Editorials for Clinical Practice
CHADIS Co-Director and President, Dr. Barbara Howard is a regular contributor to the Behavioral Consult column of Pediatric News and an Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at The Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.
Dr. Howard is a developmental-behavioral pediatrician trained by Dr. T. Berry Brazelton at Harvard University. She is a national speaker on child behavior problems and is a past president of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics. She was a contributing author for Bright Futures™, Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Primary Care (DSM-PC) and Bright Futures in Practice: Mental Health and has served on national committees of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Ghostbusting in Pediatric Primary Care
As clinicians trained in the care of children, we have struggled in recent years with how much care is appropriate to provide to the parents of our young charges.
Gradual progression has occurred from recognizing postpartum depression as affecting infants, to recommending screening, to creation of a billing code for screening as “for the benefit of” the child, and increasingly even being paid for that code. We now see referral of depressed parents as within our scope of practice with the goal of protecting the child’s emotional development from the caregiver’s altered mental condition, as well as relieving the parent’s suffering. Some of us even provide treatment ourselves.
While the family history has been our standard way of assessing “transgenerational transmission” of risk for physical and mental health conditions, parenting practices are a more direct transmission threat, and one more amenable to our intervention
Aversive parenting acts happen to many people growing up, but how the parent thinks about these seems to make the difference between consciously protecting the child from similar experiences or unconsciously playing them out in the child’s life. With 64% of U.S. adults reporting at least one adverse childhood experience (ACE), many of which were acts or omissions by their parents, we need to be vigilant to track their translation of past events, “the ghosts,” into present parenting.
“I barely have time to talk about the child,” you may be saying, “how can I have time to dig into the parent’s issues, much less know what to do?” Exploring for connections to the parent’s past in primary care is most crucial when the parent-child relationship is strained, or the parent’s handling of typical or problematic child behaviors is abnormal, clinically symptomatic, or dangerous. Nonetheless, helping all parents make these connections enriches life and meaning for families, and dramatically strengthens the doctor-family relationship. Then all of our care is more effective.
In my experience, this valuable connection is not difficult to make – it lives just below the surface for most parents. We may want to ask permission first, noting that “our ideas about how to parent tend to be shaped by how we were parented.” By simply asking, “May I ask how your parents would have handled this [behavior or situation]?” we may hear a description of a reasonable approach (sent to my room), denial that this ever came up (I was never as hardheaded as this kid!), blanking out (Things were tough. I have tried to block it all out), or clues to a pattern better not repeated (Oh, my father would have beat me ...). This question also may be useful in elucidating cultural or generational differences between what was done to them and their own intentions that can be hard to bridge. All of these are opportunities for promoting positive parenting by creating empathy for that child of the past to carry forward to their own child in the present.
While we may be lucky to have even one parent at the visit, we should ask the one present the equivalent question of the partner’s past. Even if one parent had a model that he or she wanted to emulate or a ghost to bust, the other may not agree. Conflict between partners undermines management and can create harmful tension. If the parent does not know, this is an important homework assignment to being collaborative co-parents.
After hearing about the past experiences, we should empathize with the parent regarding pain experienced as a child in the past (“That would be very scary for any child”) and ask “How much is this a burden for you now?” to see if help is needed. But this is a key educational moment for us as child development experts to suggest how children of the age they were then might process the events. For example, one might explain reaction to abandonment by a father by saying, “Any 6-year-old whose father left would feel sad and mad, but also might think he had done something wrong or wasn’t worth staying around for.” One might react to a story of abusive discipline by saying, “Children need to feel safe and protected at home. Not knowing when your parent is going to hurt you could produce lifelong anxiety and trouble trusting your closest relationships.” Watch to see if this connects for them.
Selma Fraiberg, in the classic article “Ghosts in the Nursery,”1 noted that if parents have come to empathize with their past hurting selves, they will work to prevent similar pain for their own children. If they have dealt with these experiences by identifying with the aggressive or neglectful adult or blanking the memory, they are more likely to act out similar practices with their children.
For some, being able to tolerate reviewing these painful times enough to experience empathy for the child may require years of work with a trusted therapist. We should be prepared to refer if the parents are in distress. But for many, getting our help to understand how a child might feel and later act after these experiences may be enough to interrupt the transmission. We can try to elicit current impact of the past (“How are those experiences affecting your parenting now?”). This question, expecting impact, often causes parents to stop short and think. While at first denying impact, if I have been compassionate and nonjudgmental in asking, they often return with more insight.
Help with parenting issues
After eliciting perceptions of the past, I find it useful to ask, “So, what have (the two of) you decided” about how to manage [the problematic parenting situation]?” The implication is that parenting actions are decisions. Making this decision process overt may reveal that they are having blank out moments of impulsive action, or ambivalence with thoughts and feelings in conflict, or arguments resulting in standoffs. A common reaction to hurts in the past is for parents to strongly avoid doing as their own parents did, but then have no plan at all, get increasingly emotional, and finally blow up and scream or hit or storm off ineffectually. We can help them pick out one or two stressful situations, often perceived disrespect or defiance by the child, and plan steps for when it comes up again – as hot-button issues always do. It is important to let them know that their “emotion brain” is likely to speak up first under stress and the “thinking brain” takes longer. We, and they, need to be patient and congratulate them for little bits of progress in having rationality win.
Don’t forget that children adapt to the parenting they receive and develop reactions that may interfere with seeing their parents in a new mode of trust and kindness. A child may have defended him/herself from the emotional pain of not feeling safe or protected by the parent who is acting out a ghost and may react by laughing, running, spitting, hitting, shutting down, pushing the parent away, or saying “I don’t care.” The child’s reaction, too, takes time and consistent responsiveness to change to accept new parenting patterns. It can be painful to the newly-aware parents to recognize these behaviors are caused, at least in part, by their own actions, especially when it is a repetition of their own childhood experiences. We can be the patient, empathic coach – believing in their good intentions as they develop as parents – just as they would have wanted from their parents when they were growing up.
Dr. Howard is an assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, and creator of CHADIS (). She reported no other relevant disclosures. Dr. Howard’s contribution to this publication was as a paid expert to MDedge News. Email her at