Author(s): Mayes LC
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Abstract Prematurity and birth defects present parents with a crisis for which they have usually had little preparation and no prior education. Both types of early medical complications may represent a state of suspended animation for most parents. Even large premature infants with good prognoses induce anxiety and symbolize potential death and disability, and children with birth defects may portend years of medical procedures and long-term disability. The fear of serious neurologic impairment or mental retardation presents parents with a long period of ambiguity and chronic anxiety. During this period, they must be helpless observers rather than active participants. Recent research has indicated that the active involvement of parents in the care of their premature infants can be helpful in alleviating the guilt and anxiety related to loss and impairment. Similarly, early physical contact between parents and their severely malformed infant is equally critical. Even if the ultimate complexities of early attachment have yet to be delineated fully, this is a worthwhile practice and useful approach in the nursery. Child mental health professionals have important roles to fulfill in helping staff members deal with increased parental participation and directly managing family members with intense distress related to their infants' fragility. The role of the mental health professional in such consultation may cover five related tasks: 1. Understanding the nature of the biologic issues facing the child and integrating that understanding with an evaluation of the child's neurobehavioral profile. 2. Understanding the family's relationship with the child and their overall level of functioning during an acutely stressful time. 3. Developing an appreciation of the place of the child in his or her family and how the parents understand the nature of the medical problems. 4. Forming a collaborative relationship with the pediatricians and other subspecialists who care for the child so that behavioral and psychological interventions are integrated with the child's biomedical care. 5. Fostering a brief, or sometimes long-term, therapeutic relationship with the family or facilitating the family's finding such a relationship with another clinician. There will never be enough child and adolescent psychiatrists and psychologists to treat all families of medically compromised infants. Knowledge of normative responses has advanced to the point at which basic skills can be used by and transmitted to others who can provide basic services. There is much to be learned about the short- and long-term sequelae of such stressful situations on individuals and family systems with preexisting psychopathology. For such families, child mental health professionals are uniquely suited to play a further role in research and treatment.
This article was published in Child Adolesc Psychiatr Clin N Am
and referenced in Journal of Psychology & Psychotherapy