A mother came to see me with a seemingly vague question about more things she might do for her three-year-old daughter. It was a puzzling question since the child seemed to have a full schedule with pre-school and other activities. What made her think her daughter needed more, and what more did she have in mind? In exploring this with her, gradually a deeper meaning to her question emerged.
Recently, the little girl has a great need for food, especially sweets, over and beyond any realistic hunger. There have been confrontations because of her demands for more and more food with mom trying to limit what she eats. She has meltdowns when refused more food, some of which have occurred in group situations with other children and adults where food has been served.
Drawing the mother out further about this, she expressed her idea that the girl was feeling deprived in some way, that she was needing to gratify or comfort herself in some way with food. What was the mother’s idea of why she might need to do this? Little by little in response to my questions, a much fuller picture became clear.
The mother described other changes she perceived in the child’s behavior. Formerly outgoing and expressive, she now seems more inhibited. Having previously easily taken the initiative in activities, she now seems to follow others, waiting to see what they are doing before she participates herself. The mother feels pained by this apparent change in her personality and part of her question was how to help with this.
In answering this herself, she described the situation at home in which the father has been ill and mother travels for work periodically. There are two different caregivers for the child during two days of the week, a different one for each day. This arrangement came about after the nanny who had cared for the child since birth had left almost a year ago. In further discussion about this it became clear that the nanny’s departure was precipitous, the child had been deeply attached to her and was upset for a long time afterwards.
After discussing this entire picture, the mother herself concluded that the child was in need of greater stability. The question she really had been struggling with was whether to once again have a full time caregiver instead of the current piece meal arrangement, and how she herself could be more helpful to her daughter in the areas of concern discussed.
The significant point of this story is that at every step along the way, the mother really had the answer to her own questions. She had a very good understanding of her child, the meaning of her behavior, and how to help her. I kept pointing this out to her but in her mind, as she said, I was the expert. In fact, all I did was help her say out loud and put together what she really already knew.
I have told a personal anecdote many times that bears repeating. When my son was an infant he had frightening episodes which ended with his passing out. None of the specialists consulted had an answer, and complicated invasive tests were recommended. Before proceeding with these recommendations, I consulted a former teacher I knew from my own training.
This doctor, a neurologist as well as a psychiatrist, asked me what I thought was wrong with the baby. I told him I had the idea it had something to do with food. He then gave me a plan to follow to test my idea. The result was the discovery that the baby had a rare food allergy that has since been written up in medical journals.
In reporting back to the doctor I said that no one had ever asked me that question and I wasn’t even aware of my own observations. He said he had learned this from a pediatrics’ professor in medical school who taught them that if you don’t know what is wrong with a child, ask the mother.
I have been following that advice ever since and find that it is true. The problem is that as mothers, we don’t have enough confidence in our own knowledge of our children and think in terms of needing an “expert” opinion. A great deal has been written about women lacking confidence and holding back in the business world, but the place to begin is believing in what we know about own children.
Trust yourself. You know more than you think you do.