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.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Music and mental health: a tribute to Pete Seeger

This morning while driving my son and two friends to practice for their high school singing group, we listened, as part of an NPR report on his death at age 94, to Pete Seeger tell the story of his song Where Have All the Flowers Gone. His voice, his message and his music together had a profound calming effect on me, and I suspect on my passengers as well. There was quiet, and perhaps even a tear shed by others besides me.

In my behavioral pediatrics practice I make a point of asking about a child's interest in music. Whether the presenting problem is one of anxiety, frequent meltdowns, inattention, hyperactivity, or a range of other concerns, I have found that music often has a calming effect.  One little girl, whose mother was under considerable pressure to have her diagnosed with ADHD and put on medication, stopped her scattered and frenetic play to sing me a song. Another, struggling with social anxiety, who for much of the visit refused to speak, at first with his back to me and then with increasing boldness, did the same. When parents see this effect of music on their child, they are moved to incorporate music in to our efforts to support development of emotional regulation. Problems with emotional regulation are central to all of these behavioral symptoms.

I was in need of emotional regulation myself this morning after spending the weekend embroiled in a difficult discussion about the subject of "ADHD." In a conversation on a list serve made up primarily of child psychiatrists, I pointed to a recent study about ADHD that showed very poor long-term outcome. I wondered if there might be an alternative explanation to that offered by the authors of the study, namely that ADHD is a chronic illness that requires lifelong treatment. Could it be, I asked, that the poor long-term outcome is because we are not properly treating the problem in the first place? That when we diagnose based on symptoms alone, and treat with behavior management and medication, we fail to address the full complexity of symptoms of dysregulation of attention, behavior, and emotion? I wondered how we would separate this issue from the possible long-term effects of stimulant medication itself.

I got a huge amount of push back, with a number of people implying that I was "unscientific," and that I might be affiliated with the church of Scientology. Given that there is extensive scientific evidence supporting an alternative paradigm for understanding symptoms of dysregulation of attention, behavior and emotion, this suggestion particularly got under my skin.

Not only music, but dance, martial arts, yoga and other activities have an important role to play in self-regulation. This is particularly true for children who have biological vulnerability to dysregulation, including those with problems of sensory processing. All of these activities occur in the context of important relationships, relationships that themselves are essential to development of emotional regulation. My little patients perform their songs in the context of a growing relationship with me.

But if we employ a purely medical model, diagnose ADHD, anxiety or any range of problems using the DSM ( Diagnostic and Statistical Manuel of Mental Disorders), we miss the relational and historical context of these symptoms. We need to offer room to hear the individual story of a child and his family in order to make sense of his symptoms. This story is itself can be a kind of music. Dar Williams incredible song "After All"  offers a beautiful example.

When children present with a range of behavioral symptoms, if we simply "manage behavior" and treat with medication, where is there room for the music?

Arlo Guthrie, who frequently performed with Seeger, in his song Alice's Restaurant, proposed that everyone being evaluated for the draft walk in singing the chorus of his song, and in doing so create an anti-war movement.

Borrowing the idea, espoused by both Arlo and Pete, of changing the world with music, what if every new evaluation of a child with a behavior problem included singing and/or listening to one of Pete's songs? It might help calm everyone down-parent, clinician, and child alike. If, in turn, the next generation were helped to develop in a healthy way, with an ability to think creatively and engage effectively in a complex social environment, it might change the world.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Social responsibility to support new parents must follow demise of Isis Parenting

"Where I live (Paris) women are very lonely when having a baby. Is it the same in the US?"

A French journalist posed this question to me in an email interview two days ago. My verbatim response:

"Social isolation and often along with that postpartum depression are problems here in the US for new mothers.
There are mother- baby groups to try to address this issue, but not nearly enough."

Now, in our Boston communities and other places in the US, there are a lot fewer.

The economics of the sudden demise of Isis Parenting, a private retail company,is described in the Globe article today. But as my colleague at the Freedman Center at MSPP (Massachusetts School For Professional Psychology) that also runs mother-baby groups, said in reaction to the announcement by Isis, "you cant make money running mother-baby groups." 

A harsh tweet derides the company for catering to the wealthy with high end products. But in the absence of a system of social support of new parents, what choice is there? 

Isis offered what D.W. Winnicott termed a "holding environment" for new parents. Not just a physical space, but a community of relationships. This fact is reflected in a collection of tweets about Nancy Holtzman, vice president of clinical content and e-learning, at #thingsnancytaughtme.

