Category Archives: Psychology

Screen time

Sedentary time spent in front of screens programs metabolism and brain neurochem.  Similar to addiction.

But it’s complicated! Partly because there are so many different kinds of activity that can now be done with mobile phones and tablets, and because it’s difficult to control or randomize.

How people interact with screens is changing too. In the mid-2000s in the US, children over 8 spent an average of 6.43 hours a day on electronic media, but this was mainly watching TV.  Evidence of stress response (reduced cortisol increase) on waking after using screens for average 3 hours a day.

But now mobile devices are the centre piece of young people’s social lives.  Boys tend to spend more time gaming, girls more time on social networking.

Effect of high levels of screen time does not seem to be attenuated by equivalent exercise.

High levels of screen time (over 4 hours daily) is associated with poorer school performance. Social skills are poorer. These children tend to form cliques with shared interest, that create further social isolation.

Violent games and media are associated with aggression in children as young as pre-school. Aggression in children can be manifest physically, or verbally, or relationally (ignoring, excluding, spreading rumours). There is also significantly more hostile attribution bias, where you interpret behaviour (such as not being invited to a party) as hostile, even when it is not, or at least ambiguous.

Parental involvement matters – how frequently parents watch TV with their children, discuss content with them, and set limits on time spent playing video games.

Exposure to media violence must also be seen within a risks/resilience approach. [Gentile and Coyne, Aggressive Behaviour 2010] ]

Some evidence that some “social” games themed around cooperation and construction eg Animal crossing have benefits. Similarly, links between media and relational violence pretty weak, but that could be because relational violence content isn’t really examined! Actual content probably more important than time spent playing. Note that in that study of Animal Crossing, background mental health problems seemed to reduce benefit.

Health anxiety

DSM-5 has “illness anxiety disorder”, defined as preoccupation with the idea that you’re seriously ill, based on normal body sensations (such as a noisy stomach) or minor symptoms (such as a minor rash), to the degree that it gets in the way of normal life. Other features are persistence of such ideas over 6 months, finding little or no reassurance from negative test results or a doctor’s reassurance, repeatedly checking body, avoiding people, places or activities for fear of health risks.

In other words, hypochondriasis. Which gets its name from the idea that such feelings came from liver/spleen/gall bladder (“melancholy” – black bile).  William Cullen, in Edinburgh in the 1790s, appeared to take a particular interest in this.

For the sake of diagnosis, this disorder requires the absence of symptoms, which excludes the large group of people who have similar preoccupation and fears about non-specific or unexplained signs and symptoms.

Health anxiety is therefore a broader concept, and can include anyone who is more desperate for relief from worry, than for relief from actual symptoms.

Cyberchondria = combination of increased pathologisation of society, and ability to browse the internet.  Because provides the opportunity to find very serious, extremely unlikely explanation for problems.

Diagnosis of health anxiety is well accepted by patients if explained respectfully!

[BMJ 2016;353:i2250]


Consider constipation if episodes of faecal incontinence (stains or smears in pants, potentially larger accidents), retentive posturing (standing or sitting with their legs straight and stiff or crossed legs, some will sit on their own heel), occasional massive stools that virtually obstruct toilet. Not just hard painful infrequent stools!

In a population-based prospective birth cohort, where dietary types were extracted from questionnaire, adherence to a ‘Western-like’ dietary pattern was associated with a higher prevalence of constipation up to 48 months [aOR 1.39; 1.02-1.87], which was not mediated by overweight or sedentary behaviour. Adherence to a ‘Health Conscious’ dietary pattern was only associated at short term, with a lower prevalence of constipation at 24 months (aOR; 0.65; 0.44-0.96). This suggests that specific dietary patterns in early childhood could be associated with higher or lower risks for constipation, but these effects are time-dependent. [Maternal & Child Nutrition. 9(4):511-23, 2013 PMID: 22288911]

Straining is not a criteria, in NICE, interestingly, although it is in Rome III criteria!

Red flags:

  • multiple anal fissures,
  • gross abdo distension,
  • tenderness with guarding,
  • abnormal lumbosacral or lower limb findings,
  • failure to thrive
  • etc

NICE recommends Movicol (macrogol) as first line, combining with a stimulant (picosulfate, biscodyl, senna) as second line. If macrogol not tolerated, use stimulant +/- softener (lactulose, docusate).

Warn that pain and soiling gets worse before getting better!

