For years, there has been a stigma associated with behavioral and emotional issues such as temper tantrums, anxiety, homework trouble and attention deficit. In particular, parents sometimes are reluctant to discuss these issues with medical personnel when their children exhibit such behaviors. A new University poll confirms this reality, and sheds light on its implications.

C.S. Mott Children’s and Women’s Hospital’s National Poll on Children’s Health found that many parents of children ages five to 17 fail to notify doctors when their children exhibit severe emotional behaviors.

Sixty percent of parents who were polled stated they would only speak to a doctor if their child was extremely sad for more than a month — which is an indicator of depression. However, only half said they would contact doctors if their child was showing excessive temper tantrums or was more worried or anxious than usual. Moreover, only 37 percent said they would tell their doctor if their child had trouble organizing homework.

Matthew Davis, professor of pediatrics and internal medicine, directed the poll and said parents sometimes don’t bring awareness to these issues because they think doctors can’t help. He said doctors are indeed able to help and that more parents need to realize this.

“Although some parents may not see their child’s medical doctor as a source of advice or information about behavioral health, it turns out that many pediatricians and family physicians are very ready and willing to help out,” he said.

Other common reasons parents cited were that they did not believe these problems were “medical,” and they would rather handle the issues themselves.

Sarah Clark, associate research scientist in the Department of Pediatrics and an associate director of the poll, said parents should learn from this poll.

“Parents need to think about two situations to explain to the doctor when we are talking about the behavioral and emotional health of their child: When something is out of the ordinary for the child him/herself, and when the child is out of step with his or her peers,” she said.

Clark said doctors should learn as well.

“Doctors need to create a space and cues that indicate to parents that these are issues that they can tell them about,” she said.

Specifically, Clark said providing checklists for parents to fill out and putting up posters identifying behavioral and emotional issues in the exam rooms can help alert parents to remember to discuss these issues with doctors.

Davis said future research regarding what messages and cues are the most effective in eliciting these conversations between parents and doctor is pending.

One specific approach Clark mentioned is integrated behavioral health, in which doctors consult with patients and parents in the presence of trained behavioral therapists or counselors.

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