Another way to describe what Isis offered is a "secure base:" In my book Keeping Your Child in Mind ( that was just released in France, thus the interview with the French journalist) I describe the extensive research evidence for the role of this secure base, both for parent and child, in healthy emotional development. 
John Bowlby, describing the essential role of attachment relationships in survival, spoke of a child’s need for what he called a “secure base” from which to explore the world and grow into a separate person. He also recognized the need for a mother to have a secure base of her own in order to provide this security for her child
In our culture extended families, that in past times might have offered that "holding environment" or "secure base," are often fragmented by distance and/or divorce. If one parent, usually the father, works very long hours, a new mother may feel very much alone. Isis parenting helped these parents not to feel alone. 

The United States lags behind significantly in support of new parents, as represented by a highly restrictive parental leave policy. A recent BBC article described an alternative approach in Finland: 
For 75 years, Finland's expectant mothers have been given a box by the state. It's like a starter kit of clothes, sheets and toys that can even be used as a bed. And some say it helped Finland achieve one of the world's lowest infant mortality rates.
Not only does this gift offer material help, but also an official recognition by the government that new parents have an important role to play and deserve to be valued and supported.

President Obama has recognized the need to invest resources in early childhood, and developed an Early Childhood Initiative. This is an important step in the right direction. 

But this will not help the families in the Boston area, who are now on their own with the loss of Isis. What can we do on the local level? It is my hope that government agencies, foundations and others who are in a position to support the kind of services Isis offered, that almost by definition do not make money, will step up to the plate to help fill the void. It will be an important investment in children, families and our future.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Misuse of ADHD label as symptom of a broken health care system


When the American Academy of Pediatrics came out with new guidelines a couple of years ago extending the age of diagnosis of ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) down to age 4, it seemed as if Pfizer might have been waiting in the wings.  Soon after, a new preparation of ADHD medication in an oral suspension, for kids too young to swallow pills, became available.

I was a lone voice expressing opposition to this change in the guidelines. As a primary care pediatrician I saw up close how the diagnosis was made based on symptoms alone, missing complex underlying problems. As the standard of care is to treat what we call "ADHD" with medication and/or "behavior management" these problems, which can include a history of abuse and neglect, family substance abuse, ongoing marital and family conflict, and history of significant loss, are not addressed. As the standard of care is also to see these kids every three months for brief follow up, these issues can go unaddressed for many years, as the focus of care becomes adjustment of dose and preparation of medication.

The reason this happens is not because these primary care clinicians are unaware of these underlying problems. It is because the burden of care for children with the constellation of the symptoms of dysregulation of attention, behavior, and emotion, that we now call ADHD, falls almost exclusively on their shoulders.

The economic reality of primary care practice, due in large part to the administrative costs of managing a huge array of different health care plans, is that clinicians are under pressure to see more and more patients in less and less time. Add to that the severe shortage of quality mental health care services, and the primary care clinician is really stuck.  The appeal, both for parent and clinician, of a drug that can be very effective in controlling the symptoms of an out-of-control 4-year-old, is understandable.

Whenever I write about this subject, I get a barrage of comments from parents saying things like, "but my child really has ADHD."  Therefore, I want to state clearly that I am referring to a public health problem, not to one specific child. In fact, if the system were not broken, I would not need to be writing all these blog posts about the misuse of the ADHD label. Children who are struggling in the ways I have described would be able to get the care they need.

If a broken health care system is the problem (a problem that extends beyond my level of expertise), what can we do for these symptomatic 4-year-olds?

Here is where a model of preventive mental health care comes in. When a child is symptomatic at 4, it is very likely that the roots of the problem were present at three, two or even in infancy. Recently, after I gave  Dewald lecture at the St Louis Psychoanalytic Institute on this proposed model, I had the opportunity to have breakfast with a group of infant mental health colleagues. We spoke about what we termed "the nice lady (or man) down the hall" model.

A primary care practice would incorporate in to their team a mental health clinician trained to work with young children and parents together. The primary care clinician would have easy access to this clinician, who would work in collaboration with the primary care team. Ideally there would also be  a team of such early childhood mental health specialists, including an occupational therapist.

When children are young, and their brains are rapidly growing, a brief intervention, such as several hour-long visit over a several month period, can go a long way towards placing that child and family on a different developmental path.  It makes sense, both clinical and economic sense, to invest the greatest resources in care for this age group. By the time the child is in school, the problems have become more complex and entrenched.

There has been a lot of work lately on screening for mental health concerns in the 0-5 age population. It is imperative that we develop adequate model of treatment before screening is put in place. If such treatment is not in place first, large scale screening will likely insure that the folks at Pfizer who developed this new liquid form of ADHD medication will do very well.