Review of adherence and dose important.

Toilet training eg diary, reward system, regular post prandial sitting 5 mins +/- feet on hard surface eg stool.

“Poo should be as soft as toothpaste and should come out like a snake” (Snakes and ladders booklet, Kidney Kids Scotland). Tell your teacher if no toilet paper/soap or broken seat/locks etc.


Typically, episodes of soiling (large and small) are due to overflow of liquid stool past a large impacted stool in the rectum.  The child is unable to control, due to the distortion of the rectum.

However, children often try to deny being aware of soiling, despite the obvious smell or discomfort – this is simply a coping method, and normal sensation is usually easy to demonstrate.

The diagnosis is easier in the presence of a large suprapubic mass, or a rectal mass on digital examination.  Some children however soil for attention, without any bowel or rectal disorder.

The presence or implication of a large rectal mass requires disimpaction – an escalating regimen of a paediatric formulation of macrogol (Laxido or Cosmocol are cheaper than Movicol) as per NICE guideline 99 (doses and licensing may differ from product literature):

  • Child under 1 year: ½-1 sachet daily (non-BNFC recommended dose)
  • Child 1-5 years: 2 sachets on 1st day, then 4 sachets daily for 2 days, then 6 sachets daily for 2 days, then 8 sachets daily (non-BNFC recommended dose)
  • Child 5-12 years: 4 sachets on 1st day, then increased in steps of 2 sachets daily to maximum of 12 sachets daily (non-BNFC recommended dose)
  • If macrogol not tolerated, use stimulant laxative eg picosulfate +/- lactulose

If no progress after 2 weeks add stimulant laxative eg senna, picosulfate, bisacodyl, docusate.

Enemas eg citrate can prevent megarectum where prolonged medical treatment fails.

Polyethylene glycol licensed for distal intestinal obstruction!?


I suggest half disimpaction dose for maintenance.

Preferred treatment is paediatric formulation of macrogol (Laxido or Cosmocol are cheaper than Movicol) as per NICE guideline 99 (doses and licensing may differ from product literature).

  • Child under 1 year: ½–1 sachet daily (non-BNFC recommended dose)
  • Child 1–6 years: 1 sachet daily; adjust dose to produce regular soft stools (maximum 4 sachets daily) (for children under 2, non-BNFC recommended dose)
  • Child 6–12 years: 2 sachets daily; adjust dose to produce regular soft stools (maximum 4 sachets daily)
  • If macrogol not tolerated, use a stimulant laxative eg sodium picosulfate (5mg/5ml, NICE recommended doses):
    • Child 1 month to 4 years: 2.5–10 mg once a day
    • Child/young person 4–18 years: 2.5–20 mg once a day
    • Add lactulose or docusate if stools hard

.At least 3/12 of maintenance before weaning if disimpaction required initially.

I always highlight that laxative use does not induce dependency, rather, that chronic constipation is unlikely to improve without adequate treatment.

Review regularly – symptoms, toileting, taking medication.

Continue maintenance treatment until regular bowel habit established for at least a few weeks or until toilet trained. Do not stop dose abruptly.

General advice re balanced diet including fruit, vegetables, high-fibre bread/breakfast cereals, baked beans, regular toileting, exercise, sufficient fluid intake (1000-1400ml age 4-8yrs, 1200–2100ml age 9–13yrs).

Involve Health Visitor in pre-school group.

Consider cow’s milk protein intolerance (CMPI) if onset coincides with introduction.  Coeliac disease, hypothyroidism, cystic fibrosis, Hirschsprung’s disease and hypercalcaemia also come into the differential.


Rectal biopsy indicated if delayed meconium at birth (ie >48hrs), Downs, enterocolitic episodes.

Anal fissures have high spontaneous healing rate with medical treatment.

Manual evacuation under GA may be required if resistant. No benefit on RCT for anal dilatation. Small RCT found botox as good as internal sphincter myectomy for refractory constipation.

Appendicostomy or caecostomy antegrade colonic enema (where bowel irrigated using catheter) has a role in refractory cases after age 6yrs. QOL, continence improve but appreciable morbidity.

Relapses more common in boys, under age 4, background of psychosocial or behavioural probs, encopresis. 1/3 of post pubertal children continue to have severe problems.  See also parenting and constipation.

