Poll Shows Parents Unaware of Link Between Child Behavior, Health


It is not unusual for children to have behavioral, emotional, or learning problems, but in order for health care providers to be of help they rely on parents to describe how their children are acting outside of the doctor’s office – and parents’ accounts may be faulty.

A poll asked a national sample of parents with children between the ages of 5 and 17 years old about how they discuss their children’s health or emotions with their doctors. It was found that 61% of parents would definitely discuss the situation if their children had been very sad for over a month, while only 50% said they would discuss temper tantrums that they deemed worse than other kids their child’s same age, or if their child seemed more anxious or worried than normal. 37% of parents said they would definitely talk about difficulties with organizing homework.

The reasons parents would not discuss their child’s behavior or emotions with the doctor were because 45% think that these are not medical problems; 39% said they want to handle the problems themselves; and 29% would rather speak to someone other than the doctor. A mere 6% said there is no time during the doctor’s visit and only 8% said the doctor would not know what to do.

Mental health problems affect boys and girls of all ages and can have an effect on their learning, social interactions, as well as physical health. Some difficulties run a short course and are mild; others can signal longer-term problems like depression, ADHD, anxiety, mood and behavior disorders, and possibly substance abuse. Each year as many as 20% of children in the US experience some type of disorder that can result in a serious change in behavior, learning, or the handling of emotions.

Early recognition is the major component to successful treatment. Parents must be vigilant, acknowledge that the behavior is a child health issue, and be willing to speak with the doctor about the observed behavior. Without an ongoing conversation between the parent and the child’s doctor or health care provider, the provider will not have sufficient information to identify important signs of potential problems.

Many health care offices have included an “integrated behavioral health” initiative so that there is a behavioral specialist onsite to provide counseling and problem-solving strategies for parents and children.

Sarah J. Clark, M.P.H., associate director of the National Poll on Children’s Health and associate research scientist in the University of Michigan Department of Pediatrics says, “Many children experience challenges with behavior, emotions or learning. The key is for parents to recognize their children’s behavior patterns and share that information with the doctor. Unfortunately, our findings suggest that parents don’t understand their role in supporting their children’s behavioral health.”

EurekaAlert!, a publication of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, reports that the findings come at the same time the nation is recognizing mental health awareness month in May.

If behavioral problems are ignored, “the danger is that the kid struggles unnecessarily because they are not getting the help they need,” Clark said.

The two main things a parent should be watching for are when something is out of the norm for that child and when something seems out of step compared with the other kids that same age.