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

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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7 thoughts on “It’s just a phase and other lies they told me

  1. I read this story and finally felt some relief and almost vindication. I have spent years and years with teachers and even the professionals telling me “it is just a phase, or as she got older she is just being a typical teen”. I had raised several teens and she was not like any of them. In front of others she was different than she was at home and others just wanted to pretend it was my problem and not hers. At one point I was even questioned if I was the problem and was accused of reporting things that did not happen. It was not until she attempted suicide that they even started to listen to me and even then not fully. I have watched for years and years as things got worse, not better, and now have the guilt of did I do enough to make them see the truth. I reported all the odd behaviors and the symptoms that were concerning, but in the end still continued to hear she was a typical teen. In all these years she has not received the treatment that may have helped her and now we struggle to keep her functioning in the outside world as she would now rather just hide from the world.
    Your story was right there are more children with allergies and with diabetes and no one even dares to say they are being over diagnoses. The question may not be why is there an increase of children diagnosed with emotional or mental health issues, the reality may be how many children have gone undiagnosed till now.

  2. Hi Lisa –
    I found your article via Liza Long’s facebook page and I love it! I would like to post it on my web site, with your permission.
    Also, I think my site may be of great interest to you. In fact, you can help me out by adding as many providers/resources for childhood mental illness as you like.
    – Tricia

  3. My child started hallucinating at 8 yrs old. I waited 6 months before taking her to see a psychiatrist, thinking she was in a “phase”. At age 9 she was put on generic Zoloft for her anxiety. After a few months of being on this medication she started to have uncontrollable body movements for a few seconds. She says she has “3 types of episodes;” 1st type is she can hear, see, is conscious & can feel her body moving, 2nd type is she can hear or see (1 of the 2) but not both, is conscious, & can feel her body moving, and 3rd type is she is unconscious (cannot hear or see) but her body is moving uncontrollably. Once she told her psychiatrist this, now at 10 yrs, her psychiatrist said to see a neurologist and that these “episodes” had nothing to do with her medication but were neurological. So we say a neurologist & he did an EEG, found nothing, and said my child’s symptoms were psychological but also did not have anything to do with the medication. The episodes were not caused by the medication was the only thing both doctors could agree on. However when my child was on the medication she had as many as 6 episodes a day and even had a desk fall on her at school when she pasted out. I do believe the medication did exasperate her episodes, not sure if they caused them, but she is currently not on any medications. So I needed another opinion. I had to seek another neurologist. If nothing is found after we see this professional my child’s “episodes” will be labelled as all psychological however I feel that there is something neurological. I am finding that there’s a super fine line between psychological and neurological but professionals are easy to chalk perhaps medical needs as mental health needs. Any suggestions welcome.
    Thank you for your time,

    1. Pursue what your gut says…
      Don’t know if Dr William Singer (Wellesley) is still in practice but it would be well worth seeing if he still is.
      Post your question on massfamilyvoices… you may get a lead.

  4. The best results I ever got in the search for hope… was from other parents. It sounds cruel now-but I was able to gleam solid paths to pursue from their failures. They saved me years of failed attempts in pursuits for “good information/ Dr.’s/neurology/methodology. I am so thankful to them. Although not all leads worked out many did. Among them was the Think-kids work out of MGH. Which started out for me in the Book ‘Teaching the Explosive Child’ by Ross Green.

    It gave me language to hang my hat on. Non judgmental, descriptive, capture of all her lagging skills. So when we would see Dr.’s I knew right away if they understood her presentation and if this was going to be the provider for her. I knew what to prioritize as a target to address in her multiple lagging skills. I could see the link between each of those lagging skills and how one would exasperate the other. It gave me the power of advocacy in school meetings, when I could say- I can see what you describe as her lagging skills in flexibility, and frustration tolerance. (or whatever) Then shift the blame of these lagging skills from her to- a need for a plan to develop those lagging skills. I became the most compassionate parent understanding these compromised pathways were not her fault- not my fault and the kids-“do well if they can”.

    If potential providers could not see her in this way-then they were not for us. If they could …. my conversation with them rose to a mutually shared concern for a quality of life for her. I began to be open to things like sensory integration, diet, sleep, and what she and I needed to support her towards a healthy future.

    It still took years of trail and error to get some things better-but at least I had a language and understanding of her and could broker for better… to anyone.

    A parent turned me onto that.
    I don’t think I could ever say thank you enough to that parent…

  5. Thank you for your comments. I wanted to give you a little update on my child. The neurologist we found ordered a 48 hr EEG for my child & we should know Sept 1st if her experiences are psychological, neurological or both. She only had 1 small “episode” while wearing the EEG that we know of but 1 is better then none.
    Thanks again,

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