Four years ago, while riding his bicycle, three-year-old Punit* fell off, face-front, outside his building in Thane and broke his four front teeth.
The accident left him with a lisp. And while his grandparents found it adorable, his friends began to tease and mock him. Every time he went down to play, he returned crying, saying he never wanted to leave the house again.
By age four, he was spending more time indoors, watching TV and playing computer games. As he entered his fifth year, he began to speak less, even at home, and became less confident.
Concerned, his mother Sneha* decided to seek professional help, did some online research and decided to approach psychiatric counsellor Ali Akbar Gabhrani at Masina Hospital, Byculla.
Gabhrani began with twice-weekly sessions, which have, two years on, dropped to fortnightly sessions or a conversation on the phone.
Sneha still gladly drives her son one hour each way for every session. “It’s well worth it,” she says. “Punit has shown remarkable improvement. He goes down to play. He has learnt to respond to rebukes from his friends and move on. He has become stronger.”
Sneha is among a growing number of parents approaching psychologists, counsellors and therapists for help with relatively minor, non-clinical issues such as shyness, tantrums, lying, irritability or uncontrolled anger.
Today, parents realise that a healthy mind is as important for their child as a healthy body, says Gabhrani.
“The media and educational institutions, the two ultimate referral points for most nuclear parents, have also become more aware of the importance of mental wellness, and this too is encouraging parents to seek help when necessary,” he adds.
While Gabhrani has been counselling about eight children with non-clinical issues every month since 2010, up from only one or two per month in 2008, child counsellor Chandni Mehta says she has seen the numbers double over the past three years, from four a month in 2009 to eight per month in 2011.
And clinical psychologist Neha Patel is now counselling about five children with non-clinical issues every month, up from only one a month in 2009.
“The stigma attached to seeing a mental health expert has faded, at least in urban India, to the extent that parents feel comfortable seeking help even with minor issues, if they feel those issues are hampering the development of their child,” says Mehta.
It’s not all good news, however, cautions sociologist Gita Chadha. “Some-times, this can be a sign of what I call a growing crisis of confidence among young, urban parents,” she says. “In a rapidly changing world, they are not as sure of their parenting paradigms as their parents were.”
In Khar resident Dipti’s* case, however, it was a conscious decision to frame her own parenting paradigm that drove her to a mental health professional.
She felt her in-laws were spoiling her five-year-old son Amar*. So when his tantrums and stubbornness became increasingly frequent and unmanageable two months ago, she approached Gabhrani against their advice.
“I don’t want Amar to grow into a spoilt, ill-mannered brat,” she says.
After five sessions, Dipti says her son is already showing some improvement.
“I am happy I sought professional help,” she says.
Childcare experts, however, argue that most of the ‘treatment’ — in Gabhrani’s case, extensive conversations to draw the child out, then build up his confidence or teach him to use his words, share, take no for an answer — are entirely possible for parents to perform themselves, perhaps with a little instruction from elders or experts.
“That’s why this is a line that parents need to cross with caution,” says Swati Popat Vats, president of Early Childhood Association (ECA), a forum for parents, teachers and counsellors. “They must be wary of slipping into ‘give-up’ parenting, where they surrender too easily at the first sign of trouble.”
‘When he jumped off the fridge, it was the last straw'
Hemali, 40, mother of a hyperactive seven-year-old
Mohit’s* playpen is an elevated marble platform in his parents’ 250-sq-ft bedroom. Rubber balls and action figures are scattered on the floor. “I’m always clearing up after him and yet the house is always a mess,” says his mother Hemali, with a pained smile. “Mohit is supremely hyperactive and attention-seeking.”
For his mother, the last straw came when he began to climb from the bed onto the fridge in their bedroom, then jump back onto the bed — inches from the whirring fan. “It was terrifying,” says the entrepreneur. “And when I tried to stop him, he kept shouting that he was Superman.”
Finally, two months ago, she approached clinical psychologist Neha Patel. “My husband doesn’t approve entirely,” she says. “But I think it’s necessary.” Patel is now using fortnightly sessions in art-based therapy to teach Mohit to release his energy in creative ways.
“Mohit is aggressive and hyperactive,” says Patel. “After he lost his grandfather, he has also become insecure and clings to his mother. We are now working to help him remain calm and focused.”
‘I sought help when my baby started slapping me’
Pooja, 29, mother of a tantrum-prone two-year-old
Akanksha* was 21 months old when she first began spitting out her food. Then she stopped drinking milk unless her mother Pooja, a healthcare professional, held the glass for her. “If I let go, she would smash the glass on the ground and run away,” says Pooja.
Then she started hitting younger children in parks, and throwing tantrums if she was not allowed to wear her fancy shoes to playschool.
The last straw was when she began to hit her mother if scolded. Concerned, Pooja approached clinical psychologist Seema Hingorrany.
After six sessions, it emerged that Pooja, a first-time mother, was also being a hyperactive parent.
“The baby became cranky because she was in a transitional phase, and Pooja, being a first-time mother, became overprotective and anxious,” says Hingorrany. “I have been working with both to restore calm.”
Pooja is happy with the results. “At least now she tries to hold the milk glass,” she says, smiling.
(*Names changed on request)