When You Worry About the Child You Love

The worry we feel over our children is a special kind of pain. It hurts differently than other kinds of worry. It is a sweet agony every parent knows, made of love and fear, helplessness and faith all combined. It knows no end. Once you have your first child, you are never free of it for very long. It is often our first thought of the day and our last thought at night. There is no way to avoid this worry, but sometimes knowledge or a friendly voice can help. I’m here to offer both.

When I was a fourth year medical student at Tulane, I did a rotation in obstetrics at Charity, a sprawling, steamy New Orleans hospital, bustling with life in all its critical stages. The medical students did most of the normal deliveries at Charity because there were not enough full-fledged doctors to go around. I delivered thirty-seven babies there that August, and I go to know many mothers well as I sat with them hour after hour during labor. “You gotta be crazy to have kids,” groaned one woman, who was having her fourth baby. As the pain subsided she added: “But you gotta be more crazy not to. You have kids?” she asked.

“No, not yet,” I replied. “I hope to, though, someday.” I wasn’t even married at the time.

“Well, when you do, remember this: If you do right by ’em, that’ll turn out to be the best thing you ever did in your whole life.” I’ve turned her advice over in my mind many times since then. I think she was right. Raising kids is the best thing I have ever done–although not always the thing I’ve done best!

But in keeping them safe, we all need help. When problems arise, as they always do, we parents start to wonder what we have done wrong and what we should be doing differently. Since there is no definitive manual on how to be a parent we look to whatever guidance is at hand: cultural folklore, grandparents’ advice, newspaper articles and books, the practice of friends’ parents, or the suggestions of professionals such as teachers, pediatricians, and various practitioners in the field of mental health. Fortunately, the collective wisdom of these advisers is usually reliable.

Sometimes, however, it is not. Sometimes the cause of the child’s problem is hidden from the view even of our family elders and local experts. The past few decades have seen such a burst of growth in the sciences, particularly the sciences of child development and neurobiology, that many generally knowledgeable adults are still misinformed about the invisible biological causes of emotional problems in children. What is common knowledge to scientists and physicians has not yet made its way to the average parent or the general public.

This means that many parents and their children suffer unnecessarily. The children do not get the right diagnosis because the right diagnosis, which is medical, lies buried under the wrong diagnosis, which is, more often than not, moral. “Bad” might be the diagnosis, for example, applied to child and parent alike. Or “spoiled,” or “lazy,” or “manipulative,” or “incorrigible,” or even “evil.” There is a long list of moral diagnoses, and they can totally eclipse the light of the correct, medical diagnoses.

Parents need to know that many causes of childhood emotional problems are beyond their control and their children’s. When a child is disruptive or unhappy or unable to fit in, it is not always the parents’ fault, the child’s fault, or anybody’s fault. Parent and their children need help to find illuminating answers, instead of obscuring judgments, so that they can get past blame to proper treatment.

Excerpt from:  When You Worry About the Child You Love

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