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Alex's Wake: Trauma, Creativity, and Healing

Posted by Claudia M Gold April 22, 2014 12:57 PM

Martin Goldsmith's new book, Alex's Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance is at one level a history lesson as memoir. It offers a view of the horrors of the Holocaust from a deeply personal perspective. Goldsmith describes a six week journey with his wife in 2011 to follow the path of his grandfather Alex and uncle Helmut. Revisiting the locations where they lived, he describes the transformation from a life of prosperity and success, through the early years of Hitler's regime, to their ill-fated voyage aboard the SS St Louis where the promise of freedom in Cuba ended in return to France, and eventually to a final demise at Auschwitz.

The book also reads as demonstration of the healing power of story telling, and of the transformation of terrible loss in to great beauty. The book has its origin in tragedy, as the death of the author's father is followed less that a year later by the sudden death of his brother. Goldsmith writes:

Exactly eleven months later, on March 30, 2010, I received the shocking inexplicable news that my brother had died. A once brilliant student at Stanford University...Peter had in recent years been struck low by physical ailments and a profound depression that, I am sure, was exacerbated by the long-standing family guilt and shame. Now he was gone, quickly felled by a heart attack. He was 60.
The guilt and shame to which he refers is connected to his own father's untold history; the story of how his father and brother, Goldsmith's grandfather and uncle, were left behind to experience a brutal and gruesome end. In the wake of the loss of his own father and brother, Goldsmith finds himself driven to tell that story before his own 60th birthday.

Both Goldsmith's parents escaped Nazi Germany, a story he tells in his previous book, The Indistinguishable Symphony. But his grandfather and uncle were left behind, despite desperate letters of appeal.
There were reasons aplenty why every effort under the sun might have failed to win his family's freedom, but the inescapable fact remains that Alex begged his son to save his life and my father failed to do so.
Goldsmith's parents never spoke of this early history, a fact he understands as an effort to protect him and his brother from the truth. He describes the experience of growing up in that silence:
The guilt that my father carried he passed on to my brother, Peter, and me as our emotional inheritance...How little they suspected that, even without words, we could feel and absorb the unspoken pain that circulated like dust in the air of our home, and how much we were aware of the darkness, the enormous unknown yet deeply felt secret that obscured the light of truth. 
Goldsmith is motivated by his own loss to follow a different path from his father and brother. He sets off on this journey of discovery. As such loss is transformed in to creativity.

Many reviews focus on the fascinating history revealed in the book, particularly the terrible, but less well recognized, maltreatment of Jews in France during World War II. I found myself drawn to the story of the two Goldsmith brothers. One lost his way, eventually succumbing to depression and ill health. The other, I hope, found his way to health, in part through the very book I am writing about.

I well understand how those who directly experienced the horror of the Holocaust may be too close to speak about, much less mourn their loss. It may be for them, in a sense, unmournable.  It is left to the next generation, inheriting not only their loss, but also their strength, to tell their story.

Goldsmith's father denied his Jewish heritage. Goldsmith writes:
 And there was no acknowledgement that we were Jews, despite that being the singular reason for our family's violent dismemberment. When I, as a teenager, discovered our religious roots, my father dismissed it all by declaring that we were, at most, "so-called Jews," He did not choose to regard himself as a Jew despite the unavoidable fact that he'd been bar mitzvahed, that his parents were both Jews..."Adolf Hitler thought I was a Jew, so I had no choice. I choose to exercise that choice now. I am not a Jew," he said.
Yet Goldsmith finds his way to his Jewish identity, resonating on a profound level with the Kol Nidre prayer of Yom Kippur and eventually being Bar Mitzvah'd himself at the age of 55.

At one point in his journey Goldsmith discovers a memorial etched with the words of the Talmud, "Who Saves One Life Saves the Entire Universe." Knowing how this untold story may have been instrumental in Goldsmith's brother's death, one can view this book as an effort to save his own life. This brings to mind yet another Jewish concept, Tikkun Olam, which refers to humanity's shared responsibility to "heal the world." With the writing of Alex's Wake, Goldsmith has done his part.
Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

“Alex's Wake” Story of Trauma, Creativity, and Healing

Posted by Claudia M Gold April 22, 2014 12:57 PM

alex's wake.jpegMartin Goldsmith's new book, Alex's Wake: A Voyage of Betrayal and a Journey of Remembrance is at one level a history lesson as memoir. It offers a view of the horrors of the Holocaust from a deeply personal perspective. Goldsmith describes a six week journey with his wife in 2011 to follow the path of his grandfather Alex and uncle Helmut. Revisiting the locations where they lived, he describes the transformation from a life of prosperity and success, through the early years of Hitler's regime, to their ill-fated voyage aboard the SS St Louis where the promise of freedom in Cuba ended in return to France, and eventually to a final demise at Auschwitz.

The book also reads as demonstration of the healing power of story telling, and of the transformation of terrible loss in to great beauty. The book has its origin in tragedy, as the death of the author's father is followed less that a year later by the sudden death of his brother. Goldsmith writes:

Exactly eleven months later, on March 30, 2010, I received the shocking inexplicable news that my brother had died. A once brilliant student at Stanford University...Peter had in recent years been struck low by physical ailments and a profound depression that, I am sure, was exacerbated by the long-standing family guilt and shame. Now he was gone, quickly felled by a heart attack. He was 60.
The guilt and shame to which he refers is connected to his own father's untold history; the story of how his father and brother, Goldsmith's grandfather and uncle, were left behind to experience a brutal and gruesome end. In the wake of the loss of his own father and brother, Goldsmith finds himself driven to tell that story before his own 60th birthday.

Both Goldsmith's parents escaped Nazi Germany, a story he tells in his previous book, The Indistinguishable Symphony. But his grandfather and uncle were left behind, despite desperate letters of appeal.
There were reasons aplenty why every effort under the sun might have failed to win his family's freedom, but the inescapable fact remains that Alex begged his son to save his life and my father failed to do so.
Goldsmith's parents never spoke of this early history, a fact he understands as an effort to protect him and his brother from the truth. He describes the experience of growing up in that silence:
The guilt that my father carried he passed on to my brother, Peter, and me as our emotional inheritance...How little they suspected that, even without words, we could feel and absorb the unspoken pain that circulated like dust in the air of our home, and how much we were aware of the darkness, the enormous unknown yet deeply felt secret that obscured the light of truth. 
Goldsmith is motivated by his own loss to follow a different path from his father and brother. He sets off on this journey of discovery. As such loss is transformed in to creativity.

Many reviews focus on the fascinating history revealed in the book, particularly the terrible, but less well recognized, maltreatment of Jews in France during World War II. I found myself drawn to the story of the two Goldsmith brothers. One lost his way, eventually succumbing to depression and ill health. The other, I hope, found his way to health, in part through the very book I am writing about.

I well understand how those who directly experienced the horror of the Holocaust may be too close to speak about, much less mourn their loss. It may be for them, in a sense, unmournable.  It is left to the next generation, inheriting not only their loss, but also their strength, to tell their story.

Goldsmith's father denied his Jewish heritage. Goldsmith writes:
 And there was no acknowledgement that we were Jews, despite that being the singular reason for our family's violent dismemberment. When I, as a teenager, discovered our religious roots, my father dismissed it all by declaring that we were, at most, "so-called Jews," He did not choose to regard himself as a Jew despite the unavoidable fact that he'd been bar mitzvahed, that his parents were both Jews..."Adolf Hitler thought I was a Jew, so I had no choice. I choose to exercise that choice now. I am not a Jew," he said.
Yet Goldsmith finds his way to his Jewish identity, resonating on a profound level with the Kol Nidre prayer of Yom Kippur and eventually being Bar Mitzvah'd himself at the age of 55.

At one point in his journey Goldsmith discovers a memorial etched with the words of the Talmud, "Who Saves One Life Saves the Entire Universe." Knowing how this untold story may have been instrumental in Goldsmith's brother's death, one can view this book as an effort to save his own life. This brings to mind yet another Jewish concept, Tikkun Olam, which refers to humanity's shared responsibility to "heal the world." With the writing of Alex's Wake, Goldsmith has done his part.
Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

Antipsychotics for foster care kids with ADHD?

Posted by Claudia M Gold April 15, 2014 12:34 PM

A recent study, one that received relatively scant media attention (compared with a concurrent New York Times piece about a new psychiatric diagnosis termed "sluggish cognitive tempo" that may be the "new ADHD") showed that antipsychotics are being prescribed to nearly one third of kids (age 2-17) in foster care who are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD.)

