More than 6 million children in the United States are taking psychiatric drugs — the result of a dramatic recent increase in the number of children being diagnosed with serious psychiatric disorders. The drugs, which are often not fully assessed in children, can cause serious side effects, and little is known about their long-term impact. Reporting on the phenomenon, the PBS program FRONTLINE aired “The Medicated Child” to help families sort through a range of medication-related issues and to team up with their children, doctors, and teachers to face these issues, Frontline asked Joshua Sparrow, M.D., a child psychiatrist at Children’s Hospital, Boston, and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School, to contribute to a Viewer’s Guide to accompany the program. The Viewer’s Guide is posted at www.pbs.org/frontline/medicatedchild. This article, adapted from that guide, was the first of two parts in successive weeks in the FAMILIES TODAY column.
This article, adapted from that guide, was the second of two parts in successive weeks in the FAMILIES TODAY column. (This article, the second of a two-part series, accompanies “The Medicated Child,” that aired on Frontline on PBS. A more extensive version of the article appears in the Viewer’s Guide posted at www.pbs.org/frontline/medicatedchild, where the program itself may also be seen online.)
When a child is troubled and needs help, it is crucial that parents, the child, doctors and teachers work together as a team. An unfortunate but avoidable consequence of diagnostic labels and medication treatment is that these may lead children to believe that their future is no longer in their hands. But they can be helped to understand that even though their struggles are not their fault, their actions remain their responsibility.
This can be presented to the child not as more pressure, but as a form of respect that will help them fight for their own role in their recovery. Parents too may feel that as they entrust their child’s psychiatric care to a professional they themselves can do little to help.
Yet of course parents remain children’s most important caregivers and advocates. To play this role effectively, parents can take several steps:
- Pay attention to your questions and doubts about your child, and to the fears, feelings and memories that these may stir up in you. Parents may be haunted by their own pasts and the family’s history, or their worst fears for the future, and not dare to speak them.
- Talk about your concerns with the professional caring for your child, or, if it is more comfortable, with friends and family members. Many parents find relief and renewed strength when they meet other parents experiencing similar ordeals. Often they set up their own support groups to face challenges and share resources together.
- Stay connected with friends and family who care. Find allies who can help, even if just with daily routines. The symptoms of a psychiatric disorder in a child can overwhelm a family and derail its usual ways.
- Become an expert on your child’s condition. Expect that doctors and counselors will answer your questions, and that they acknowledge when and what they don’t know. Talk with other parents, teachers and school counselors, read, and use — with caution – the Internet.
- Trust your instincts. You know your child better than anyone.
- Involve your child in the process. Far too often children are not respected as partners in working to understand their challenges, and learning to manage them.
Listen to your child. Try to understand and value his perspective. Ask your child how he understands his struggles and what he thinks will help. Help him find ways to describe the problem that preserve his self-image and give him hope for the future: “Sometimes your feelings just get too strong for you to handle, but we can work on this together so that you’re back in control.”
You may be referred to a child psychiatrist by your child’s pediatrician, or a school guidance counselor, or, if he’s already receiving treatment from a non-medical mental health professional (a social worker or psychologist) who isn’t trained and licensed to prescribe medications.
If you decide to pursue this recommendation, prepare for your visit by gathering together medical information, reports you have about your child’s behavior and notes from your own observations.
You can expect that the psychiatrist will do the following
- Take a thorough history, including allergies and medications, along with the child’s other medical and/and or psychiatric conditions and the family history of medical and/or psychiatric conditions.
- Carefully consider and rule out possible medical and neurological causes of the child’s symptoms before settling on a psychiatric diagnosis.
- Ensure that you and your child understand his or her views on the problem and what to do about it, and that he or she understands yours.
- Plan for regular monitoring and follow-up. Children should be seen at regular intervals by the prescribing physician to monitor medication response, side effects, and to assess whether the drug is still needed.
