of emotional regulation, social adaptation, and overall mental health. 
Fellows who participate in this program - there are now going on five generations of the Boston-based program and many more from its California-based counterpart- are all well versed in the wealth of evidence-based treatments, other than psychiatric medication, available to help struggling young children and their families. We all look hopefully to the day when these treatments are the standard of care.
The reasons these prescriptions are written for very young children are far-reaching and complex. Explanation requires space well beyond a comment on an article, or even a blog post. In my new book The Silenced Child: From Labels, Medications, and Quick-Fix Solutions to Listening, Growth, and Lifelong Resilience I offer evidence that listening grows healthy brains and minds. I call attention to the convergence of social forces that have let medication replace listening.
It is likely that each individual clinician who writes a prescription for an antidepressant or antipsychotic for a child under 2, while certainly misguided, is sincerely interested in helping that child. Parents often feel overwhelmed and desperate to help their children. Accepting a prescription makes sense in the absence of other options.
Aggressive marketing by the pharmaceutical industry, along with publication in medical journals of research funded by drug companies, has a role to play. A powerful health insurance industry that does not reimburse for time spent listening contributes to the problem. The complexity of the health insurance industry including, for example, enormous effort needed to obtain "prior authorization" for a range of treatments, restricts the amount of time primary care clinicians can spend listening. The shortage of qualified mental health professionals who offer this kind of listening is intimately intertwined with our condoning of medication as the primary treatment, without protecting time for listening. 

The prevailing medical model of disease and the DSM system- the status quo in mental health care- work against listening. This system looks to name a problem and then eliminate it, without opportunity to discover its cause. It places the "problem" squarely in the child, without consideration of the relational and social context. Due to factors in the medical education system, most psychiatrists and primary care doctors who prescribe these medications are not aware of the rapidly expanding research and knowledge in the discipline of infant mental health. 
Forces in the early childhood education system put tremendous pressures on teachers. They may be faced with classes of 20-30 children, and have minimal training or support in working with children with problems of behavioral and emotional regulation. Preserving safety of the classroom is a legitimate priority, and one of the reasons teachers recommend medication. 

Behavior is a form of communication. Medication can silence that communication. Until we place a renewed value on protecting time for listening, we will continue to see an increase in this kind of prescribing. In effect we will be silencing the voices of the youngest members of our society.   

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

The Problem with Biological Psychiatry: A Mother's View

In my forthcoming book (May 3) The Silenced Child, I offer evidence, based on stories from my pediatric practice integrated with contemporary developmental science, that the disease model of biological psychiatry may interfere in a child's development if we fail to protect time to listen to what a child's behavior is communicating. Recently I came upon a powerful blog post eloquently articulating exactly this idea, but told from the perspective of a mother who herself was a psychiatric patient as a child. 

The author, Faith Rhyne, wrote the post in the wake of the viral blog post I am Adam Lanza's Mother that followed the Newtown shootings. She tells her own story, offering alternatives to the disease model of mental illness, that she views as highly destructive. 

First she writes of her own struggles as a child:

"At age 12, I sat in a room with my mother, in an office that I didn’t want to be in, and listened to her discuss with a doctor what might be “wrong” with me.  She was concerned and she had every right to be. In fact, she had a responsibility to be and, as a mother, she had an instinct to be. I was her child and I was struggling. I was angry, violent, suicidal, sullen, and rude."

She identifies how in this type of evaluation, the nuanced details of a child's struggles may not be heard:

"I don’t know if they told those doctors that I had just watched our family land be cleared and developed or that I was terrified of my math teacher or that, the year before, I had gone to Catholic school for a year, where an 8th grader had kissed me on the bus."

She fully acknowledges that she was suffering, but that the suffering was in no way alleviated by the notion that there was something "wrong" with her brain:

"My family spent many thousands of dollars trying to help me and, as it turned out, the help hurt me more.  Further, the idea that I had something out-of-whack in my brain drove an invisible wedge between me and the rest of my family, who spoke in measured tones and who would glance at me furtively, wondering if I was about to explode."

She echoes the work of Stanley Greenspan, who identified the intimate connection between our sensory and affective experience, when she writes:

"It wasn’t until 20 years later that I learned that the way I process information affects how I feel and that not everybody’s brain works like mine...For some, the world is a loud and clumsy place, full of laughter that isn’t understood and a deep observant sadness. For others, clothes hurt and school is a nightmare. The lights buzz. The cafeteria stinks. The kids are mean and the teachers are uninspiring. For some, it is all very confusing and hard to keep up with. The frustration alone brings tears and anger."

She highlights the complexity of the genetic aspect of emotional struggles when she sees similar qualities in her own children. Not only do they seem to share these traits with her, but when she observes their struggles it provokes painful memories of her own childhood. She speaks from a place of deep empathy for both parent and child:

"No parent wants to see their child struggle. I am the mother of children sometimes remind me a bit of myself as a kid, kids who are bright and sensitive, who feel things deeply and who sometimes aren’t easy to comfort when they have simply had enough. I understand how it feels to not know what to do, to see that your child is struggling and to find that efforts to “make it better” seem to cause more upset."

