We all lie to our kids’ pediatricians. Here’s what you can do about it

Jan. 15, 2019

According to a recent study, between 60 and 80% of patients say they haven’t told their doctors the truth or have withheld information from them. For parents and their children’s pediatricians, experts say there are even more compelling reasons to lie.

While “well-child” checkups aren’t required by law, they are highly recommended, and so parents often feel obligated to take their children to doctors even if they don't necessarily want help or value the pediatrician’s opinion when it comes to every issue. When discussing topics parents don’t want to be discussing in the first place, parents may feel ashamed but unable or unwilling to comply with the doctor’s orders, so they lie. Other times, a parent may fear the doctor won't give them what they believe their child needs, such as medication, unless they stretch the truth. And while doctors are only legally obligated to report physical or sexual abuse, what counts as abuse is at the discretion of the doctor, and so some parents fear that if they reveal something the doctor doesn’t like — such as drug use — it might result in them getting reported to social services.

Veronica Bojerski, a child and family psychotherapist at Season’s Practice in Broadview Heights, Ohio, says she deals with deception often.

“When patients lie, it’s often because they don’t really want to hear the doctor’s opinion,” says Bojerski. “We lie because we don’t want to change our behavior, and we know someone’s going to disapprove.”

While lying or omitting the truth is actually very rational, Bojerski says, there could be unintended, negative consequences when we hide the truth. Below, Bojerski advises parents guilty of these six common lies on what to say or do instead.

Lie #1: Where the baby sleeps

When her first was born four years ago, Lauren H., from Philadelphia, says she had no intention of disobeying her pediatrician and bed-sharing with her children.

“At every well-visit starting at 24 hours, they would ask where she was sleeping, and if she had her own space,” Lauren says. “Every time, I would laugh and say, ‘In a bassinet, but she doesn't really sleep.’”

By four weeks, Lauren says she was ready to snap. “I hadn't slept for more than 10 minutes since she was born,” she says.

Lauren’s mother suggested that she bring the baby into bed with her. “I did, and magically, she started sleeping through the night,” she says. “At the next well visit, when they asked if she had her own sleeping space, I just said, ‘She has a bassinet.’”

Lauren says she lied by omission because she was scared of getting in trouble. When she decided from the beginning to co-sleep with her second child, Lauren says she kept it to herself.

What the doctor advises: “It sounds like she’s feeling shame, like someone is going to punish her,” says Bojerski. “You can’t get in trouble for co-sleeping.”

When it comes to co-sleeping — or any behavior that goes against your pediatrician’s advice, Bojerski says — you should be able to talk about it with your doctor.

“Even if they advise against something, they ought to be able to discuss ways of making the risky behavior more safe,” she says.

Lie #2: What the baby eats

Kaneisha Olson of Idaho Falls, Idaho, says that when her doctor brought up feeding baby food at his 4-month appointment, she tried explaining that she wanted to do baby-led weaning, or BLW.

“He was automatically against it,” Olsen says.

As her doctor lectured on, Olsen says, “I just shook my head and smiled and thought, ‘I'm going to do with my child as I please.’”

Now, instead of being able to ask him questions related to her son’s feeding, she says does her own research.

What the doctor advises: “If you feel your doctor is condescending,” Bojerski says, they’re not doing their job. “Find a doctor that’s a better fit.”

Lie #3: Having guns in the house

“I don’t like the guns,” says one Midwest mom, who asked to remain anonymous. “The fact that we own them is a problem for me. I don’t tell [my daughter’s] friends or our pediatrician.”

What the doctor advises: “If you have guns in the home, your doctor may ask how they’re stored,” Bojerski says.

Again, she says, they’re not trying shame you — or take away your right. “They just want to ensure that you’re a responsible gun owner,” she says.

Lie #4: Exaggerating symptoms

Bojerski says exaggerating symptoms is another common way that parents may deceive their children’s pediatrician. When a parent feels certain their child needs medication — and is fearful they won’t get better without it — the parent may say what they think the doctor needs to hear in order to make the diagnosis.

What the doctor advises: When it comes to parents exaggerating symptoms, Bojerski says, there may be pathological reasons parents do this: “In extreme cases, it may be a condition called Munchausen syndrome by proxy.”

More commonly, Bojerski says, a parent may have their own anxieties related to health. If the child’s slightest fever or the sniffles send a parent into a panic, “they may need therapy to talk through their own distress and overwhelm.”  

Lie #5: Pretending your child has hit developmental milestones she hasn't

“Every now and then I notice my wife stretching the truth,” admits one anonymous New York City dad.

For example, when the pediatrician asked the standard question “Is [your toddler] saying seven to 10 words?” dad says that mom answered affirmative. Not true, says dad. Still, he didn’t correct her.

“She lies so neither her nor the kid look inadequate,” he says.

What the doctor advises: Every kid develops at their own pace, Bojerski reminds us — and milestones are merely an average, “but is their development so far off that the child needs services? You have to be honest. Your doctor is there to help.”

Lie #6: Mom or dad's drug or alcohol use

Jessica Kelly, a mom from Salt Lake City, says that when her pediatrician asked if she or if anyone else smokes in the home, she says no — “which was a blatant lie,” Kelly says, “but I don’t want to hear what they have to say.”

Kelly smokes marijuana for anxiety, to increase her appetite and for chronic pain in her foot. “I probably smoke anywhere from three to five times a day, really depends on the weather, and how I'm feeling,” she says.

Kelly says her pediatrician, who she describes as “very by the book,” wouldn't understand.

What the doctor advises: “A very by-the-book doctor isn’t the right doctor for this patient,” says Bojerski. Drug use could be a red flag, Bojerki says, “but you have to know the patient. This parent needs a doctor that is more skilled at patient-centered care.”

Lie #7: If the baby hasn’t had their vaccines

“I stopped taking my 2-year-old son to a primary doctor after they bullied me into giving him 2- and 4-month vaccinations,” confesses one anonymous mom from Bedford, Ohio. “He had a birth defect, and I wanted to be able to know if what I was dealing with was from the birth defect before adding vaccines into the mix. Sure enough, he had an adverse reaction, and the doctor blew me off.”

Now this anonymous mom says she lies when she take her son to his specialists. “When they ask if he has a PCP, I tell them we just moved and we’re looking,” she says. “And whenever they ask if he’s current on shots, I tell them he is.”

What the doctor advises: “There’s a doctor for everyone,” Bojerski says. “This parent needs to find an alternative care provider.”

The bottom line

“We are the experts on our children, but we’re not doctors,” Bojerski says. And even if you are a doctor, Bojerski says, you are not allowed to treat your own child.

If you’ve made some effort but still find you’re having trouble being truthful to your doctor, Bojerski says, you might need to switch providers. She says it's normal to have to try three different doctors. Ask your friends for recommendations, she advises.

“Seek out the doctor that’s right for you,” she says.

Tips and stories from parents and caregivers who’ve been there.

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