In the setting of my behavioral pediatrics practice, this can be a loaded question. One would assume that parents are hoping very much for the answer to be "no." But they wouldn't be in my office if there weren't something wrong. Therefore if I say "no," parents may be left feeling there is something wrong with them. At moments like this, I turn to the growing discipline known as "infant mental health." (Here infant refers to children under age five.) Charles Zeanah, MD, in the Handbook of Infant Mental Health writes:
The relational focus of infant mental health has been the sine qua non of this field from the beginning. It is not the infant who is the target of intervention but rather the infant-parent relationship. . . . Instead of the problem or disturbance being understood as within the child or within the parent, the problem may be understood as between the child and caregiver.The child brings his or her own qualities to the relationship, qualities referred to as "biological vulnerabilities." These may include difficulties with sensory processing and inflexibility. The parent brings his or her own issues, which include not only biological vulnerabilities, that in adult life may manifest as actual mental illness, but a whole history of relationships and experience.
"Infant mental health" can be a confusing term, as it may imply that there is such a thing as "infant mental illness." As those who read my blog know, I am very much opposed to diagnosing mental illness in young children. Rather, infant mental health is about understanding and supporting the young child's ability to experience, regulate and express emotions, form close relationships, and explore the environment and learn.
Many forces, including the education system and health insurance industry, push parents in the direction of answering the above question in the form of a diagnosis. On a purely emotional level, during the time it takes to address the problems in the relationship (and it does take time, but for a young child, not that much time) it can be hard to hold on to the complexity. The need to answer this question with a definitive "yes" or "no" may be put aside, only to resurface at a later time.
Daphne Merkin, in last week's New York Times piece Is Depression Inherited? tackles this challenging issue. Merkin, who has had a lifelong struggle with depression, looks at the question from her perspective as mother to a now 22-year-old daughter. She writes:
Probably the most basic error we make is in trying to frame the puzzle of how human character evolves in stark oppositional terms — nature or nurture — rather than seeing it as an inextricable mix of things.Her most important point comes in a parenthetical statement. In considering how to use the current information available to guide parenting, she writes:
Until more compelling genetic information becomes available, it seems that the best we can do is to keep our children’s predispositions in mind while focusing on the pieces of the developmental puzzle over which we can exert control. (This includes being attuned to your child’s nature, especially when it differs from your own.)This last concept of "being attuned to your child's nature, especially when it differs from your own," is the essence of healthy parenting. She is describing a parent's recognition of what D. W, Winnicott termed the child's "true self." It involves recognizing a child as a person with thoughts and feelings that are his own. It is an excellent goal to work towards, though not always easy. Issues that get in the way of recognizing the child's true self, including stresses in a parent's life and other relationships, may need to be addressed.
When viewed from this perspective, the question becomes not "is there something wrong with my child?" but rather "Who is this child, and how is he or she both alike and different from me?"
As I write in my book Keeping Your Child in Mind, where I explore this issue in much more depth:
It is my hope that we can move from an emphasis on diagnosis and labeling to an emphasis on prevention. We need to ask not “what is the disorder?” but rather, “what is the experience of this particular child and family?” and “what can we do to move things in a better direction?”
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