Tag Archives: it’s just a phase

It’s just a phase and other lies they told me

July 13th, 2015

truth liesWhen my son was four, he had imaginary friends. They had to be seat-buckled in the car, be served their own buttered roll at dinner and tucked in at bed time. One of his imaginary friends was called Baby Monster. His imaginary friends didn’t go away in six months or a year and I worried. When I brought this up with my son’s pediatrician, he said, “Many children have imaginary friends – it will go away on its own.” But they remained and by age eight, Baby Monster had turned into a voice that told him to hurt his brother.

His anxiety grew and grew and midway through first grade, he became terrified to leave the house and go to school. He slowed things down so he missed the bus, he cried, he pleaded and eventually he would shake and curl up into a ball. “Lots of children have separation anxiety, his teacher explained. “He’ll grow out of it.” I tried one strategy after another but none worked. Everyone but me was sure that it was just a phase. Lots of children in kindergarten and first grade go through something like this, I was told.

Like most parents, I wanted to believe that these things were temporary. I took the advice of the pediatrician, the teacher and sometimes other mothers to heart. They said these things were in the ballpark of normalcy, so I shushed my inner intuition. I tried not to listen to my worries, but I still felt concerned and frustrated that my son wasn’t growing out of his “phases.” He was a young child and it seemed like time was on our side. “Wait and see,” I kept hearing. I waited, but things got no better and then they got worse.

Turns out the advice givers were wrong. It was not a phase, or a stage. He didn’t grow out of it. It didn’t go away on its own.

When you are told that your worries are unfounded, again and again, something changes. You become cautious about whom you confide in. When you are telling a story about your child or recounting an event, you watch the other person’s face and, at the first hint of disbelief, you stop or ratchet down. When you hear stock phrases such as “it’s just a phase” repeatedly, it finally stops reassuring you and makes you wonder why only your child is the one with a phase going on for months or even years. This caution can last for years and spill over to new therapists, new providers and others.  They sense a distance in you, a reserve.

As parents, we fear labeling our child or pathologizing them. There are a number of articles out there saying that we are “pathologizing childhood” and I flinch when I read some of them. John W. Whitehood in an article in the Huffington Post claims that what is simply childhood behavior such as distractibility, nonstop talking and showing emotions without restraint is now being diagnosed and treated, often medicated. He claims that these are behaviors that don’t need an intervention. On the other side is Thomas Insel, MD, the director of the National Institutes of Mental Health. He suggests in his blog that there is a “real increase in the number of children suffering with severe emotional problems, just as there is a real increase in the number of children with diabetes and food allergies.” While there may be children and teens who are getting more medication than they need, there are also others who never get the treatment they need, he adds.  But with diabetes and food allergies, parents don’t worry about labeling their child.  They know it’s not a phase.

These are two quite different points of view which can influence how we see our child. When we see things that worry us in our child, should we seek help, even treatment? Or chalk it up to childhood behavior?

We observe our children from the moment they are born. We notice both the big things and the little ones. We see the small changes, the ones that persist and the ones that come and go. We are like scientists in a laboratory, putting forward hypotheses (sometimes right, sometimes wrong), making careful (mental) notes and comparing the evidence we see against what we expected. We become experts on our child, knowing what things are worrisome and what are just his or her quirks. That expertise is valuable and often unacknowledged.  We shouldn’t let anything get in the way of using that expertise to help make decisions.

Science shows that treatment often produces better results if started early. Some studies show that earlier treatment such as effective therapy and the right school environment (with a zero tolerance for bullying) may lessen the need for medication. The key is to stop saying that it’s a phase and seek help. If my son had had medical symptoms, I would have been encouraged to be proactive and praised for noticing early signs of what turned out to be a bigger problem. My inner intuition and my parental expertise would have been bolstered. Like many other families, we had to get to a crisis point to get everyone on board.

Parents worry about their children; it’s part of the job.  Just as pain can tell us to seek medical attention, worry can propel us to get help too.  A parent’s worry can be an early warning sign that something needs immediate attention, not reassurance or false comfort.  Children are wonderful in their variety and complexity and their individual responses to life’s stressors can be all over the place.  But when a parent’s radar goes off, when that inner intuition tells you that this is serious, it needs to be respected and validated.

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