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.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Rising numbers of kids expelled from preschool and diagnosed with autism: are they linked?

Two alarming news items compete for attention. The first,  a New York Times editorial entitled Giving Up on Four-Year-Olds describes a recent report showing expulsion from preschool as a form of discipline occurring in increasing numbers. A second speaks to the new CDC statistics indicating that 1 in 68 children have autism, a change from 1 in 88 just 5 years ago.

Perhaps both represent a lack of value of space and time for listening, in particular for listening to children and parents. Elizabeth Young-Breuhl might refer to both phenomena as prejudice against children

Each child who is expelled from preschool has a story. Similarly, every child diagnosed with autism has a story. It takes time, and a safe non-judgmental environment to bring these stories to light and so make sense of a child's behavior.

There may be witnessed domestic violence. When  a child lives in fear, he may respond to the "threat" of a child standing too close to him in line by pushing him. A reprimanding voice may lead to escalation of stress and even the development of a "fight-flight reaction." Being sent to the principal's office leads to further disorganization. 

Sensory processing challenges are often prominent. A withdrawal from social interaction makes sense from the perspective of a child who is flooded and overwhelmed by a busy classroom. Crawling under a desk may not be something "wrong" but rather an adaptive response.
Increasingly structured school environments, with little room for variation and high student:teacher ratios may exacerbate both of these problems. 

However, once we have the opportunity to hear the story, what to do to help the child becomes clear. One boy whose behavior had escalated to the point where he was throwing things at the teacher felt calm if he could start the day with a few minutes buried under the plastic balls in the ball pit. Another who would run in circles much of the day discovered music. When she was invited to sing or play an instrument she could sit calmly with the other children. Another family recognized how the level of chaos in the home was particularly problematic given their son's vulnerabilities, and took steps to change that environment.

A recent New York Times article describes a wonderful school program, Head Start Trauma Smart, an example of an innovative program that takes time to listen to the story, make sense of a child's behavior and respond appropriately. In contrast, expelling children for "acting out" may result in a cascade of worsening behavior problems.

The massive rise in autism numbers may reflect a need to name a problem with certainty, rather than taking the time to let the story unfold, to let a child grow in to himself. Perhaps if parents, teachers and clinicians had the opportunity to get a child the help he needs without pressure to name the problem, the numbers would be much lower.

Clearly there are significant differences between these two issues. But an underlying theme emerges. 

Monday, March 24, 2014

Huge increase in ADHD diagnosis in young women a worrisome trend

"I know its my ADHD acting up," a mother of three young children recently said to me as an explanation for her inability to recall a particular piece of information. My observation, in the setting of my behavioral pediatrics practice, of increasing numbers of mothers of young children being diagnosed with ADHD is in keeping with a recent report from Express Scripts. This report, based on pharmacy claims data, showed a 53% rise in writing of prescriptions for ADHD in adults from 2008-2012, with "the largest gains seen in women age 26-34, climbing 85%."

A psychiatrist colleague of mine took this data at face value, saying that "ADHD is genetic" so with the rise in diagnosis in children, it makes perfect sense that there should be a parallel rise in diagnosis in adults. 

But there are big holes in this argument. Certainly problems of regulation of attention, behavior and emotion, that are all called "ADHD," have a familial component. But we are far from identifying a specific genetic cause. These qualities, both in children and adults, represent a complex interplay between genetic vulnerability and environmental effects.  

So how else might we explain this rise in writing of prescriptions for this group, many of whom are young mothers? In today's fast-paced society, parents of young children are often overextended and overwhelmed. In my practice many fathers work very long hours, leaving mothers alone to manage everything. In the absence of extended family this can be highly stressful. Physical activities such as yoga, running or even walking have a calming organizing effect on the brain, but often these mothers are unable to carve out time for themselves during the day. Sleep deprivation has a huge role to play. There is a well-established link between sleep deprivation and symptoms of distractibility, inattention, and hyperactivity. This may be an inevitable part of parenting young children. But often there are ways to improve sleep if parents have the opportunity to make sense of the situation and take the time to fix it. But often there is not this time, so families get stuck in a reactive mode, with a vicious cycle setting in as lack of sleep makes them increasingly less able to think clearly.

I have concerns about this trend of diagnosing and treating ADHD, particularly in this population of young mothers. If we label this behavior as a disorder and prescribe a pill, we are not placing responsibility (blame) squarely on the mother? Do we not have a responsibility as a society to care for mothers to support their efforts to care for the next generation? Will the motivation to find more creative solutions, such as flexible parental leave, and valuing of self-care (the airlines recognize this need in the instruction to adjust your own oxygen mask before your children's) be lost?

These medications are not without harmful effects. About a year ago, a young woman, not a mother but in this age group, wrote poignantly in the New York Times of her struggle with Adderall addiction that took hold in an environment of ever increasing demands for productivity.

I am probably not alone in wondering about an alternative explanation to that of my psychiatrist colleague. Clearly this trend is a boon for the pharmaceutical industry. Could it be that some very clever people in marketing saw an opportunity, and set about selling "Adult ADHD" to both a general and a professional audience? If so, they have certainly been very successful.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Take new smartphone use study with a hefty dose of empathy for parents

A new study documenting the ubiquitous use of smartphones by parents at fast food restaurants with their young children is getting a lot of media attention. From Time magazine there is this headline: " Don't Text While Parenting- It Will Make You Cranky." "Put Down that Cellphone" from NBC. "Parents on Smartphone Ignore Their Kids," from ABC News.

I doubt that anyone is surprised by the findings of this study. People everywhere are on their smartphones all the time. In the arena of parenting, it is important to call attention to the impact of this behavior. There is extensive evidence that face-to-face interaction is critical for healthy emotional development. Mealtime offers an important opportunity for this type of interaction, especially in today's fast-paced culture.

However, I worry about the parent blaming tone of these headlines. Rather than saying, "This is bad, don't do it," perhaps we should be curious about why parents are using smartphones in this way.

One answer lies the increasing recognition of the addictive nature of these devices. Everyone, not just parents in fast food restaurants, is using smartphones all the time. The other may lie in the fact that parents, especially parents of young children, often feel alone, stressed and overwhelmed. Putting these two together and the allure of the screen becomes understandable.

The American Academy of Pediatrics press release states:
The study raises several questions for future research, including ...what are the long-term effects on child development from caregivers who frequently become absorbed with a device while spending time with their children.
I think we already know the answer to this question. I wonder if another important question might read: "How do we support parents in being more fully present with their young children, given the combination of high stress and an easy available, socially acceptable addictive device?"