Parent information

ERIC website –

[NICE clinical guideline 99 – constipation in children and young people (Published 2010)]

[BMJ 2012]

Chronic fatigue syndrome

US IOM expert panel have rejected this name, as patients hate it!  Myalgic encephalitis (ME) also rejected on basis of insufficient evidence that this is the pathological process.  They suggest “Systemic exertion intolerance”, which is probably even more rubbish, in my opinion.

Diagnostic criteria: all of the following 3 [BMJ 2015; 350 doi:]

  1. Substantial reduction/impairment in pre-illness levels of activity, that persists for more than six months [NICE 2007 says 3/12 for children], and accompanied by fatigue (often profound, new or definite onset, not the result of ongoing excessive exertion and not substantially alleviated by rest)

  2. Worsening of symptoms after any type of exertion (including cognitive and emotional stress) – “post-exertional malaise

  3. Unrefreshing sleep, and/or sleep disturbance.

In addition, should have at least one of:

  • Cognitive impairment
  • Orthostatic intolerance.

Doesn’t mention chronic pain?! NICE says reconsider diagnosis in absence of cognitive difficulties or chronic pain.


Evidence (reproducible) implicating certain infections as a trigger. Co-existing mood disorder in substantial proportion of patients, sometimes sleep-wake disorder – likely to perpetuate/exacerbate.

Brain imaging has identified alternations suggesting that it is a brain problem.


[NICE 2007]

  • Urinalysis
  • FBC, LFTs
  • TFTs
  • Coeliac disease screening
  • CK
  • Glucose
  • Ferritin

NOT microbiology unless indicated: borrelia, HIV, Hepatitis viruses, EBV, CMV, toxoplasmosis


Recent Cochrane review of graded exercise therapy – may benefit sleep, physical function, self-perceived general health, and no evidence that it worsens outcomes. Curiously, no evidence for loss of aerobic fitness! Perhaps graded exercise tackles a hyper-reactive CNS response to exercise-related physiological signals. Note that fear of physical activity becomes conditioned when it commonly exacerbates symptoms.

Relaxation techniques recommended by NICE.  CBT also effective. Analysis of both CBT and graded exercise suggests that benefit comes from reducing inactivity.

Sleep hygiene important.  Avoid day time naps, especially since sleep doesn’t usually help anyway!

Many people find exclusion diets useful, esp bowel symptoms, not recommended but involve dietician if attempted anyway.

Equipment to maintain independence can improve quality of life and should be part of overall management.

Beware boom-bust! Many patients over do it when they have a period of relative wellness.

But are these cures? PACE trial aimed for less than full restoration of health as “recovery”, future trials should use clinically relevant improvement and patient self-perception.


Important to be honest at time of diagnosis.  More optimistic in young people.  Most adults improve, some are able to return to usual activities but others experience long term symptoms or relapse.

[bmj 2015;350:h2087][NICE 2007

Attention Deficit & Hyperactivity Disorder

ADHD defined as at least 6 months of

  • Inattention,
  • Hyperactivity,
  • Impulsivity.

ICD requires all 3, DSM requires just 1.


  • social and/or academic difficulties not explained by anxiety or depression,
  • child should be under 7 yrs.

DSM does not give guidance on assessing severity. UK guidelines do not mention mild ADHD.

Commonly associated with peer rejection, increased risk of injury. Long term, less likely to enter higher education or find employment, more likely to have delinquent/criminal behaviour, more likely to smoke, use alcohol and illegal drugs.

There is high concordance for monozygotic twins, which supports a genetic cause. There are also MRI/PET lesions, which support a physical cause (cortical abnormalities in the frontal, temporal, and parietal lobes, Lancet 2003). It is 3 times more common in boys. It may be related to traumatic experience in infancy.

There are rating scales eg Conner’s ADHD index, which is 94% sensitive.

Examples of inattention:

  • Careless mistakes
  • Does not seem to listen when spoken to directly
  • Does not follow through instructions (NOT simply oppositional)
  • Avoids sustained mental effort
  • Loses things necessary for tasks/activites

Examples of hyperactivity/impulsivity:

  • Fidgets, squirms, leaves seat when expected to remain
  • Runs about, climbs in appropriate situations
  • Acts as if “driven by a motor”
  • Blurts out answers before question finished
  • Interrupts, intrudes on others

There should be impairments in at least 2 settings eg school and home.


Parent training programmes are effective for preschool children.

Methylphenidate, a dopamine agonist, is effective, esp for concentration, hyperkinesis and impulsiveness. Clonidine has been suggested.

