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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Childhood Anxiety: Treating the "What" Rather Than the "Why"

Recently, while studying for my recertification exam as required by the American Board of Pediatrics, using the PREP course offered by the American Academy of Pediatrics, I came across this question:
     A 7-year-old girl is having difficulty establishing relationships with other children despite repeated opportunities to do so. The girl prefers to stay near her mother or her teacher and will avoid other children. She sometimes cries and can be difficult to calm down after being dropped off at school, so her mother frequently remains in the classroom for a few minutes before quietly leaving. On days when morning transitions to school are significantly difficult, her mother will allow her to stay home. Her mother reports that, in preschool, things were worse in that she usually "couldn't" leave her daughter in the classroom. The girl typically speaks little when in public, but she speaks normally when home alone with her mother. She is an only child and the parents are divorced. When the girl spends the weekend at her father’s house, she often expresses worry that something bad is going to happen to her mother. Her mother frequently allows the girl to sleep with her to avoid temper tantrums or nightmares about sleeping alone. Of the following, the BEST next step in this child’s care is  
       A.   Initiate treatment with an SSRI (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor)
B.   Reassure her mother that her daughter’s problems should resolve without intervention
C.   Refer for neuropsychological evaluation to assess for cognitive impairments
D.   Refer her to a cognitive behavior therapist to work on skills for managing her distress
E.    Refer her to a play therapist to assist the child in recognizing the cause of her distress 
The “correct” answer is D- refer her to a mental health specialist to initiate cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). Medication is suggested as a second line of intervention if CBT is not effective. In other words change her behavior, but do not offer opportunity to discover the cause. Play therapy, the only alternative form of therapy suggested, leaves it up to the child and therapist to discover the cause.

What might be the cause of her anxiety? Is her mother depressed? Her father? Is there substance abuse in either parent? Did she observe conflict, perhaps even violence, between her parents in the years preceding their divorce? Is there a family history suggesting a genetic vulnerability for anxiety? Does she have sensory processing challenges that cause her to be overwhelmed in the stimulating classroom? Some combination of all of these?

One child I saw with such symptoms had a mother who lay in bed all day in the wake of a pregnancy loss. This child was terrified that something would happen to her mother while she was in school. 

Perhaps this child’s mother had similar struggles with anxiety as a child. But rather than being met with understanding, she received a slap across the face. She may be terrified that her daughter will suffer as she did. If she is flooded with stress in the face of her daughter’s behavior, she might, without thinking, lash out. Or more likely, as her maternal instinct to protect her child overrides a rage response, she might shut down emotionally. Either way, her child will be alone with these difficult feelings. 

I took care of one child who had been diagnosed with anxiety disorder by her previous pediatrician and came to me to get her prescription refilled. After several hour long visits, some with her alone and some with her mother, I learned that every weekend her father drank heavily, leaving her at the age of eight to care for her two younger brothers.  

Where in the treatment plan recommended by the AAP is there opportunity to uncover such a story? Parents may experience terrible shame about their own behavior. Taking a history, in one visit, that reveals "no psychosocial stressors" is inadequate. Parents share this kind of information when they feel safe. Safety comes in the setting of time and space for nonjudgmental listening.  

One much-cited study compared CBT, SSRI, the two in combination, or placebo. No treatment arm existed for listening to the parent, for discovering the meaning of the behavior.

This child’s behavior is a form of communication. Behavior management, and the close second of medication, serves to silence that communication. When we teach a child skills to manage behavior, the story may be buried, emerging years later, sometimes in the form of serious mental illness

When parents can make sense of a child's behavior,  they are in an ideal position to support that child in managing his or her unique vulnerabilities. In a way, parents are best suited to provide a kind of cognitive behavioral therapy. They can help a child to name feelings,  identify provocative situations and develop strategies to manage these experiences.

By bringing in to awareness the way a child's behavior may provoke their own difficult feelings, and in a sense moving these feelings out of the way, parents can be fully emotionally present with a child in a way that supports healthy emotional development.

When a child is young, there is opportunity to offer support for parents and children together and so alter a child’s developmental path. But when, rather than supporting parent-child relationships, we treat the problem as residing exclusively in the child,  such opportunities are missed.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Time-Out Wars: A Case for Curiosity

