Tears ran down Elena’s cheeks as she described being so overwhelmed and full of rage that she forcefully held her fully clothed 4-year-old son, James, under the shower when he wouldn’t go to bed. Later in the same 50-minute visit she revealed that she had suffered years of physical and emotional abuse as a child. As is typical of visits to my behavioral pediatrics practice, she had brought James because he was “defiant.” “Something must be wrong with him,” was followed by, “Tell me what to do to make him listen.” James’ preschool teachers, who were having trouble managing his behavior, had suggested that he might have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD.) They recommended to Elena that medication be considered. They knew nothing of this history. My wish in listening to this story is not to judge, but rather to understand the experience of both mother and child.As I elaborate in more detail in that post, this prescribing of medication to young children represents a prejudice against children. A colleague described it as a massive exercise in societal repression. Hidden abuse is an extreme example. It may be simply that the classroom environment is not suited to the child's particular vulnerabilites. There are countless different stories in between. It is not surprising that without an opportunity to hear these stories, medication and behavior management would fail to alleviate symptoms.
Second, less well-noticed but perhaps more important, is a study showing the link between late preterm birth, maternal depression and preschool psychiatric disorders. It showed that late preterm babies (34-36 weeks) were at increased risk for anxiety disorders at preschool age if their mothers had postpartum depression.
How fitting that T. Berry Brazelton is receiving the Presidential Citizen's Medal in coincidence with these studies. It is Brazelton who taught us to look at each baby's unique qualities and capacities for complex communication. In settings such as the ones described in that study, where both mother and baby are vulnerable, his Neonatal Behavioral Assessment Scale, as modified to the NBO, has great relevance. Brazelton, in all his wealth of contributions, shows tremendous respect for both parents and children.
These two studies show that we need to invest resources in supporting mother-baby pairs from birth, and in listening to families with young children so that their stories can be heard.
Maybe Brazelton will tell this story to President Obama!!!