Welcome to my blog, which speaks to parents, professionals who work with children, and policy makers. I aim to show how contemporary developmental science points us on a path to effective prevention, intervention, and treatment, with the aim of promoting healthy development and wellbeing of all children and families.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Helping New Parents Make Room for Uncertainty

A new program for parents and infants is coming to Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The Hello It’s Me Project shines a spotlight on these tender new relationships, investing resources around the birth of a baby with the long-term goal of building a healthy community from the bottom up. 
When world-renowned child development researcher Dr. Ed Tronick spoke in the spring of 2018 for an audience of a wide variety of practitioners in Berkshire County who work with children and families, he began with a quote from Steven Hawking, “One of the basic rules of the universe is that nothing is perfect. . . .Without imperfection, neither you nor I would exist.”
Perhaps best known for developing the Still Face Paradigm, an experimental manipulation designed to demonstrate the young infant’s tremendous capacity for connection and communication, Dr. Tronick shared his decades of research, revealing not only the inevitability, but also the necessity of imperfection in human interaction.
In contrast to the expectation of a kind of mythical idealized attunement, he found, through detailed microanalysis of interactions in our primary love relationship, that healthy, typical parent-infant interactions are in fact mismatched 70% of the time. Through the repair of these moment-to-moment mismatches we develop sense of agency and hope, a sense that “I can act on my world to make it better.”
Psychologist Dr. Jayne Singer continued the afternoon presentation for the community, sharing the Touchpoints model, developed by Dr. Tronick together with pediatrician T. Berry Brazelton, who passed away in March 2018 at the age of 99.  Touchpoints offers a way to apply the core concept of mismatch and repair beyond infancy in a range of clinical settings.
Pediatricians, early intervention specialists, educators, child protection workers, home visitors, literacy advocates from Berkshire United Way, and others from across Berkshire County engaged in lively discussion. Bringing home the importance of investing in early relationships, Dr. Singer showed a picture of a newborn infant, saying, “This is early literacy.” She encouraged audience members to suspend certainty inherent in being the “expert” and to instead create a space for listening with curiosity.
On the Saturday and Sunday that followed this event, another group gathered for a Newborn Behavioral Observations (NBO) training. While the medical model of care often puts the professional in the role of expert, this intervention seeks to shift that mindset, mobilizing parents’ unique capacity to tune into and respond to their newborn. The 18 neurobehavioral observations of the NBO are not an assessment or evaluation. Rather, they offer a frame in which to support parents’ earliest efforts to get to know their baby.
Community practitioners from a wide variety of disciplines learned from Dr. Claudia Gold and Dr. Kevin Nugent, who developed the NBO, about listening to a baby’s earliest communications. On the second day the group devoted time to thinking together about how to collaborate to provide a holding environment for vulnerable families such as those struggling with opiate addiction. We acknowledged the need to support all families, recognizing the “normative crisis” of the transition to parenthood and the need to destigmatize asking for help.
Dr Gold is collaborating with the Family Birth Center at Fairview Hospital, supporting the efforts of the maternity nurses, who have all been trained, to incorporate the tool into routine care. As Doreen Hutchison, RN, vice president of operations and patient care wisely observed, “We want parents to go home with their baby feeling confident that they know their baby best.”
The Hello It’s Me Project will offer NBO training to all nurses on the Mother-Baby Unit of Berkshire Medical Center with the aim of integrating the NBO into routine care of newborns and their family. Partners in the project include Berkshire Obstetrics and Gynecology where the program will be introduced in the prenatal period. Recognizing critical role of home visiting in promoting health parent-infant relationships the trainings will be offered to Healthy FamiliesPediatric Development Center, and Parents as Teachers, and Berkshire Nursing Families with the aim of integrating the NBO into their respective programs. Recovery coaches in FIRST (Families In Recovery SupporT) Steps Together, a peer recovery and parenting support program for pregnant and parenting women with current or past opioid use disorder, will attend the trainings. The first two of three annual trainings are scheduled for September 2019 and March 2020.
The NBO bring the idea of “play,” with its inherent imperfections, into parent-infant and sibling relationships right from birth. Many parents today are burdened by an expectation of perfection. When we can protect time to listen to parent and baby together, we convey the idea that, in contrast to a “right” way, they will figure things out together. Growth happens through repair of inevitable mistakes we make along the way.