This disturbing statistic brought to mind a common complaint I hear from parents about putting on shoes to go out of the house. A child will dawdle, ignoring multiple requests. The situation will escalate to the point where the parent becomes increasingly angry and frustrated, and the child descends in to an all out tantrum.

This kind of scene likely plays out in some form in every household with a young child. It can be useful to keep in mind as we aim to understand why a child who is in foster care might exhibit behavior that calls for bringing out these pharmaceutical big guns.

While there is a range of reasons for a child to be in foster care, one can assume that there has at minimum been some experience of trauma and loss. This might include physical and/or emotional abuse.

Research in the field of developmental psychology and attachment offers a way to understand this situation. Young children inevitably have tantrums. It is a normal healthy part of development. But if a caregiver herself has a history of trauma, her child's behavior may, as they say, "push her buttons." She may become flooded with stress in the face of her child's acting out. Unable to think clearly, she may respond with behavior that is either frightened or frightening. She may either become overwhelmed with rage, or shut down emotionally. In the language of psychology this is termed "dissociation." For the child, it is as if his caregiver suddenly isn't there. In this situation, the child learns to recognize his own emotional distress as a signal for abandonment.

Now put this same child in foster care and ask him to put his shoes on to go outside. What starts out as a "typical" parent-child interaction can quickly descend in to wildly uncontrollable behavior. I've heard parents who have adopted kids out of trauma say, "its like he's not even there." When the child was in this kind of situation with an abusing caregiver, he might, in a way that is in fact adaptive, responded to her dissociation with his own form of dissociation. Now he has learned that behavior. But out of context, in foster care with a non-abusing caregiver, it may look "crazy."

When this kind of "not listening" extends to other arenas, it may be reframed as "not paying attention."  This behavior often occurs together with the impulsivity. Impulsivity literally means to act without thinking. An inability to think in the face of strong emotions, as I describe in my book Keeping Your Child in Mind, can also be understood as part of the trauma, of not having been held in mind by caregivers early in development.  With problems of both inattention and impulsitivity the child may, according checklists commonly used to make the diagnosis, earn the ADHD label.

Perhaps this is how kids in foster care end up on antipsychotic medication for ADHD.

But by taking this path, we are essentially putting a muzzle on the child. The child's behavior is a form of communication. It says, "I have never learned how to manage myself in the face of life's inevitable frustrations." Rather than silence him with a powerful drug, that is well known to have serious side effects, we need to listen to that communication.

The first step is to recognize the meaning of the behavior. Once caregivers understand the "why" of the behavior, they can better support the child's efforts to regulate himself in the face of frustration. At first this might be in a very physical way. For example he might need to be held in a firm and loving embrace. Or he might need to run around the room. Or hit a punching bag. He might need a soft and gentle voice rather than a harsh and angry one. As a child gets older, regulating activities like dance, theater and martial arts can have a significant role to play. Once a child has developed the capacity to regulate his body in the face of distress, he can begin, perhaps in the setting of psychotherapy, to give words to his experience.

But if we simply silence him with medication, all of this opportunity for growth and healthy development may be lost.



Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

Foster kids increasingly prescribed antipsychotics for ADHD

Posted by Claudia M Gold April 15, 2014 12:34 PM

A recent study, one that received relatively scant media attention (compared with a concurrent New York Times piece about a new psychiatric diagnosis termed "sluggish cognitive tempo" that may be the "new ADHD") showed that antipsychotics are being prescribed to nearly one third of kids (age 2-17) in foster care who are diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD.)

FULL ENTRY

Autism: difference or disorder?

Posted by Claudia M Gold April 10, 2014 11:45 AM

About 2 years ago, when the change in diagnostic criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder proposed for DSM 5 was in the news, I wrote a blog post about the problem of giving children a diagnostic label in order to "get services covered" by insurance. An irate reader, himself a well know speaker and advocate for people with Autism and Asperger's, wrote a blog post in response, in which he said, "Dr.Gold simply does not understand that Autism is not a psychiatric disorder."

In the wake of the recent CDC statistics indicating that 1 in 68 children has autism, and the designation of April as autism awareness month, I have been thinking about this dilemma a great deal. For this young man and I were really exactly on the same page. Both of us were calling for a respect for and value of uniqueness and differentness.

This perspective was again beautifully articulated in a TED talk by Andrew Solomon, author of Far From the Tree. In an in-depth discussion of a range of entities including homosexuality, deafness, as well as autism, Solomon identifies the power of unconditional love in the context of complete acceptance of individual differences.

While I fundamentally agree with the perspective of these two men, my mind stumbles on these facts. The DSM 5 is the fifth version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. The CDC is the Center for Disease Control. So much as we may want to think of autism as a celebration of individual differences, the prevailing view is that it is a disorder.

Solomon suggests that by hoping a child does not have autism, a parent is saying that she wishes this child did not exist and that she had a different child. I see the exact opposite. The parents I see who are in this position unconditionally love their child for who he is. They are motivated to make sense of his experience and give him space to grow in to himself.

While there is emerging evidence of the role genetic and neurobiological mechanisms in the behaviors collectively referred to as autism, it is not a know biological entity in the way, for example, diabetes is.

One little girl I worked with ran around in circles at preschool and repeated letters in nonsensical patterns. There was a strong family history of both anxiety and "quirky" behavior. She was easily overwhelmed by a range of sensory inputs.  Her mother would herself become overwhelmed in the face of her child's struggles as she recalled her own difficult childhood. Another little boy endlessly repeated whole scenes of dialogue from Disney movies. He ate only 3 different foods for the first 7 years of his life. His parents fought frequently about his challenging behavior, which usually caused it to escalate.

For both these children the diagnosis of autism was raised. But both sets of parents resisted. When they addressed the child's unique qualities as well as the environmental stresses that contributed to the problematic behavior, dramatic changes occurred. Both are now teenagers. The first is a talented actress, singer and musician. The second is a chef. Both have active and successful social lives. One view is that they "outgrew" autism. Another is that they were they given space and time to grow into themselves.

It the first five years of life there are major changes in the brain, changes that occur in the context of relationships.  We are now recognizing that changes occur not only in brain structure, but in genes and gene expression as well. It is a work in progress.

These children and families do benefit significantly from help. This may be in the form of a special preschool placement, occupational therapy, family therapy or other interventions that can set these children on a healthy path of development. In order to get these services, a diagnosis is often necessary. This is an example of the tail wagging the dog.

The massive rise in diagnosis of autism indicates that something is amiss. I wonder if that "something" is that in our fast-paced society we rarely take the time to listen to the story, to let meaning unfold. There is a need for an "answer." There is a lack of tolerance for uncertainty.

When a child is young, when his "true self" is emerging, supporting parents efforts to "hang in there" without the need to name, to label, to diagnose, may give these young children the best opportunity to transform what in early childhood may be challenges and vulnerabilities in to adaptive assets and strengths.

Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

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

Posted by Claudia M Gold March 31, 2014 10:06 PM
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. FULL ENTRY

Huge increase in ADHD diagnosis in young women a worrisome trend

Posted by Claudia M Gold March 24, 2014 12:35 PM

"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.

Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

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

Posted by Claudia M Gold March 10, 2014 12:13 PM

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?"
Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

Legal marijuana, antidepressants, and the danger of not listening

Posted by Claudia M Gold February 28, 2014 12:52 PM

 A popular blog post Why I Tried to Kill Myself at Penn is making its way around the college-age crowd. The author calls attention a high-stress a culture that does not value listening.

During my sophomore year at Penn, I tried to kill myself by swallowing a bottle of Wellbutrin. I spent 4 days in the hospital.
Penn’s response? – Sending some administrator to see me in the hospital (HUP). The first and only thing that she said was, “Are we going to make this an annual pattern?” because I had been hospitalized the year before. I said “No” and she gave me her business card.
After suicides, everyone laments, “Why didn’t they talk?” Often, we did. People just didn’t want to listen, because in the moment it was easier for everyone if you put on a smile and pretended to be okay.
A parent recently described calling the emergency student support services when she was worried about her son's emotional state during his first semester at college. After a five minute conversation, she was told by the person who responded to her call, " We can make an appointment with the psychiatrist to see if he needs medication."