She calls attention to the need for families to: 

"find skilled and conscientious supporters to help empower their children to be confident in the worth of their differences and to find self-determined ways to navigate challenges."

And to take time to listen to what the child's behavior is communicating:

"Often, children don’t know how to articulate what they need.  However, they will try to tell you. Sometimes, when children “act out,” they are trying to tell you."

She captures the painful sense of betrayal that accompanies being told that there is something wrong with your brain:

"What does it feel like when the people you most need to believe in the strength of your future and the sincerity of your struggle sit down and inform you that there is something imbalanced in your brain and that it means you’ll probably always struggle and that it means, also, that people may be scared of you, because they don’t understand."

She articulates how the very effort to decrease stigma by equating mental and physical illness actually worsens stigma:

"The idea of mental illness creates and sustains stigma, by informing us that people who struggle with their humanity in ways outside of the acceptable range of normality are inherently flawed."

Finally she seems to channel the ideas of pediatrician and psychoanalyst D.W.Winnicott when she describes how the disease model may obstruct healthy development by interfering in a parent's ability to see the child's "true self:"

"When the professionals teach mothers to see their children as ill, both mother and child are harmed in that they lose something essential to the parent-child relationship, which is the ability to see their children clearly, with compassion, love and a commitment to their brightest possible futures."

My major divergence from Ms. Rhyne lies in the fact that that while she appears to have joined the "anti-psychiatry" movement, I do not see this problem as the "fault" of psychiatry alone. Rather, as I also articulate in my new book, I see a complex set of cultural forces that have come together in a society that is in many ways prejudice against children. A range of professionals who care for children, including psychiatrists, pediatricians, occupational therapists, educators, and many others, must join together with parents to overcome this prejudice. We must recognize the value and necessity of protecting time and space to listen to these youngest voices. In doing so we support their healthy development, and with that our future.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Child Death and Child Protection: Rethinking the 'Intact Families vs. Safe Children' Split

A spate of tragic cases involving the Department of Children and Families (DCF) in Massachusetts recently led Governor Baker to call for “tilting the balance” from keeping families intact to keeping children safe. But as Elizabeth Young-Breuhl argues in her brilliant book Childism:Confronting Prejudice Against Children, published shortly after her untimely death in 2011, a child protection model supporting this dichotomy was misguided from the start.

Young-Bruehl writes: “Since CPS (child protective services) was created as a rescue service—a child saving service—not a family service supporting child development generally and helping parents, greater efficiency in prosecuting parents was achieved but not greater understanding of them, educating of them, or working with them therapeutically to prevent child abuse.”

Young-Bruehl describes the “discovery” of child abuse by pediatrician Henry Kempe in the 1960s. Kempe coined the term “battered child syndrome” based on his observation of children coming to the emergency room with unexplained injuries. Young-Bruehl observes that it was, from the start, not a disease of the abuser but of the child. She writes, “the name thus from the start took attention away from abusers and their motivations; and it implied that children could be helped without their abusers being helped.”
The field of child protection grew out of this “discovery.” Young-Breuhl describes in her book “Kempe had launched one of the swiftest transitions from identification of a social problem to legislation in America’s history . . .. The states all increased their vigilance by establishing or strengthening Child Protective Services (CPS) departments.”
But from the start, the system was not founded in an understanding of child development. 
A number of years ago I had the opportunity to speak to a group of lawyers at a symposium entitled “Child Protection in the 21st century.” The West Virginia Law School student who invited me wisely observed that those in the legal profession are often in a position to decide what is "in the best interest of the child" with little substantive understanding of what exactly is in the best interest of the child.  He invited me to share my knowledge as an expert in early childhood mental health.

 One of my co-presenters was a delightful judge from central West Virginia who has been doing child protection work for over 20 years. He openly admitted to his lack of knowledge on the subject of contemporary child development research.

Young-Breuhl, in her use of the word “motivations” ties her ideas in directly with explosion of research in the field of early childhood mental health offering evidence that children develop in a healthy way when people who care for them listen with curiosity for the motivations and intentions of behavior. When we offer non-judgmental listening to parents, when we are interested not in what they did wrong but in understanding their motivations, we support their efforts to listen to children, in turn supporting healthy development of families.

One solution lies in an innovative program developed by the non-profit Zero to Three: Safe Babies Court Teams Project. Judges, child welfare staff, attorneys, service providers, and other community leaders work together, enhancing their knowledge of child development while aiming to transform the experiences of children in the child welfare system.

Identifying the central role of listening to parents, they articulate an aim to “recognize the overwhelming odds confronting parents, [and] honor the parents’ personal journey.”

