What happens when two different parents take their child, one a girl and the other a boy, to the doctor for the same problem? Do they get the same treatment? Here are their stories.
Sara’s mother takes Sara, a 3-year old, to the doctor because she is concerned about her daughter’s heightened sensitivity to her surroundings, which results in stressful behaviors. Mom tells the doctor that any transition or change in schedule causes Sara to have a full-on meltdown. Sara’s mom explains that the feeling of certain clothing, socks, shoes and even the car seat bothers Sara to the point where simple tasks become unbearable. Getting Sara to sleep at night is a battle made for a warrior.
The concerned doctor then asks a lot of questions about Sara’s social interaction, daily schedule, diet and her overall health. Sara’s mother explains that she is a picky eater.
The doctor does a thorough check of Sara, measuring her height, weight, blood pressure and examining her lungs, heart and eyes. Shortly after the doctor makes a simple treatment plan.
The doctor tells Sara’s mom that the inner side of Sara’s eyelids look pale and since her diet is limited, the doctor thinks it could be low iron. The doctor tells Sara’s mom that many behaviour and sleep problems can be caused by an iron deficiency and taking an iron supplement will help. Sara and her mother were given a three-month plan; check iron levels, increase foods rich in iron and come back for a follow-up.
Michael’s mother made an appointment with their family doctor to discuss her son’s sleep problems. At the appointment Michael’s mom explains that he has a hard time getting ready to leave the house. He has a temper tantrum every time there is a change in routine, for instance, when they leave the park or get in and out of the car. Michael must be carried everywhere they go because he is exhausted, yet he acts rambunctious and hyperactive at the same time.
The doctor watches Michael play with the toys in the office, then tells Michael’s mother that the behaviour her son is experiencing is the type of behavior he would expect from a 3-year old boy. The doctor remarks, “In fact, if he didn’t act this way, I would be shocked! Don’t worry, he will grow out of it.” Michael’s mom is relieved that the doctor doesn’t think her son has any issues, but at the same time she is left with no plan or any assistance. She knows something is wrong and leaves the office deflated, having been told to just follow up at her next visit.
Our Perception of Boys’ and Girls’ Behaviour
Even though we are working on removing gender stereotypes, people still expect boys and girls to behave differently so we also diagnose the exact same behaviour in different ways. Girls are told to calm down, take a break, and we give them a new, quieter activity to focus on. With boys, we hear statements like, “he just needs to run off energy,” or “make sure he gets lots of exercise” to ‘tire’ him out to make bedtime easier.
Like parents, doctors are not immune to gender bias
What’s the Official Diagnosis for Sara and Michael?
Sara was given a diagnosis of iron deficiency, a pediatrician worked closely with the family to raise her ferritin and many of her symptoms improved. She had reduced sleep disturbances, her overall behavioral response to change greatly improved, as did her mood. Meanwhile, no blood work-up was recommended for Michael, diet was never brought up, and Michael’s mom is still struggling with his symptoms.
Follow your Parent Instincts
You know your child better than anyone. You know what they eat, their behavior, and likes and dislikes. All parents compare their child’s behavior with other children. We notice other kids when they act out. We notice the kid at the grocery store that cannot sit still in the shopping cart. We notice everything. Sometimes it takes seeing another child’s struggles to realize our child may also be struggling.
What can you do? You know your child. If you think there is a concern, you are probably right. Make an appointment with your health care practitioner. If you don’t get what you need, make a second appointment. If your concerns are being dismissed then find another health care provider. Make sure you are heard. You are the advocate for your child. Don’t simple take answers like ‘boys will be boys’ or ‘she is a middle child’ in response to your child’s symptoms.