Monday, January 14, 2019

What Exactly is a Toddler Tantrum?

Several years ago NPR had a story about temper tantrums, describing a study showing that the sounds children make during a tantrum indicate that they are primarily sad rather than angry. The written version of the story opens with description of tantrums as " the cause of profound helplessness among parents." 

I thought this was an interesting choice of words, as I have always thought of tantrums as representing a sense of helplessness in children. In fact, in my over 20 years of practicing pediatrics I have told parents that, for the most part, tantrums are a normal healthy phenomenon. They occur when young children emerge for a stage of omnipotence in the first year to recognize that they are relatively powerless. An excerpt from my book describes the phenomenon.

Imagine that your toddler sets his sight on your glasses and declares proudly, “mine.” In an appropriate way, you might calmly say, “No, those are Mommy’s. I need them to see.” Suddenly he is confronted with the fact of his relative smallness and powerlessness. If he happens to be in a particularly vulnerable state, such as before lunch or naptime, he might become enraged that you, his beloved mother, have burst the bubble of his omnipotence. Unable to contain his intense feelings, he might lash out and hit you.
The NPR piece got me thinking that we often describe children's behavior in negative terms, which immediately sets up a relationship of antagonism and confrontation. A colleague of mine, Suzanne Zeedyk, wisely has suggested that we reframe "challenging" behavior as "stressed" behavior. Then the language itself puts us in a position to empathize with the child's perspective. 

The word"defiant" is a perfect example of this negative language. That word(as well as "tantrums") is actually in the title of my book Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums and other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's Eyes. The first part of the title was my doing, as it comes from an important concept in contemporary developmental science. The subtitle was my publisher's doing, but I understand why it was chosen, as this is a common language. Perhaps, however, it is time to rethink that language. 

 I was once asked to do an email interview for a parenting blog about defiance. The interviewer also used the word "impudence," another highly negative word. I suggested that this word projects intentions onto the child that are likely not there. In fact, "defiant" behavior almost always has its origins in a feeling of being out of control. From the child's perspective, his experience is not being recognized or understood. In a way he is not "seen."

Herein lies the explanation of why defiance pushes our buttons. In a sense a parent is having exactly the same experience as the child. He or she is not being "seen" or recognized as an adult deserving of respect. A parent might have had other experiences of not being "seen,” perhaps by a spouse, co-worker or by her own parents, that makes her particularly vulnerable to getting upset about not being “seen” by her child. 

In almost every instance of “defiant" behavior, if one digs a bit below the surface, there is a way the child is also not being seen, or a way in which her experience is not recognized. For a particularly dramatic example, a six-year-old was brought to my practice with a chief complaint of “defiant behavior”. Further history revealed significant trauma in the child’s life. An alcoholic father who had abandoned the child as a toddler had recently been making visits, at which time he was often drunk and very loud. Yet her feelings about visits had not been discussed until they came to see me for “defiant” behavior,” which was worse around bedtime. 

This child began sleeping all night in her bed after a couple of visits with me. We discussed this experience, recognizing her need for her mother's company at bedtime for stories, comfort and reassurance. Once a child feels that he is being seen, that his experience is recognized and understood, the "difficult" behavior often evaporates. 

In general, if there is increasing “defiance” it is important to take a step back and try to understand what feels out of control for the child. It might be that he is very sensitive to loud noises or taste, and battles around "making a scene” at a family outing or being “picky eater” are related to these sensory sensitivities. It might be that there is a new baby and everyone is chronically sleep deprived. Or there may be financial stress or marital conflict. Simply recognizing that these things are difficult for a child and acknowledging his experience, even if the stressors are still there, goes a long way in having a child feel understood, and in turn decreasing “defiant” behavior.

Limits on behavior are essential, and my book goes on to say that the above toddler must be taught that hitting is never OK. But understanding, empathy and managing our own distress are all equally important. Reframing "difficult" behavior as "stressed" behavior is an important first step.