"Don't Worry, He'll Grow Out of It"

by Shiro Perera Torquato, Ph.D.

As parents, how often do we have a gut feeling about our children?  The familiar "maternal instinct" or a sense that something is not quite right often guides us to the pediatrician's office.  When we share our concerns with the doctor, how often are these concerns dismissed or minimized?  In fact, as a child psychologist I have lost count of the number of times a parent has shared a similar story.  A mother felt that her child's speech, motor development or social skills were not on par with other children or older siblings, so she brought the concern to the attention of their pediatrician.  The response was often, "don't worry, he'll grow out of it," or "every child is different, you are just an anxious parent."

So, the parent waits and worries, sometimes for several years, before a teacher or other adult confirms their suspicions that "some thing is not quite right."  As a result, I often see school-aged children or teenagers in my private practice that have had developmental and/or behavioral problems since they were toddlers or very young children.  I recall a very dramatic example of a pediatrician minimizing a parent's valid concerns that occurred several years ago when I worked for a community mental health center.  The child, a 4-year-old boy, had stolen bikes from the neighbor's garage, repeatedly poked a much older girl in the neighborhood with pins and hurt the family dog.  His aggression toward his older siblings was also out of the ordinary.  When he purposely tried to burn his mother with the fireplace poker, she took him to the pediatrician seeking advice and guidance.  According to the mother, the pediatrician listened to her long list of concerns and responded "Boys will be boys."  Fortunately the mother trusted her instincts and sought a second opinion at the community mental health clinic.  The child was evaluated and immediately accepted into an intensive outpatient treatment program, due to the severity of his behavior problems at such an early age.

How is it possible that a pediatrician or family physician, with years of medical school training, is not aware that stealing, and habitually hurting animals and people is not "normal" behavior for 4-year-old boys? Why do they minimize a parent's concern when their 2-year-old child is not interested in playing with other children and only says a few words at home? Well, it's not a case of competence, but training.  Most pediatricians take the majority of their classes in anatomy, physiology, childhood disease and treatment during their medical school training.  In comparison, a child psychologist or speech pathologist spends the majority of their graduate school training focusing on child development and how to distinguish and treat atypical behavior and developmental delays.  So, the best pediatricians and family physicians are aware of their scope of training and practice, will carefully consider the parents' concerns, and refer to another professional who specializes in that area of concern.  But what if your child's doctor gives you the "don't worry…" line? What can a parent do to get a second opinion or confirm/disconfirm their fears or concerns?

(cont. on pg. 3)

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