Parents often come to a pediatrician with an 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. Contemporary research at the interface of developmental psychology, genetics and neuroscience offers a different approach. Behavior problems, including such things as colic, sleep disturbance, explosive behavior and separation anxiety, are viewed as disruptions in relationships.
When parents are supported in their efforts to think about their child’s mind and reflect on the meaning of behavior rather than simply respond to the behavior itself, children learn to understand their own minds. In turn children learn to regulate difficult emotions, to think flexibly and to manage themselves in a complex social environment. This learning takes place at the level of structure and biochemistry of the brain.
In my current book, Keeping Your Child in Mind, as in my clinical practice, rather than telling parents “what to do,” I help them to “be” with their child in a way that supports their child’s healthy emotional development. Being present with a child in this way is not an easy task. In the face of fragmented families, a child with a challenging temperament and a myriad of other stresses parents face, the task may seem overwhelming. In my view, if we are going to nurture our children, we must first and foremost nurture their parents.
I am presently writing a new book, On Listening, scheduled for Spring 2016 publication, in which I aim to show the dangers in building a super highway to a quick fix while letting the alternative path become overgrown with weeds.
The ability to be curious, to wonder, to empathize with each other’s feelings, is what makes us human. It is not simply a question of “therapy vs. medication.” It is about valuing uncertainty, for letting the story unfold.
My central thesis in On Listening is that the most serious side effect of psychiatric labeling and medication is lost opportunity for listening. Yet this is not a book “against medication.” Rather, it is meant to serve as a cautionary tale of what will happen if we neglect to listen to each other, and of the good that can come when we do protect the time and space for “being with,” for healing through relationships and human connection.
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