Who’s the expert here?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/maile/ / CC BY 2.0So what makes an expert, well, an expert?  It’s certainly a step up from just knowing a lot or being acquainted with the facts.  According to the dictionary, an expert has skills or knowledge that’s gained from training or experience.   Usually, those skills are in one area or that knowledge is focused on one particular subject.

Let me say it straight out:  parents are experts about their children and about their families.  And that expertise should be recognized and respected.  Far too often, it is not.

We all seek out experts when we encounter a problem that takes special skills to solve.  If your car makes a strange noise or the check engine light lights up, you might go see a mechanic.  If you encounter a legal problem, you might seek out an attorney.  If that mechanic or lawyer finds out you own a bicycle shop, he could very well ask your opinion about selecting a new touring bicycle.

From the very first moment, a parent learns everything she can about her child.  She observes her child closely and is often fascinated by what makes him laugh, what jump starts his curiosity and what works for him each step of the way.  She notices how he carves a place for himself and how his ups and downs affect the entire family.  She slowly builds a body of knowledge.  In short, she becomes an expert about her child.

When parents encounter a problem that worries them, they seek out knowledge and advice.  They might turn to a doctor, a teacher, a therapist or a relative.  They bring their observations but also a hard won understanding of their child.  However, their often expertise isn’t acknowledged.

A number of years ago, a colleague of mine told me how she took her son to a first therapy appointment.  The therapist explained his ground rules around confidentiality and how often (or not) he consulted with parents.  He ended by saying that if her son divulged he’d experienced abuse or neglect during the therapy appointment, he would have to file a report.  My colleague, without missing a beat, replied, “Likewise, doctor, if on the way home my son divulges that any abuse occurred during his appointment I, too, would have to report it.”

The therapist was startled and somewhat taken aback.  In setting up the “ground rules,” he was not thinking of my colleague as an expert partner he should treat with respect; instead he was telling her the way things would be.  While she agreed he should act if her child’s safety was threatened, she also knew that her son would benefit more if her understanding of him was included.

In our state and in the country, we are shifting away from traditional services to home and community based services.  In order for those services to be successful, they must be family driven and youth guided.  When family driven care is at its best, families are considered expert partners when planning treatment and making decisions.  It requires a shift in attitude and for some, a leap of faith.

To be successful, we have to ask:  So, who is the expert? What do you think?

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3 Responses to Who’s the expert here?

  1. Meri says:

    Experts-

    As I am aware and many families in our area- we are looking at the hope of professionals listening to parents!

    Treating parents like they are an expert of the child they live with , love , support and understand. We have to be involved in the planning of things to support our needs. Granted I always took a suggestion, asked myself how it would work for our family and then said -Its a GO, or No it will not work. I thought though as a parent , how do I stop and tell the professional my feeling , or thought without looking like ” the crazy mom” that doesn’t have the degree and just did not want to try something new.

    Here we are in the CBHI implementation within the state- Family Driven is the lead of conversations. But are families really being treated like the experts?

    One would have to wonder. I worry about the shift in thinking does not happen overnight, but how do we not loose the families that need the shift to happen today to be heard?

    Great blog Lisa- I look forward to hearing from others.

  2. David Keller says:

    Well, spoken (and well understood by good pediatricians for many years)-parents have a degree of expertise about their child that we can only aspire to. Our expertise is the science and art of medicine, and in particular, in helping families sort out the possibilities and limitations of various forms of treatment. In mental health, that is particularly challenging. I can give you the statistics, but I can’t say for certain how they pertain to your child. For that, we must turn to the expert-you.

  3. Great article. Yes, I believe parents are the experts and need to be empowered by the mental health profession to be part of the team in helping their child in therapy.