Parents, It's Going to Be Okay, Part 2

Here's how parents can cope with the fear of missing something with their child

Posted Feb 25, 2020

A wide-eyed mother held her coughing toddler out to me. “Doctor, I’m worried. I need to know I’m not missing something.”

Parents often fear they will miss something in their child — something important that will be the difference between life and death, a good life or a bad one.

Photo by Gabby Orcutt on Unsplash
Kids are tricky.
Source: Photo by Gabby Orcutt on Unsplash

This is an anxiety that pediatricians know well. Kids are tricky. When they are sick they compensate well until they suddenly crash. The fear of missing that key sign is real, and it’s important. But that fear also has a way of blinding us. It makes us more likely to miss the very signs we are looking for.

What parents don’t want to miss

When it comes to the fear of missing something, parents have two main concerns. First, that they will miss an important medical symptom and their child will become dangerously ill. Second, that they will miss a clue about their child’s development that will lead their child to fall behind and never catch up.

But talking to the doctor comes with its own set of anxieties. Parents dread being dismissed in their legitimate concerns. At the same time, they don’t want to be “that parent” who cries wolf over nothing.

All of these concerns are demands of the ShouldStorm, the culture that tells parents that they should know everything. Parents feel they should know what to do and get it right the first time.

Kids almost always get better

When I was a young medical student, an experienced pediatrician told me this, “The thing is that kids get better. Kids almost always get better.”

Her words came back to me every time I panicked about a sick kid as a pediatric resident, and they came back to me every time I panicked as a new mom. They helped me calm down and center so I could solve the problem in front of me.

When I was caught in the worry, I couldn’t see clearly. But when I remembered that kids get better, I had the space to work out what needed to be done.

Why worrying about missing something makes us more likely to miss something

What happens to us when we are overwhelmed by worry? Does it help us focus and do an amazing job? While it’s true that a little bit of anxiety can help us pay attention to what’s important, too much distracts us from what matters.

That’s why pediatricians are trained with medical wisdom like, “Look at the child, not the number.” But parents don’t get that kind of training. Instead, they are told to “do their research,” which leads to a terrifying barrage of misinformation on the internet. Pretty soon, every parent is convinced that their child is in great danger.

Will I miss an important symptom?

The truth is simple: the more parents worry about missing an important symptom, the more likely they are to miss it.

When we worry like that, we are looking at the worry, not the child in front of us.

What can parents do instead? First, look at your child, not your fear. That worry is there to get your attention, but then you have to direct it. Second, remember your resources. Do you know the basics of cold care when you see your child has a runny nose? Try that. Do you know how to reach the doctor if something doesn’t feel right? Then you have your backup plan. It’s okay to breathe.

Still overwhelmed by the worry? Try using the sigh, see and start method for parents.  It’s a great way to take effective action under pressure, and it helps parents get more in sync with their child. Maintaining a healthy connection with our kids also makes us less likely to miss something when it comes to child development.

Will I miss something important in my child’s development?

Most kids develop just fine. Despite all the products designed to help parents “maximize” their child’s learning, kids don’t need any of them. They need supportive people who interact with them, some interesting books and toys to play with. As long as that environment doesn’t take away from learning with too many electronic distractors, kids do great. 

It’s true, some kids have developmental delays. Yet such delays are just that: delays. Kids get better. With support, kids grow. Just look at autism: it was once considered a fixed problem, without hope. But now with earlier and earlier intervention, we are making huge strides with kids. Yes, they still have autism, but they are functioning at levels not previously thought possible.

The key is whether the delay is identified. Here’s another place parents don’t have to figure it out on their own. This is one of the key reasons for the frequent checkups with your child’s doctor: conversations about development. The schools also help with these issues, starting in preschool.

In the end, the toddler was fine. The cough made a funny sound, but it turned out to be a cold. After we went over what to watch for, the mom left smiling, knowing she had done her best for her little one.

This is part 2 in a series on living like it’s going to be okay. Read part 1, “Parents, It’s Going to Be Okay.”

©Alison Escalante MD