Every year I have the privilege of teaching the first class of Springfield College of Social Work Child and Adolescent Program. The majority of students are social workers on the front lines of the child protection system. I am struck by both the curiosity and openness of the students, and the number of extraordinarily difficult circumstances they find themselves in. They feel empowered and encouraged by the idea that listening, being fully present with parents who themselves have experienced significant trauma, can be a critical initial step in setting families on a different path.

But it is impossible to expect these overworked and underpaid DCF workers to listen in this way if they themselves are not heard and supported. The image comes to mind of a set of Russian dolls. When the legal system listens to the front-line professionals, they in turn listen to the parents, who in turn listen to the children.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Riding a Wave of Grief: A Life Lesson

(The following story was told to me by a friend; details have been changed to protect privacy.)

An early winter snowstorm left Janet with an unexpected whole day alone with her 17-year-old daughter Ally. As was typical for the pair, they spent the morning in comfortable separateness. Janet took advantage of the opportunity to catch up on paperwork, while Ally stayed in her room working on college applications. In Janet's view her relationship with her daughter had been close, but now that Ally was immersed in a zillion activities and life with her friends, the intimate talks had, in a way that Janet felt was appropriate, fallen off. She missed the closeness, but respected her daughter's need to have some space, especially given her imminent departure for college.

They met in the kitchen mid-day and chatted over lunch, deciding that when they had each done a bit more work, they would take some time to go through clothes in Ally's closet to weed out things she no longer wore.

An hour or so later Janet knocked on her daughter's door. Not hearing a response, she opened the door to find Ally's back to her, with her head in her closet. "Is this an OK time?" she asked. Ally nodded her head, but did not answer. When Janet approached, Ally turned her head towards a small pile of clothes in the middle of the room.  Janet saw that she was silently crying. Alarmed, she asked, "What's wrong?" but Ally simply shook her head, seemingly unable to speak. Janet was mystified, as just a short while before everything had been fine. She began to guess. "Did someone say something to you?" Ally shook her head. "Did something happen?" Again no. Janet saw her daughter's lower lip quivering, just as it had when as a little girl. Reaching out her arms to hold her, she saw Ally gesture towards her computer where she had been working on her applications. "Is it college?" "Are you feeling sad about leaving?" Finally, sensing that her mother would not give up, Ally managed to eek out, "It's a song." But more questions led nowhere as Ally seemed unable to talk any more. Finally she told her mother she wanted to be alone. "OK, " Janet said. "I'll check on you in a bit."

Still facing a pile of work, as well as dinner to be made, Janet put it all aside. After a half hour she returned to Ally's room, where Ally somewhat reluctantly agreed to accept her mother's help with the closet. She seemed to have calmed down, and while she was still subdued, the tears had stopped. As they became involved in the task of sorting through clothes, sharing memories associated with various items, Ally seemed to return to herself.

After making dinner Janet returned to check in with Ally, letting her know that as the snow had stopped she was going out to a meeting. As she went to get ready, Ally followed her to her room, saying, "OK, I'm calm enough now that I can tell you."

At this point on the verge of being late for her meeting, Janet followed Ally into her room and sat on the bed. Again the lower lip quivered. After they sat together in a period of silence, softly Ally said, "Everyone dies in the summer," followed by a pause and then, "That's the song lyrics." Now Ally was freely crying as Janet too felt tears well in her eyes. Sobs shook Ally's body as she relaxed in to her mother's arms.

"Everyone dies in the summer." That previous summer, a boy Ally had briefly dated was killed in a car accident. He was in college so they hadn't seen each other for some time. There was a lot of communal mourning, with parties and bonfires to celebrate his life. Despite encouragement, Ally had shared little of her feelings around the event with her parents. Janet had been worried at the time about how Ally was dealing with the death, but then as the school year began and things got busy, her concern had faded to the background.

But here it was, close to half a year later. Janet sat with Ally while her sobs slowed to a soft cry and eventually subsided. Janet decided to skip her meeting. The rest of the family came home and they all had dinner together. Now able to talk about what had happened, Ally expressed surprise that the song lyrics could have had such an effect on her.

Later in the evening Janet noticed that Ally was again in her room. Still worried about her daughter's emotional state, she went to check on her. "What are you doing? " she asked after finding Ally again at her computer. "I'm writing a poem." Once this wave of grief had a chance to move through and then pass, Janet observed in her daughter a kind of ease and freedom, accompanied by a burst of creativity.

As she relived this whole encounter in her mind, Janet found herself flooded with gratitude. Grateful to be present with her daughter in that moment. Grateful that Ally could let herself feel the sadness while still in the safety of her home. Ally now knew in her mind and in her body the value of moving through grief to healing and growth.  For Janet, hope now mixed with the sadness as she contemplated her own impending loss, as her daughter prepared to take her first steps out in the world on her own.