I thought about these two stories when a study, a survey of 1,829 people being prescribed antidepressants, was released showing a much higher than expected rate of serious psychological side effects:
Over half of people aged 18 to 25 in the study reported suicidal feelings and in the total sample there were large percentages of people suffering from 'sexual difficulties' (62%) and 'feeling emotionally numb' (60%). Percentages for other effects included: 'feeling not like myself' (52%), 'reduction in positive feelings' (42%), 'caring less about others' (39%) and 'withdrawal effects' (55%). However, 82% reported that the drugs had helped alleviate their depression. 
Professor Read concluded: "While the biological side-effects of antidepressants, such as weight gain and nausea, are well documented, psychological and interpersonal issues have been largely ignored or denied. They appear to be alarmingly common."
Psychiatric medication side effects are a double-edged sword. The first, that receives the most, though as indicated by this study insufficient, attention is from the medication itself. But the second, and equally if not more serious, is the way prescribing of psychiatric medication becomes a replacement for listening.

What makes us human is our ability to empathize. Drawing from both Buddhism and psychoanalysis, the "presence of mind" of another person is responsible for therapeutic healing. "Being with," "bearing witness," are other phrases that describe this phenomenon. When we jump to a pill we run the risk of skipping this step. If the medication itself also has psychological side effects, it is not surprising that, in combination with feeling alone and unrecognized, a person might attempt suicide.

Psychiatric medication may be necessary when an individual is unable to function without it. Ideally such a determination is made in the setting of both psychotherapy and self-regulating activites such as yoga or meditation. But that is not the way these medications are used. Because they can be so effective at eliminating distress in the short term, our fast-paced, quick-fix culture makes them very appealing, almost irresistible.

I decided to include the topic of legalization of marijuana in this post as a kind of cautionary tale. In California cannabis is commonly prescribed to treat anxiety. Psychiatric diagnoses and drug prescribing are often based on symptoms alone, as is well captured in this amusing though disturbing anecdote from a Psychology Today post by psychologist Jonathan Shendler:

During my first week as a psychiatry department faculty member, a fourth-year psychiatry resident—I will call her Gabrielle—staffed a case with me. She gave me some demographic information about her patient (38, White, female) and then proceeded to list the medications she was prescribing. The rest of our conversation went something like this:“What are we treating her for?” "Anxiety." "How do we understand her anxiety?"Gabrielle cocked her head to the side with a blank, non-comprehending look, as though I had spoken a foreign language. I rephrased the question.“What do you think is making your patient anxious?”She cocked her head to the other side. I rephrased again.“What is causing her anxiety?"
Gabrielle thought for a moment and then brightened. “She has Generalized Anxiety Disorder.”“Generalized anxiety disorder is not the cause of her anxiety,” I said. “That is the term we use to describe her anxiety. I am asking you to think about what is making your patient anxious.”She cocked her head again.“What is going on psychologically?”Psychologically?”
“Yes, psychologically.”There was a pause while Gabrielle processed the question. Finally she said, “I don’t think it’s psychological, I think it’s biological.”

As we are on the cusp of general legalization of marijuana (that I do not oppose) it becomes imperative that psychiatric medications not replace listening. It is essential that we protect time and space for being present, for curiosity, for empathy. Otherwise we are simply offering another way, and one that is not without side effects itself, to devalue the role of human relationships in healing.

Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

ADHD, bipolar disorder and the DSM: A need for uncertainty?

Posted by Claudia M Gold February 16, 2014 08:05 PM
A recent article in the New Republic, provocatively titled “ADHD Does Not Exist,” starts out well enough. The author, a psychiatrist with “over 50 years experience” points to the fact that ADHD describes a collection of symptoms, rather than their underlying cause. Using stimulants to control these symptoms, he argues, is analogous to prescribing pain medication for cardiac chest pain rather than addressing the underlying circulatory problem.  But my antennae went up when he applied his views to a case, and concluded that his patient, a 12-year-old-boy, was misdiagnosed with ADHD, when in fact he had bipolar disorder. My level of alarm rose when he went on to describe his treatment:
In William’s case, the family agreed to try medication first without psychotherapy, to see what kind of impact the pharmaceutical treatment could have. The first medication we tried, an anti-seizure drug commonly prescribed for bipolar disorder, reduced the boy’s mood and behavioral symptoms dramatically but resulted in side effects including upset stomach and dizziness. We started William on lithium, and within two months we found a dosage that worked well for him, reducing his symptoms to very mild levels, with no significant side effects.
There is no mention of developmental history or family relationships. There is no exploration of the context in which these symptoms occur, and certainly no evidence that William’s experience being bounced from medication to medication is being considered.  Dr. Saul in essence replaces one treatment of symptoms without determining the underlying cause with another treatment of symptoms without addressing the underlying cause.

The author points to a strong family history of bipolar disorder to support his diagnosis. Statistics from the National Institute of Mental Health indicate that when a parent or sibling has bipolar disorder, a child is up to six times more likely to develop the illness.

But when it comes to an individual child and family, not only are statistics meaningless, but they may also preclude exploration of the underlying cause of the child’s symptoms. These symptoms are usually due to a complex interplay of biology and environment. Statistics do not speak to the effect of early intervention in decreasing the risk. 

Consider Jacob, a five-year-old boy I saw recently in my behavioral pediatrics practice. He was adopted, and two biological relatives had bipolar disorder. A pediatrician, his adoptive parents and a neurologist suspected that he too had the disorder. But with space and time to hear the story, the following emerged.

Jacob had been an easy baby. Then when he was about two, he experienced a number of significant losses. A foster child with whom he was very close was removed from the home because of behavior problems. Just weeks after his adoptive mother, Alice, learned she was pregnant, her sister died suddenly of a cerebral hemorrhage. Jacob’s maternal grandmother, in the face of the loss of her own daughter, threw herself in to caring for Jacob’s baby sister. 

Jacob’s mother wept in my office as she spoke of her own loss, not only of her sister, but also of her mother who withdrew in the face of her grief. Shortly after these events, Jacob’s behavior problems began in earnest. He became alternatively clingy and aggressive. When I saw the family, no one had slept through the night for a long time.

Jacob might very well have a biological vulnerability to emotional dysregulation inherited from his parents who carried the bipolar label. But multiple losses, subsequent disruptions in attachment relationships, sleep disruption, and other factors had significant roles to play in development of his symptoms. Had he, like William, been prescribed medication for his symptoms, this story, and the meaning of his behavior, would not have been heard. For every child I see in my practice, there is a story, often equally complex, behind the symptoms. 

Rather than offer time and space for the nuances, complexities and uncertainties of human behavior and relationships, the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) paradigm, with its diagnoses of disorders based on symptoms, often followed by prescribing of medication, creates an aura of certainty, as in “you have X and the treatment is Y.” But there is virtually no evidence of any known biological processes corresponding to either ADHD or bipolar disorder (or any other DSM diagnoses, for that matter.) This certainty implied in the giving of a diagnosis and prescribing of medication has a kind of comfort, but also a real danger. There is no room for curiosity, for wonder, for not knowing.  Jacob’s behavior was a form of communication. Giving medication to control his behavior is in effect a silencing of that communication.

A recent New York Times article, “The Dangers of Certainty,” addresses this issue in a very different context. The author describes how he was profoundly influenced by the 1973 BBC documentary series, “The Ascent of Man,” hosted by Dr. Jacob Bronowski. The article describes an episode in which Bronowski discusses Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle.  
Dr. Bronowski’s 11th essay took him to the ancient university city of Göttingen in Germany, to explain the genesis of Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle in the hugely creative milieu that surrounded the physicist Max Born in the 1920s. Dr. Bronowski insisted that the principle of uncertainty was a misnomer, because it gives the impression that in science (and outside of it) we are always uncertain. But this is wrong. Knowledge is precise, but that precision is confined within a certain toleration of uncertainty….Dr. Bronowski thought that the uncertainty principle should therefore be called the principle of tolerance. Pursuing knowledge means accepting uncertainty. ..In the everyday world, we do not just accept a lack of ultimate exactitude with a melancholic shrug, but we constantly employ such inexactitude in our relations with other people. Our relations with others also require a principle of tolerance. We encounter other people across a gray area of negotiation and approximation. Such is the business of listening and the back and forth of conversation and social interaction. 
As he eloquently put it, “Human knowledge is personal and responsible, an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty.”The relationship between humans and nature and humans and other humans can take place only within a certain play of tolerance. Insisting on certainty, by contrast, leads ineluctably to arrogance and dogma based on ignorance.
The episode takes a dark turn when the scene shifts to Auschwitz, where many members of Bonowski’s family were murdered. The article’s author, a professor of philosophy at the New School, offers this interpretation:
The pursuit of scientific knowledge is as personal an act as lifting a paintbrush or writing a poem, and they are both profoundly human. If the human condition is defined by limitedness, then this is a glorious fact because it is a moral limitedness rooted in a faith in the power of the imagination, our sense of responsibility and our acceptance of our fallibility. We always have to acknowledge that we might be mistaken. When we forget that, then we forget ourselves and the worst can happen. 
I can already hear the shouts of outrage that I dare to compare mental health care with Nazism. Having grandparents who survived a concentration camp, I know well that this is a highly fraught subject. But of course that is not what I am doing. I am simply pointing to this article as a beautiful articulation of the value of uncertainty, especially in the context of understanding human behavior.


Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

Lessons from Atticus: is "ADHD" a problem of not listening?

Posted by Claudia M Gold February 6, 2014 12:25 PM

Recently I reviewed my son's high school essay on To Kill A Mockingbird. I was surprised and pleased to rediscover, or perhaps discover for the first time now that I was viewing it from the perspective of over 50 years of life experience, the profound wisdom of the book.

In one of the novel's most famous quotes, Atticus tell his daughter Scout, "you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb in his skin and walk around in it."

I now understand this as a description of the essence of being human, namely the capacity to be curious about the meaning of another person's behavior. Peter Fonagy, whose research has shown how the development of this capacity is intimately linked to healthy emotional development, argues, in a way analogous to Bowlby's description of attachment behavior, that this capacity has evolutionary significance, and is essential to survival. My book Keeping Your Child in Mind presents this research for a general audience, showing its application to parenting.

I wonder if our current epidemic of "ADHD" is related to having lost sight of this essential human quality.  The most common phrases I hear from parents who come to my office with concerns of problems of inattention and  impulsivity are, "he never listens," followed by "tell me what to do to make him listen."

Perhaps ADHD is a problem of not listening. But it is the adults who are not listening to each other. In our fast-paced, technology driven age, we rarely take the time to listen to each other, to put ourselves in another person's skin.

When Scout comes home from her first day of school upset with the teacher, her father tells her, "she's new too." He is helping Scout to understand her teacher's perhaps impatient behavior from a different point of view, to appreciate that the teacher herself may have been stressed and overwhelmed.

Recently parents of 4-year-old Sam, who was having problems of impulsivity in the classroom, spent a good portion of our visit expressing anger at his teacher, who they were convinced just didn't like their child. But with a full hour, and a quiet space to tell the story, they came to recognize that just as they could get overwhelmed at times by their son's behavior, so could the teacher be overwhelmed. Perhaps she felt defensive when the parents got angry, as she was trying her best in less than ideal classroom setting, with a low teacher: student ratio.

In turn, with the parents and teacher listening to each other and not behaving defensively, they could reach a new level of understanding of what set Sam off, and to develop strategies both at home and in school to help him to feel calm.

I wonder if the current epidemic of what we call "ADHD" represents a loss of this capacity to put ourselves in another person's skin. I have had the pleasure of an email exchange with the New York Times journalist Alan Schwartz, whose multiple superb article, most recently The Selling of ADHD, have served to bring the subject to the forefront of public discourse. I am hopeful that he will help us to see the big picture, rather than to place blame.

I have wondered in conversation with him if the whole phenomenon of "ADHD" is itself a symptom of larger social ills, particularly in the education and health care systems as well as the medical education system. People, including parents, teachers, pediatricians and mental health professionals, are feeling overwhelmed and not heard.

The large scale medication of a whole generation of children has potential serious and profound long-term effects. These include the silencing of children whose symptoms represent complex underlying problems, as well as abuse of stimulant medication by high school and college students.

We will never go back to the slow pace depicted in the 1960 novel, where there are large expanses of time to listen. But we need to be very careful not to give it up completely. For it does take space and time to put yourself in another person's skin. If that is the essence of what makes us human, we need to value that space and time.



Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

Music and mental health: a tribute to Pete Seeger

Posted by Claudia M Gold January 28, 2014 04:28 PM

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.

Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

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

Posted by Claudia M Gold January 16, 2014 01:10 PM

"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.


Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

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

Posted by Claudia M Gold January 10, 2014 01:16 PM


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 the  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.


Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

ADHD, the aggressive child and the elephant in the room

Posted by Claudia M Gold December 30, 2013 10:01 PM

(Three recent news items lead me to republish a post that predated my Boston.com days. The first is a new study showing that antipsychotics and stimulants can be used together in treatment of aggression associated with ADHD. The second is a recent New York Times article, The Selling of Attention Deficit Disorder, the third an article from today's New York Times: ADHD Experts Re-evaluate Study's Zeal for Drugs. I am hopeful that 2014 will be  a year of radical rethinking about what we now call "ADHD.")

In the Tony award winning play God of Carnage two couples meet in an elegant living room for an ostensibly civilized conversation about the aggressive act of one couple’s child against the other’s. The meeting soon degenerates to reveal the underbelly of conflict in the two marriages. Husband and wife hurl insults, precious items and even themselves with escalating rage. We see, as they attempt in vain to focus on the children’s behavior, the proverbial “elephant in the room.” 

It brought to mind another depiction of the nature of the elephant, presented by the pharmaceutical industry. A recent issue of The Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics features prominently a two page ad from Shire, makers of drugs commonly used for treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). A mother and her son sit at the desk of a doctor in a white coat. Behind them is a large elephant draped in a red blanket on which is printed the words, “resentful, defiant, angry.” The ad recommends that these symptoms, in addition to the more common symptoms of inattention and hyperactivity, should be addressed. This is the message: doctors should be treating these symptoms with medication.

From my vantage point of over 20 years of practicing pediatrics, where I sit on the floor, not in a white coat, and play with children, I believe that the play’s depiction of the nature of the elephant is much more accurate and meaningful than that of the pharmaceutical industry. In the play the elephant is the environment of rage and conflict in which the aggression occurs, while in the ad the elephant is the child’s symptom. Consider these two stories from my pediatric practice (with details changed to protect privacy.)

Everything was a battle with six year old Mark. Though I asked both parents to come to the visit, Mom came alone. She was furious.”Tell me what to do to make him listen.” We had a full hour visit, and as she began to relax, she shared a story of constant vicious fighting between herself and her husband. Mark, who had been playing calmly and quietly, took a marker and slowly and deliberately made a black smudge on the yellow wall. His mother was too distracted by her own distress to stop him. I said, “You cannot draw on the wall, but maybe you are upset about what we are talking about.” He came and sat on his mother’s lap. She reluctantly revealed her suspicion that his angry behavior was a reflection of the rage he experienced at home. She agreed to get help for her marriage, and Mark’s behavior gradually began to improve.

Jane’s parents became alarmed when her aggressive behavior began to spill over into school. Her third grade teacher told them that not only was she distracted and fidgety, but she seemed increasingly angry. At our second visit, Dad became tearful as he described his cruel and abusive father. He acknowledged being overwhelmed with rage at Jane when she didn’t listen. He yelled at her and threatened her. He longed for a positive role model to learn how to discipline her in a different way. He realized he needed help to address the traumas of his own childhood in order to be a more effective parent for Jane. 

If the elephant in the room is the child’s symptoms, as the drug companies would have us believe, then medication may be the solution. Children taking medication for ADHD often tell me that it makes them feel calm. The full responsibility for the problem then falls squarely on the child’s shoulders. 

For Mark and Jane, and countless children like them, the elephant in the room, however, is not the child’s symptoms. It is the environment of conflict in which the symptoms occur. If the family environment is the elephant, the treatment of the problem is not as simple as prescribing a pill. Families must acknowledge and address seemingly overwhelming problems. The parents’ relationship with each other, and each parent’s relationship with his or her own family of origin, often contributes significantly to this environment. 

In the supportive setting of my office, Mark and Jane’s parents were freed to think about their child’s perspective and experience. Rather than focusing on “what to do” they understood what their children might be feeling growing up in an environment of conflict and rage. This ability for parents to think about their child’s feelings has been shown, in extensive research at the intersection of developmental psychology, genetics and neuroscience, to facilitate a child’s development of the capacity to manage strong emotions and adapt in social situations. 

In another interesting link between this ad and God of Carnage, one of the fathers is an attorney representing a drug company. He speaks loudly on his cell phone, seemingly oblivious to the effect of his behavior on the other people in the room. His conversation reveals the profit motive of the drug company taking precedence over the well being of the patient. 