- Take a conservative approach. The psychiatrist should help you weigh the risks and benefits of medication, and of not using medication. The lowest effective dose possible should be used, and, whenever possible, the use of more
than one drug at a time should be avoided to decrease the risk of side effects.
- Inform you about side effects. Before your child starts on medication, the doctor should explain what to look for to know that it is working. He or she should also point out possible side effects and what to do about them, and when
to call the doctor or to go to the emergency room.
- Provide holistic and carefully coordinated treatment. All appropriate non-drug treatments should also be considered. The psychiatrist should collaborate with your child’s pediatrician and other professionals (teachers, and when other treatments are needed, with psychologists or social workers providing counseling or psychotherapy, speech and language therapists, physical and occupational therapists).
- Be compassionate. The physician should be ready to respond to the most pressing question that many parents ask: “What would you do if this was your child?”
- Treat your child with respect. The physician should include the child in the process of understanding his struggles. He or she also should take great care to show you all that the child’s strengths and potential are appreciated, and that his psychiatric disorder does not define him.
Partnering with your child’s school can also make a big difference. The school ought to offer plenty of opportunities for him to learn about himself, to discover his strengths, to compensate for his vulnerabilities, and to experience success
as the reward for his efforts.
School can also be a useful resource to help you assess, observe and monitor your child’s behavior. Often, a teacher might be the first person to alert you to potential trouble. That news may be painful to hear — but this is the time to preserve and strengthen your relationship with teachers and other school personnel:
- When you disagree with teachers about their judgments or recommendations, or when you are first informed of an upsetting behavioral problem, try to keep your initial reactions to yourself until you’ve had a chance to gather your thoughts, and to strategize about how to best respond so that everyone will be on your child’s side. Start with positive, appreciative comments about some aspect of teachers’ efforts, even if you disagree with others.
- Show you understand the need for classroom rules and expectations so that the child’s teacher will be more inclined to balance these with your child’s individual needs.
- Invite teachers to describe your child’s behavior, and show them that you are listening carefully, even when you disagree. Then start with your observations rather than your conclusions so that consensus on a more complete picture of the child’s behavior can emerge.
- Instead of criticizing teachers for how they’ve handled your child’s struggles in the past – which is bound to make them defensive, focus on working together to avoid such problems in the future. Ask them to share with you their ideas about what is causing the behavior, and then concentrate your efforts on the causes that you all can do something about.
Work with teachers to recognize that you all need a plan of action for your child that you can agree on. It is easier for children to relax and understand what is expected of them when parents and teachers can show that they know how to work together as a team, share the same expectations, and give the same messages.
- With the school as your partner, you can ask teachers and other personnel to:
- Describe their understanding of the child’s problems, and of the behaviors that lead to their concerns.
- Agree to put aside terminology that labels a child and instead provide carefully
articulated, nonjudgmental descriptions of what they observe.
- Acknowledge what they don’t know, and when they need help from you, your child, or from other professionals to understand your child and how to work with him. For example, a psychologist may be needed to test for a learning disability (that often underlies a child’s frustration and explosive behavior) and recommend strategies to overcome it.
- Respect your decisions, even if they may disagree with them.
- Try to see the situation from your perspective.
- Show compassion to you, and care about your child.
As you would in gathering any information on the Internet, stick to trustworthy sources. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry (www.aacap.org) offers parents extensive, widely respected information on psychiatric conditions and treatment in childhood.
Responses to questions are not intended to constitute or to take the place of medical or psychiatric evaluation, diagnosis or treatment. If you have a question about your child’s health or well-being, consult your child’s health-care provider.
Dr. Brazelton, prior to his passing, was the founder and head of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which promotes and supports community initiatives that are collaborative, strength-based, prevention-focused sources of support for families raising children in our increasingly stressful world. Dr. Sparrow, a child psychiatrist, is currently the Director of the Brazelton Touchpoints Center. Learn more about the Center at www.touchpoints.org.
Reprinted with permission from the authors.