Dan Siegel's new book No-Drama Discipline is calling attention to our innate need for connection. In his Time magazine piece provocatively titled Time-Outs Are Hurting Your Child he writes:
The problem is, children have a profound need for connection. Decades of research in attachment demonstrate that particularly in times of distress, we need to be near and be soothed by the people who care for us. But when children lose emotional control, parents often put them in their room or by themselves in the “naughty chair,” meaning that in this moment of emotional distress they have to suffer alone. 
Not surprisingly, his views are causing significant backlash from the pediatric community. This is from the Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics
TIME magazine recently highlighted an editorial by Drs. Daniel J. Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson in their parenting section. In it, the authors claim that the time-honored tradition of time-out for discipline may actually be harming our children as a form of traumatizing experience. This has caused a wave of black lash from the behavioral health community, who retort that Drs. Siegel and Payne Bryson's claims are not only unsupported by research, but show a lack of understanding of proper use of time-out.
Extreme views generate publicity and lots of “hits” A more nuanced view is less popular in social media, as evidenced by this wise blog post on Psychology Today that got a meager 25 tweets:
To me, “time-ins” don’t solve it. But the concept does expose a nuance of giving time-outs that we don’t talk about enough. Namely, there’s a massive difference between giving your child a time out in anger and giving your child a time out in a loving, calm way. Too often we apply the technique, but not the spirit of technique. Time-outs are meant to deescalate a volatile situation and to help our children regain control, as much as they are to provide a consequence for unruly behavior.
The essence of Dan Siegel’s point is not to leave a child alone with out-of-control feelings. It is not the time out per se but rather the sense of abandonment that is potentially harmful. I articulate this point in a previous post entitled Never Leave a Child Alone During a Meltdown.
When a child is repeatedly abandoned both physically and emotionally in the middle of a meltdown, that experience in itself may be traumatic. In such a situation frequency and intensity of meltdowns often worsens.
A recent American Academy of Pediatrics document Bringing Out the Best in Your Child makes the important distinction between discipline, which means to teach, and punishment, which is rarely effective in changing behavior in a positive way. For young children, a matter-of-fact time out in the face of biting or hitting can help to teach them that this behavior is unacceptable. The shortcoming of this document is that it is very focused on the behavior, rather than the meaning of the behavior.

Taking time to listen to our child, and to take care of ourselves, is key. Rather than an either-or approach, a stance of wondering, of curiosity, will lead to the answer of “what to do.” We might ask the question, why is my child feeling out-of-control? Is he stressed from fatigue or hunger? Is he responding to tension in the home from marital conflict, a new sibling, or a parent’s new job with long hours? And what about my child’s behavior is provoking such anger, anxiety or some other intense response in me? Is it my fear that he will suffer as I did as a child with similar challenges? Is it my embarrassment, or even worse, shame, that I am not a good parent? Am I feeling alone and abandoned myself, by a spouse or parent, and so unable to tolerate my child’s need for me? When parents feel recognized and understood, they are better able to listen to their child. They are better able to connect with their natural intuition. They know "what to do."

Our ability to find meaning in behavior is essential to our humanity. Listening, being present in a way that supports connection, leads to healthy development. It is not so much about “what to do” as “how to be.” We are a culture of advice and quick fixes. Dr. Siegel's book is rich with important information and ideas. However, perhaps rather than spending precious free time reading another "how-to" parenting guide, taking a walk with a friend or going to a yoga class might be a better use of parents' all-too-limited time for themselves.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Antipsychotics for ADHD: A Big Unknown

Polypharmacy, or use of multiple psychiatric drugs, for treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder(ADHD) is on the rise. A recent study compared treatment with "basic therapy"-stimulants plus parent training- with "augmented therapy" those two plus risperidone, an atypical antipsychotic. The study concluded that treatment with risperidone was "superior." 

When children show dramatic improvements in behavior on risperidone, now being prescribed with increasing frequency for ADHD and a range of other disorders that represent difficulty with emotional regulation, we need to ask ourselves one question. Does this change in behavior represent increased capacity for organization and self-regulation, or does it reflect a kind of compliance?

We have over 40 years of longitudinal research in developmental psychology showing that safe, secure relationships support development of the capacity for emotional regulation, cognitive resourcefulness and social adaptation. We have evidence from the field of epigenetics that these relationships, through changes to gene expression, change the structure and function of the brain.
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When children struggle with emotional and behavioral regulation, many evidence-based interventions can support development of these capacities. These include child-parent psychotherapy, DIR floortime, the Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics, and mentalization based treatment.  These relationship-based interventions foster our innate need for connection.

The mechanism of action of risperidone is to block dopamine receptors in the cortex. We do not know what changes in the lower regulatory centers of the brain, if any, are occurring. It is possible that these centers remain dysregulated, and that this dysregulated signal is blocked by the medication. The antipsychotic might promote compliance, with improvement in behavior, but the underlying disorganization might remain. If that is the case, then the medication is not changing the brain in the way that we know relationships can change the brain.

This is an important question to answer. It goes well beyond the known significant side effects of antipsychotics. For when medication is so effective at controlling behavior, the motivation for investing time and effort in relationship-based interventions may be lost. Prescribing medication takes much less time. With atypical antipsychotics the results are often immediate, and can be dramatic.

If risperidone is found to significantly alter the brain’s capacity for emotional regulation, then it might have a role to play. But if it does not, and we have well-established methods of intervention that do, then the possibility exists that by prescribing this medication to children, particularly in the absence of relationship-based interventions, we are actively interfering in their development. 

I am hopeful that all professionals who strive to promote healthy development in children can work to answer this question in a timely manner.