God of Carnage was written by Yasmina Reza, a French playwright. While the play itself is hugely entertaining as a witty farce about family life, an important message was in a brief scene at the very end. The telephone rings. The mother answers. It is her daughter, all upset about the loss of her pet hamster, which the father had “set free” one night because he was annoyed by the animal’s habits. Suddenly the mood of the play, which was lively with scintillating dialogue throughout, becomes serene as the mother speaks lovingly to her distraught daughter. Perhaps most of the audience was barely aware of the sudden mood change. Yet it lifted this delightful play into universal significance. Freeing herself from the preceding chaos, she calmly gives her full attention to her daughter’s experience.

The popularity of the play gives me hope that people are hungry for a different way to think about children and families than that offered by the pharmaceutical industry, which, with the money to place an attention getting ad, has a very loud voice. It is joined by the equally loud voice of the private health insurance industry, which supports the quick fix of medication over more time intensive interventions. In contrast, Mark, with his black smudge on my yellow wall, has a very small voice. His voice says “Please think about my feelings, not just my behavior.”

His voice is particularly critical now, as our country strives to create social policy and a health care system that values prevention and primary care. Parents, if they are supported and nurtured, know what is best for their children. We as a culture must demonstrate that we respect both the difficulty and the critical importance of being an effective parent. In this way we will be able to help children, not only by treating their symptoms, but giving an opportunity for deeply rewarding changes in the important relationships in their lives.

Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

Why substituting "behavioral" health care for "mental" health care is wrong

Posted by Claudia M Gold December 22, 2013 01:09 PM

A colleague of mine recently pointed out a study by the Center for Health Care Strategies (CHCS) about mental health care for children. Among their findings was this

  • Almost 50 percent of children enrolled in Medicaid who are prescribed psychotropic medications receive no identifiable behavioral health treatment.
This is a disturbing, though not surprising, statistic given that these medications are commonly prescribed by primary care clinicians. Children living in poverty often experience greater environmental stress and may have greater mental health care needs, and the study points to medicaid as a possible source for improved, and presumably preventive, care.
Children with significant behavioral health needs typically require an array of services to support their physical, intellectual, and emotional well-being. These children, however, are often served through fragmented systems, leading to inefficient care, costly utilization, and poor health outcomes. As a significant source of funding for children’s behavioral health care, Medicaid programs can advance fundamental improvements in care coordination and delivery for these vulnerable children.
This would certainly be a goal to work towards.

However, in reading about this study I was distracted by, and am struggling with as I write, the repeated reference to "behavioral health care" rather than "mental health care." This change in language is now common in our culture. It is significant and worrisome for two reasons.

First, it serves to perpetuate the stigma of mental illness. Implied in this word substitution is the idea that mental illness is something that should not be talked about.

Recently I came up against this stigma when giving a talk that included a discussion of the connection between "colic" and perinatal emotional complications such as anxiety and depression. An audience member, a mother of several grown children, spoke of resentment, that was still very much alive over 20 years later, that her friends and colleagues had been concerned about her mental well being when caring for her first very challenging child.

Severe sleep deprivation, feelings of isolation and low self esteem are an almost inevitable consequence of having a very fussy baby. The stigma associated with identifying this constellations of concerns as a "mental health problem" is part of the reason for inadequate identification and treatment of postpartum depression and anxiety.

Research has shown that when untreated, these problems can in turn lead to mental health problems in the developing child. If we could, as the saying goes "call a spade a spade," without having it be associated with blame and shame, there might be more hope for helping for these mothers, and for preventing the development of mental health problems in their children.

The second, and perhaps more worrisome issue related to the substitution of "behavioral" for "mental" is the idea that treatment involves controlling behavior, rather than understanding the meaning of behavior.  The ability to attribute motivations and intentions to behavior is a uniquely human quality. Extensive research, that I describe in my book Keeping Your Child in Mind has shown that children develop a healthy sense of self, the capacity for emotional regulation, flexible thinking, social engagement, and overall mental health, when the people who care for them think about and understand the meaning of their behavior. In contrast, there may be significant disturbances when there is an absence of such curiosity about a child.

This brings us full circle to the problem identified by the above study. By treating these children with psychiatric drugs with no other form of treatment, there is no room for curiosity or understanding. Children living in poverty, especially those in foster care, may have experienced significant early trauma and loss. The consequences of treating the behavior alone, in these and other circumstances can be significant. For example, a recent long-term follow up study of children diagnosed with "ADHD" treated with "behavior management" and medication showed that there was a five times higher risk of suicide, and 3% of adults at follow up were in prison.

The CHCS study calls for "expanding access to appropriate and effective behavioral health care." For it to be appropriate and effective, we need to call it mental health care. It needs first and foremost to allow for time and space for listening, for understanding the meaning of behavior.


Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

Are iPad attachments for bouncy seats and potty seats a violation of infants' rights?

Posted by Claudia M Gold December 11, 2013 03:03 PM

I was contemplating writing a blog post about the movement by the Boston-based advocacy group Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood urging Fisher-Price to recall the baby bouncy seat with an attachment for insertion of an iPad. When I then received an email from a colleague with a link for another product- a potty seat with an attachment for an iPad- there was no going back. I decided not to include the link to that product so as not to inadvertently be a source of free advertising, but it is easy to find. 

In our technology driven culture, a position maintaining that we need to put on the brakes is a challenging one to take. The force of "progress" is so powerful that one runs the risk of seeming out-of-touch or old fashioned. But in these two products I believe we have come face-to-face with exploitation of children ( and their parents) or what I have described in a previous post as a "prejudice" against children. I would even go so far as to say it is a violation of infants' rights.

In today's society, where parents are often living in a state of high stress, with little support, either practical or emotional, the appeal of these products is very understandable. The allure of the screen is equally, if not more powerful for the infant. So from a marketing perspective, from a moneymaking perspective, it is a recipe for success. 

I became aware of the concept of infants' rights in my role as a board member of the Massachusetts chapter of the World Association of Infant Mental Health. A preliminary version the Declaration of Infants' Rights, a work in progress, reads:

The young child’s capacity to experience, regulate, and express emotions, form close and secure relationships, and explore the environment and learn are fundamental to mental as well as physical and developmental health throughout the life span.
So how do these products violate these rights? Lets start with toilet training. Recently I had the opportunity to write the parent guide for a new children's book, Potty Palooza. I identify the relational nature of toilet training:
Toilet training occurs in relationships. This includes a child’s relationship with his body, as well as his relationship with you. Toilet training will occur under the influence of a child’s inborn desire for mastery in relation to his body. A normal developmental movement toward separation and independence, together with your child’s wish to be like you and to please you, will move the process forward.
I do not know what will happen if you insert a screen between parent and child as part of this process (and sitting on the potty with a book is an entirely different experience.)  It is likely that the draw of the screen will interfere with a child's ability to read his body's natural signals.  The desire for treasured "screen time" will become the motivation for sitting on the potty, replacing his natural motivation to please his parents and to gain mastery over his body in a healthy way.  

Turning to the Ipad in the bouncy seat, the possible effects are more insidious and diffuse. Sitting in the bouncy seat in kitchen watching mom or dad prepare dinner is a time of great learning; a time of significant brain development. This learning occurs both through direct interactions with adults and older siblings, as well as through observation. The iPad interferes with both. As CCFC writes:

The Apptivity Seat is the ultimate electronic baby sitter. Because screens can be mesmerizing and babies are strapped down and “safely" restrained, it encourages parents to leave infants all alone with an iPad. To make matters worse, Fisher-Price is marketing the Apptivity Seat—and claiming it’s educational—for newborns. Parents are encouraged to download “early learning apps” that claim to “introduce baby to letters, numbers and more.” There’s no evidence that babies benefit from screen time and some evidence that it might be harmful. That’s why the American Academy of Pediatrics discourages any screen time for children under two.
Extensive evidence at the interface of neuroscience and developmental psychology shows how the brain is wired in relationships, with the most rapid brain growth occurring in the first three years. Instead of making products that come between parent and infant, our focus needs to be on supporting early caregiver-infant relationships, in the form of such things as parental leave, quality childcare and screening for and treatment of postpartum depression.
Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

Rising incidence of "ADHD" calls for radical rethinking

Posted by Claudia M Gold November 27, 2013 01:51 PM

When the American Academy of Pediatrics changed the guidelines for ADHD to expand age of diagnosis to include children from age 4-18 (from 6-12), that the number of cases would rise was, by definition, inevitable. The recent survey by the CDC, published in the current issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, indicating that one in 10 children in the US carry a diagnosis of ADHD, confirms just that.

