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Why Parental Emotion Always Takes Over

by Sue Hubbard, M.D.

I was seeing patients in the office this week and noticed a young mother and her two daughters who had been in my office frequently in the last several months. Yes, it is the season for more visits to the pediatrician but she seemed to be in the office fairly often.   She was in this day with her 3 year old daughter who had complained of a “tummy” ache, and she was convinced that her daughter had appendicitis.

Here’s the scene: 3 year old little girl with long hair and a bright smile  prancing around the exam room in her leggings and UGG boots as if she is a rock star!  This (supposedly) sick little girl is putting on quite a show for both her 1 year old sister and her mother.  She looked adorable, but not sick!  While her mother and I chatted, I continued to watch her daughter out of the corner of my eye.

According to her mother, the child had complained of a tummy ache earlier that day, and pointed to her side. She said she didn’t want lunch.  No fever, vomiting, or diarrhea. Nevertheless, her mother was worried that her daughter might have appendicitis.  She was convinced that the “tummy ache” must be something serious.

After examining this precious child, it was obvious that her “tummy ache” was not due appendicitis. So, her mother asked, “why do I always go to THE DARK SIDE”. When I asked her what that meant she said, “why does my brain always jump to the worst conclusion”. “Why am I here so often with my daughters? They have headaches that I am sure are brain tumors, or a tummy ache that must be appendicitis, or bruises that I am convinced are due to leukemia.”

I don’t think it is actually a parent’s brain that takes them “to the DARK SIDE”, but rather it is the HEART!  Sometimes we parents (and doctors who are parents too) know intellectually that the child’s complaint is probably nothing. It is most likely that the headache is just that (how often do you yourselves get one?) and the tummy ache could be due to gas or constipation rather than an “appendix ready to burst”.  But our emotional and sometimes irrational side takes over and suddenly we have “gone to the DARK SIDE” with fears of the worst possible diagnosis.  Truly, it happens to all of us at times.

As a pediatrician and mother I do know this, bad things get worse and the child’s complaints get more frequent or new symptoms develop.

The “bad” things do not just go away.   As they teach you early on in medical school,”when you hear galloping hooves, think of horses not zebras. “  In other words, think about common reasons for a symptom before jumping to the infrequent and life threatening diagnosis. We parents need to heed that advice too.   Sometimes a few hours to days of watching a child will keep you from going to “the dark side” as you realize your child has moved on from the tummy ache to wanting to go outside and play or to dancing around the room. Remember to try and stay on the “bright side” and see if the symptoms resolve.

That’s your daily dose for today. We’ll chat again tomorrow.

Send your question or comment to Dr. Sue!

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