I felt re-energized and hopeful in ongoing efforts to, in my colleague's words "move the mountain of ADHD,"  when I received a request to speak at an international child psychiatry conference as part of a panel with a working title: "The ADHD Diagnosis: a Deconstruction from Developmental, Psychoanalytic, Infant Mental Health and Neuropsychiatric Perspectives."

 "Deconstruction" is a brilliant word, and captures well what I do in my clinical practice. Consider 4-year-old Max, whose parents brought him to my behavioral pediatrics practice to "see if he has ADHD." His preschool teacher had recommended the visit, suggesting that he might benefit from medication.  I asked his parents, Ann and Peter, if we might, acknowledging that Max did have symptoms of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsivity, take the time (we had an hour) to ask why he had these symptoms: to make sense of his behavior. While they had been hopeful that they would leave the visit with a prescription, reflecting Max's teacher's concern that he might "fall behind" without treatment, they were overjoyed to consider another approach.

Max had been adopted at age 3 months. Prior to this he had lived with his biological parents who were actively using drugs. They reportedly had a history of ADHD as did some biological siblings. Ann and Peter had been struggling in their marriage in the face of caring for this challenging child, and had recently separated. While Max had been a good sleeper, for the past several months he had been getting up multiple times a night and the whole family was chronically sleep deprived. Max had multiple sensory sensitivities. He cried with the sound of the vacuum cleaner; getting dressed was an ordeal because he could not find a pair of socks that was comfortable. He had difficulties with "personal space."

We had, in a sense, "deconstructed" the "symptom" to examine its various parts. We identified a genetic vulnerability for problems of attention, early neglect, ongoing family stress, sleep deprivation, and sensory processing challenges.

At age 4, there are multiple avenues of intervention. I usually start with sleep, as chronic sleep deprivation is inextricably linked with emotional and attentional dysregulation. Child-parent psychotherapy, where a clinician works with parents and child together,  has been shown to be effective in helping children develop capacities for emotional regulation, even in the face of early developmental trauma. A good occupational therapist, who addresses sensory processing challenges in the context of relationships, can help Max to use his body to manage his symptoms. Ann and Peter could examine the effects of their marital conflict on Max, and perhaps consider couples therapy.

The preliminary write up for the panel I refer to above speaks of what is now called "ADHD" as a valid symptom complex. But it proposes that

this terminology should not ever be used in our clinical thinking.  "ADHD," used as a primary diagnosis, has no etiologic significance, is conceptually and diagnostically distracting, leads to a paucity of thinking about a patient's early developmental history and trauma, and is therapeutically misleading.
 I hope that there will be a large scale movement to "deconstruct" the ADHD diagnosis. In essence deconstructing the diagnosis means eliminating the diagnosis.  Instead we would understand and treat the multiple parts that make up what is now called "ADHD." Such a process would result in  effective early intervention and prevention.

If I were to diagnose Max with ADHD and start him on stimulant medication, it would be in keeping with the current standard of care. Stimulants are powerful medications that have been shown in the short term to eliminate symptoms. But such an approach is simply a silencing of children. It would be a great disservice to  Max and his family.

Just as expanding the age range for diagnosis inevitably led to a rise in cases, "deconstructing" the diagnosis would lead to a significant drop in cases. The difference is that this change would reflect, not silencing of children, but rather improving access to meaningful help.
Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

Buddhism, brain science, and parenting: towards an integration

Posted by Claudia M Gold November 17, 2013 05:19 PM

In the past week I had two profound yet seemingly polar opposite conversations about how to promote healthy development.


The first was among fellows and faculty of the UMass Boston Infant Parent Mental Health Post-Graduate Certificate program (IPMH) about a new study, The Effect of Poverty on Brain Development, published in the current issue of JAMA pediatrics. Using brain imaging techniques, researchers showed that the children raised in poverty had smaller volumes of specific areas of the brain. They describe how the "caregiver" can "mediate" against the effects of poverty. The changes in the brain were less significant in an environment of "caregiver support." The group was addressing how these findings fit in with the abundance of new research at the interface of developmental psychology, neuroscience and genetics.

In conversation with the IPMH group, made up of many brilliant and often like- minded colleagues, who I affectionately refer to as "my peeps," I expressed concern that the exclusive focus on "brain science," where parents are referred to as "mediators," the emotion is excluded. It can become a way to distance from, or even leave out, the passion inherent in these profound love relationships.

Perhaps even more worrisome, I said, is that by making the discussion primarily about poverty, there is a risk of creating a kind of "us-them" mentality.  Certainly there are plenty of well-off families raising children in an environment of high stress and emotional neglect. Similar to the focus on "brain science," it becomes another way of distancing from the problem. 

I shared with the IPMH group my recognition that pointing to the value of listening, of creating an environment of respect for all parents and children, is seen by many as "soft." For example, I felt very alone when one pediatrician referred to my work, in a none-too-kindly tone as, "that baby whisperer stuff."

I knew I was not alone when the second conversation occurred a few days later at  a workshop at Austen Riggs entitled The Interplay of Psychoanalysis and Buddhism: Partners in Liberation. It was all about emotion and interconnectedness.

In a post a number of years ago, I wrote about receiving a letter from a reader who had been "awakened by the tradition of Zen Buddhism" and found my that my work, as described in my book Keeping Your Child in Mind ( see excerpt below), resonated with his experience.
Being understood by a person we love is one of our most powerful yearnings, for adults and children alike. The need for understanding is part of what makes us human. When our feelings are validated, we know that we’re not alone. For a young child, this understanding helps develop his mind and sense of himself. When the people who care for him can reflect back his experience, he learns to recognize and manage his emotions, think more clearly, and adapt to his complex social world. 
When families come to see me in my pediatrics practice for “behavior problems,” both parents and children feel estranged and out of control. They are disconnected, angry, and sad. I help them recognize each other. Meaningful change happens when we share these moments of reconnection. 
While I do not know very much about about Buddhism, I have been greatly influenced by psychoanalysts D.W. Winnicott and Peter Fonagy. I attended the workshop because I was curious to learn more about the relationship between Buddhism and psychoanalysis. In particular I was interested in the place of mourning, for I have increasingly come to recognize that meaningful change, and with it the joy of connection, occur most often when parents move through moments of profound sadness.

Workshop leader Joseph Bobrow spoke with a kind, gentle manner while conveying a sense of quiet authority that was calming and containing. He described the Buddhist notion of "re-authoring our suffering" of "representing our suffering in safe circumstances without shame" so that the story can "take its place in a hierarchy." He described "riding the waves of affect" to "transmute them in to the waves of life." He spoke of "transmuting sorrow" so that it does not "hijack" us." He spoke of how the therapist's "presence of mind," is what  calms, regulates and heals the patient.

When parents are flooded with stress and feeling overwhelmed by their child's behavior, I may ask them to slow down and describe in great detail a specific moment of disruption. This can be very difficult to do. Listening to Bobrow speak about meditation and Zen Buddhism, I heard many links to this process. Meditation can be about noticing how we become derailed by patterns of  thought and behavior. Similarly, by slowing things down, parents become aware of how their child's behavior provokes them, and how they may unintentionally attribute meaning to their child's behavior that is markedly different from the child's true intention.

If a parent recognizes in his response to his child's behavior a surge of rage that is linked to a memory of his own father slapping him across the face, the tears may start to flow. Now we have an opportunity to, as Bobrow said "use the suffering to turn straw in to gold." For in the face of this realization, of this "riding the wave of affect" this father can "re-author the suffering" and in doing so separate his own experience from that of his child. It is just this slowing down that helps him to see his child as himself. In turn the child, himself feeling recognized and understood, becomes calm.  This "meditative" process can be what underlies the moments of profound joy and connection between parent and child that follow.

My two experiences this week seem at first glance to be worlds apart.  I wonder if a piece Bobrow wrote on his Huffington Post blog following the Newtown shooting might point in the direction of integration.
We are helpless, we want it fixed, and become prone... to either-or thinking. But there is no silver bullet. Silver bullet, compartmentalized thinking is the problem. Cumulative trauma compromises the capacity for making connections, for holistic reflection. At it's extreme, the other becomes "not me," so I can eliminate him or her with impunity, Intellectually, it's like bubble living: psychology here, culture there, economics somewhere else. Climate? Fuhgetaboutit. We must grasp our fundamental interconnectedness, and with it the intimate and often unseen interplay of psychological and cultural forces and social and political action.
 I wonder if a third conversation, including both my IPMH colleagues and Bobrow, would lead to some real progress.


Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

Authoritarian parenting vs. parenting with authority

Posted by Claudia M Gold November 5, 2013 03:58 PM

Authoritarian parenting, as in "my way or the highway," and its opposite, permissive parenting with lack of limit setting, may be linked with difficulty with emotional regulation in children. In contrast, an "authoritative" parenting style is associated with an enhanced capacity for emotional regulation, flexible thinking and social competence. An authoritative parenting stance encompasses respect for and curiosity about a child, together with containment of intense feelings and limits on behavior.

Parental authority is something that in ideal circumstances comes naturally with the job. It is not something that needs to be learned in books from "experts." In fact our culture of  "advice" and "parent training" may unintentionally undermine that natural authority.

But what might cause a parent to lose that natural authority? Stress is far and away the most common culprit. That stress might be in part coming from the child himself, if, for example, he is a particularly "fussy" or "dysregulated" baby. It might come from the everyday challenges of managing a family and work in today's fast-paced culture, often without the support of extended family. It may come from more complex relational issues between parents, between siblings, between generations.

When I work with families of young children, my aim is to help parents reconnect with their natural authority. By offering space and time to listen to their story, including addressing the wide range of stresses in their lives, my hope is that together we will make sense of, or find meaning in, their child's behavior. Armed with this understanding, "what to do" usually follows naturally.

I have learned that it is important to be explicit about this approach. As I write on my website:


Parents often come to a pediatrician with expectation of advice and judgment. Our culture may support this expectation by our reliance on “behavior management” and increasingly on medication to treat “behavior problems” in children.
Some guidance about "what to do" may naturally enter in to the conversation. But I have found that premature "advice," without full understanding of the complexity of the situation, can often lead to frustration and failure. In contrast, when a parent has that "aha" moment of insight, the joy and pleasure that comes from recognition and reconnection, for both parent and child, can be exhilarating.
Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

What might redefining "term pregnancy" mean for parents and babies?

Posted by Claudia M Gold October 29, 2013 12:02 PM
So far the discussion on the policy change by the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) has focused on the implication for timing of delivery. While previously babies had been considered "term" at 37- 42 weeks, the new policy defines term as 39-40 weeks. Babies born at 37-38 weeks are considered "early term" and those born at 41-42 weeks "late term."

The main consequence of this policy change is an official recognition that babies at 37-38 weeks are still not optimally mature for delivery.  The main objective of the policy is to "expand efforts to prevent nonmedically indicated deliveries before 39 weeks gestation*." In other words, doctors should not electively induce delivery or perform c-sections before 39 weeks. An article in Time magazine on the subject refers to a recent study showing an increased incidence of medical complications in what are now officially "early term" deliveries.

But given my interest in the parent-baby relationship and its impact on healthy development after birth, I had a different take on the significance of this change. Many babies born at 37-38 weeks are not induced or delivered by c-section. For a range of reasons, most of the time not an identifiable one, a mother may spontaneously go in to labor at 37 weeks. And, in contrast to the babies in the above study, the vast majority of these babies do not end up in the neonatal intensive care unit. They are in the regular nursery for the typical 48 hour stay.

My hope is that the policy change will focus more attention on the vulnerabilities of these babies.  The important question is,  "What is the implication for these babies who are not at optimal states of maturity, yet are cared for along side the now "term" babies and treated by professionals as if they are no different?" I put this question to a colleague of mine who is a hospitalist in a major teaching hospital in Boston. Her full time job is to care for newborns and parents following delivery and up to discharge in the regular nursery.

Personally I think this more nuanced classification of who the "full-term" baby is will be important for the parents and other professional who are supporting and teaching the family in the early weeks of life - eg. nurses in the well nursery, lactation consultants and medical providers.  Currently, unless a baby is under 37 weeks, they are all seen as fairly similar in their capabilities with differences being attributed to temperament or "personality" rather than gestation maturity.
There's a continuum to observed physiological parameters that may not be appreciated or fully noticed when babies are lumped together as full-term between 37-42wks; these include degree of sleepiness, subtlety of feeding cues, amount of energy reserves, ability to regulate state changes, muscular tone to name a few.  All of these impact the newborns' behaviors; especially feeding which is a primary focus for parents with their newborns.

Understanding that their infant's capabilities are related very often to his/her gestational age will reassure parents about their own capabilities as they learn to observe/make sense of their new infant's behaviors/cues with a more informed/understanding eye and less self-blame when trying (or struggling) to feed or to calm or to awaken their newborn.  

As my colleague wisely points out, what it looks like in real life when a baby is not "optimally mature," is that the baby may be difficult to arouse,  cry more or in general be more challenging to care for. Much of a new parent's sense of competence comes from successfully feeding her baby. If the baby's challenges with feeding are not identified and linked to his early gestational age, a parent may experience feelings of frustration and failure. She may abandon breast feeding or slide in to depression as she struggles to meet the needs of her baby.

In previous posts, I have referred to a wonderful tool, the Newborn Behavioral Observation System, that offers the opportunity to identify a baby's unique strengths and vulnerabilities.  This video of a brief excerpt of the NBO with a 3-day-old infant shows the newborn's tremendous capacities for communication. The NBO offers the opportunity to look at these qualities in a systematic way.

My hope is that now that the ACOG has officially identified these "early term " babies as vulnerable, professionals who interact with these families will offer parents the opportunity to identify possible challenges and develop strategies to manage these challenges, which with care and attention will resolve in a short time as the baby matures.

*Gestational age refers to the number of weeks since a mother's last normal menstrual period.
Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

Moving beyond the DSM paradigm of mental health care

Posted by Claudia M Gold October 15, 2013 12:00 PM

A paradigm is a way of thinking about things. For the past 60 or so years, our thinking about mental health and illness has been dominated by what can be referred to as the "DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) paradigm." What this looks like in everyday practice is that when a child is referred to my behavioral pediatrics practice for say, anxiety, the questions that parents, referring doctors, and teachers ask is, "Does he have anxiety disorder?" followed by  "How to we manage his behavior?" and "Does he need medication?"

The DSM paradigm has been useful as a way of organizing our thinking. But it is important to recognize that these "disorders" of anxiety, depression, ADHD etc, are simply lists of symptoms that tend to go together. They do not correspond to any known biological processes in the way that, for example, diabetes is a result of lack of insulin.

When the DSM system was first created, we did not have the powerful health insurance and pharmaceutical industries that we have today. Because of the existence of these entities, we are currently in a position of being forced in to a very narrow view of mental health and illness.

The DSM system is a black and white paradigm with only the possibility of "normal" or "disordered."
According to the DSM paradigm, if the answer to the first question about my anxious patient is no, and there is no diagnosis, there is no insurance coverage, and so no help. But clearly such a family is struggling.

 We need a paradigm shift, defined as a fundamental change in approach and underlying assumptions. A new paradigm is needed that gives room for the complexity that we have learned from the abundance of research at the interface of developmental psychology, neuroscience and epigenetics.

The child above may have a strong family history of anxiety traits. He may have a strong genetic vulnerability for anxiety. However, if a parent who shares these traits was slapped across the face for her "difficult behavior" when she was a child, she may become so overwhelmed with stress in the face of her child's challenges that she is unable to help him to manage his anxiety. Marital conflict, perhaps exacerbated by the stress of a child who is struggling, can further add to the complexity. The environment in which this child grows and develops will determine the way in which his genetic vulnerability is expressed.

As I described in a previous post, the field of infant mental health offers such a paradigm. It is relational, developmental and founded in the basic principle that behavior has meaning. It gives us a way to organize our thinking about the problems of the family I describe above.  It offers a path to treatment, namely to support the efforts of the child's parents to recognize the complex meaning of his behavior. Once parents feel heard and understood, and have the opportunity to make sense of their child's behavior, they will be better able to help him manage his anxiety. They might involve him in physical activities or creative activities that help him to feel calm in his body. They might get help for their own relationship. They might work together with the child's teachers to strategize about how to support him in the school setting.

Thanks to my book, Keeping Your Child in Mind, I had the honor of being invited to give the Paul A. Dewald lecture this week in St Louis.  My book is about the idea that rather than jump  "what to do" about a child's behavior, it is important to simply "be" with that child,  to think about that child. As I prepared the talk I came to recognize that the same holds true for our whole system of mental health care.  Before we can plan "what to do" to apply the wealth of research I refer to above, we must first recognize that we need to "think" differently. We need move beyond the DSM paradigm and embrace a new paradigm; to facilitate a paradigm shift. An important first step is to name it as such.



Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

Reflections on the government shutdown: why is health care so threatening?

Posted by Claudia M Gold October 8, 2013 12:36 PM

 I may be putting myself out on a bit of a limb here, but the draw of the blog makes it hard to sit silent while our country heads towards disaster.

As I listen helplessly to a report on NPR  about our country being in the grips of an irrational game of chicken, I found myself being curious about the motivations of the tea party conservatives. Drawing a lesson from psychoanalyst Peter Fonagy, who identifies the ability to attribute motivations to behavior as a uniquely human characteristic, I wonder if taking a stance of curiosity rather than anger might be useful.

This led me to consider another psychoanalytic construct, namely that of transference.  The tea party hardliners refer to Obamacare as an invasion of privacy. This idea is grotesquely depicted in the commercial showing a creepy Uncle Sam invading a gynecologic exam. Before he enters, the patient,  a young woman, is being cared for by what appears to be a kind, motherly doctor.

The notion of transference describes how strong feelings from a past relationship, often with a parent, find there way in to a current relationship. This phenomenon can occur in relationships with spouses, children, co-workers, in addition to the setting where Freud originally identified it, namely in the patient-therapist relationship.

In the intimacy and privacy of the patient-doctor relationship, such as that between a young woman and her female gynecologist, these type of transference feelings naturally occur. That made me wonder if to those who made the commercial, Obamacare, as represented by Uncle Sam, in some way represents a third invading the primary caregiver-child relationship. If so, that might help explain the intransigent behavior of those who are unable to accept that Obamacare, or the Affordable Care Act, is the law, and are willing to hold the country hostage rather than face that fact.

But Obamacare is not a threat to that intimate private relationship. In fact, if it works, and health care costs do go down, and insurance companies lose some of their power, it may in fact strengthen the relationship.  With increased emphasis on prevention, the healing power of the patient-doctor relationship might be brought in to better focus than under the current system, when doctors are forced to see more and more patients in less and less time.



Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

Mental illness and motherhood: lessons from Miriam Carey

Posted by Claudia M Gold October 5, 2013 04:46 PM


We do not have medical records or diagnoses. The news is filled with speculation. What we do know is that Miriam Carey’s one-year-old daughter lost her mother, and that because the incident occurred in Washington D. C. in front of the White House, it is shining a spotlight on the subject of mental health and motherhood. And the message should be simple. Diagnoses don't matter. As part of our nation's health care system (another complex and fraught subject this week!) we must provide a safety net for mothers who are struggling emotionally in the weeks and months following the transition to motherhood.

Recently in my role as director of Newton-Wellesley Hospital’s Early Childhood Social Emotional Health program I have had the privilege of participating in a mother-baby group on a regular basis. During the 90 minute session, as these moms share feelings about such things as sleep deprivation, navigating new territory with a spouse, and going back to work, the babies cycle through sleep, alert interaction,  fussy periods, crying and feeding. These mothers, all of them doing this for the first time, intuitively guide their infants through multiple transitions while simultaneously engaging in meaningful conversation.

But it doesn’t always go well. Almost every session, there is a mother-baby pair who struggles. A baby may scream inconsolably, and his mother may leave, overwhelmed by helplessness and shame despite the reassurances from the other moms and group leaders.  A mother may break down in tears as she describes the way her own family is not supportive, and how alone she feels. The contrast between the easy attentiveness of the rest of the group, and the pain these mother-baby pairs are experiencing is striking. We expect motherhood to be a time of falling in love; a time of joy and bliss.  When it is not, the suffering can be profound.

There is nothing quite like the aloneness of mental health struggles in the setting of motherhood. I recall being startled by the story of  one mother in my behavioral pediatrics practice who had struggled with severe postpartum depression. She told me that she had experience relief when her father died when her daughter was about a year old. It was not that she didn’t love her father. But in sharing the grief with her mother and siblings, she no longer felt so terribly alone.

The Massachusetts Postpartum Depression Commission, led by Representative Ellen Story,  in collaboration with such organizations as MotherWoman and the Massachusetts Child Psychiatry Access Project, is working hard to provide a safety net for every mother-baby pair who is struggling in this way.

Through a combination of screening, support groups and a network of clinicians who are experienced in working with mothers and babies in the setting of perinatal emotional complications, the aim is to be able to identify and treat every one of these pairs.

This type of effort is also occurring on national level, through such organizations as the National Coalition of Maternal Mental Health. Perhaps the attention on the issue, due to the fact that an incident involving a car chase occurred on Capitol Hill, will give some meaning to Miriam Carey’s daughter’s loss.

Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

Protecting a space for parenting in an age of expert advice

Posted by Claudia M Gold September 30, 2013 12:25 PM

In my behavioral pediatrics practice, it never ceases to amaze me how, given the space and time, parents come around to making sense of their child's "difficult" behavior without my giving "advice" about "what to do." They may recognize that they share a trait with their child that has troubled them their whole life. They may become tearful, thinking of how that child represents a lost loved one.  There are countless variations. The process of telling the story, of finding the meaning in the behavior, is often itself the treatment. Once parents have these insights, "what to do" follows naturally. In contrast, if I give advice without a full understanding of the story, things may not go well.

Recently in working on a new book, I have had the pleasure of returning to a close look at the work of D. W. Winnicott, pediatrician turned psychoanalyst and a kind of British Dr. Spock. In my review of his writings on the subject of advice, I came across a wonderful piece from this past spring in The Guardian: Mothers on the naughty step: the growth of the parenting advice industry, that references Winnicott.

Winnicott abhorred the idea of giving advice. He believed that when mothers tried to do things by the book – or by the wireless: "They lose touch with their own ability to act without knowing exactly what is right and what is wrong." Yet today there are far more parenting advice books (each with their own regime to promote) than 30 years ago, and the radio and TV schedules are full of programmes such as Supernanny, which train a critical eye on what are generally called parents but most of us understand to be mothers. It sometimes seems it is mothers, rather than children, who are being dispatched to the naughty step...
Winnicott feared that focusing on pathological families rather than "the ordinary devoted mother and her baby" (the title of his most famous series) could excite anxiety in listeners without access to therapy. "I cannot tell you exactly what to do," he said, "but I can talk about what it all means." And so he did, extolling the role of the good enough mother – one who can be loved, hated and depended on – in enabling the baby to develop into a healthy, independent, adult. While many of today's parenting gurus focus on a child's deviant behaviour and the contribution of supposed misparenting, Winnicott tried to help mothers understand the significance of their child's behaviour, whether it was "cloth-sucking" or a display of jealousy, and the ways that they instinctively contained their child's anxieties.
The author refers to the British program "Supernanny," the "high priestess of behaviorist parenting."
Tracey Jensen, lecturer in media and cultural studies at Newcastle University, says Supernanny reverses Winnicott, offering up the spectacle of the "bad enough mother", usually working-class, who is shamed before she is transformed. Jensen watched the programme with a group of mothers, relieved that it was not their parenting practices being scrutinised, but those of someone else onto whom all their own worries and fears could be displaced. But they also shouted back at the programme, discomfited by the judgment and humiliation meted out to the mothers featured. Such series foster the very anxiety they claim to assuage, and substitute "training" for thinking and feeling.
This last phrase captures the essence of the issue. I shudder whenever I see the term "parent training."  But this phrase, as well as others such as "management of symptoms" or "parent education" are pervasive in our culture. These kinds of interventions may improve behavior in the short term. But if they substitute for "thinking and feeling" it is likely that symptoms will re-emerge at a later date, in a different form. 

When we talk about parents and children, we are talking about passionate love relationships. The feelings are deep, intense and sometimes painful. It makes sense that we might choose to avoid them. But this is not a long-term solution.  We would do well to instead make a space for them, starting from birth.

I borrowed this phrase "protecting a space" from my good friend Gale Pryor, who's wonderful book Nursing Mother, Working Mother was also heavily influenced by Winnicott. In such a space parents can connect with their natural intuition. It is in this space that we give room for healthy development of parent and child together.


Originally published on the blog Child in Mind.

About the author

Claudia M. Gold, M.D. is a pediatrician and author of Keeping Your Child in Mind: Overcoming Defiance, Tantrums, and Other Everyday Behavior Problems by Seeing the World Through Your Child's More »

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