Behaviour modification (NOT cognitive behavioural) is effective for age 6yr+ only when combined with medication.

Hyperactivity tends to improve over time, but there are associated antisocial behaviours and learning difficulties long term. The longest trial showed better performance up to 8yrs after entry (compared with baseline), but still underperforming compared with peers.

A diagnosis can help parents but also carries stigma: children with ADHD are perceived as lazier and less clever by peers, and teachers/parents have lower academic expectations.

BMJ 2013;347:18a

Parenting and constipation

Parental child-rearing attitudes (as assessed by the Amsterdam version of the Parental Attitude Research Instrument, A-PARI), are associated with constipation in children in Dutch study.

More specifically, both higher and lower scores on the autonomy attitude scale were associated with decreased defecation frequency and increased faecal incontinence. High scores on the overprotection and self-pity attitude scales were associated with increased faecal incontinence.

“Autonomy” reflects emphasis on encouraging independence.  “Overprotection” refers to concern about child with respect to prevention of disappointment and problems for the child, and need to know what’s going on inside child.  “Self pity” refers to irritability and frustration with respect to upbringing, which implies rejection.

More and stronger associations were found for children aged ≥6 years than for younger children.

Authors recommend addressing parenting issues during treatment and even referral to mental health services when parenting difficulties hinder treatment or when the parent–child relationship is at risk.  [Arch Dis Child 2015;100:329-333 doi:10.1136/archdischild-2014-305941]]


Psychosocial interventions

Flashpoints are transition eg from nursery to primary, to secondary, to adult services.

At diagnosis, constantly try to normalise.

Other triggers are new or difficult situations: staff changes esp specialist nurses. Effect on parent’s work, parent’s role in family, child’s fears.

Past experience of medical condition, procedure, hospital/doctors will colour.

Parenting in chronic illness – limit setting vs laxity (love!) in face of illness.

Behaviour as communication of fear, displeasure!

Signs and symptoms – changes in appearance, mood, behaviour, thoughts.

Support at diagnosis: names, phone numbers! Normalise experience and feelings. Signpost peer support, online or other. Written. Practical eg financial, family routines. Joint working for consistent info. Deciding what chats are appropriate with child present. Reiteration.

“Other people in your situation have tried x, y and z. Do any of those sound good?”

Pre-5: encourage play and exploration, avoid interfering with parental proximity.

5-7 May develop magical thinking (I think, and it comes true). Guilt, punishment, contagion? Accept what other children say as true! Imitate parental behaviour. Death as reversible.

Drawing! Check understanding of bodily functions.

Sue Robinson, hospital passport (Janie donnan). For primary school age, app for teens to follow.

Concrete reminder of achievements and rewards.

Alphabet. Backwards!

Hand on tummy, feel rise and fall.

Guidance for parents!

Sucrose. Video for juniors, showing expected techniques.

Functional analysis (ABC) – immediate antecedent (context as much as events), consequences (esp people’s actions, any difference in attention (anything given or taken away)?  What would usually happen otherwise?) use diary again. Bedside table! 5-7 days max, can be repeated. Review within 2 weeks.

Pacing – beware boom/bust cycles. Rest before exhausted but maintains daily activity.

Activity record: enjoyment vs pain impact.

Smart goal. Low hanging fruit first! Goal diary – did you achieve it? Rate pain. How did you feel?

If/then plan – beware abandoning at first set back. If you can’t get to school one day, then what will you do? Phone to update? Try harder next day?

How confident? What benefits, what difficulties?

Visualisation – can child describe a scene easily? Else unlikely to work.  Personally relevant dream place. Safe and happy. Real or imagined. Describe it in as much detail as you can – all senses. As long as possible; but 5 mins is plenty.

Record positive achievements.

Positivity – but listen empathetically.

Negative beliefs.


[NES study day – Liz Hunter, Ashley Sikoura]

Obesity prevention

Childhood obesity can be prevented – Cochrane updated evidence 2011!

Most effective interventions change social and physical environments and norms, not just individual behaviour.  Policies for healthy eating and physical activity in schools and early childcare settings, support for teachers to do health promotion, parent support and home activities that encourage children to be more active, eat more nutritious foods and spend less time in screen based activities.  Esp 6-12yrs but heterogeneous.

Fast food patronage is a frequent reality for many children and their parents. Although there are increasingly healthier alternatives for popular menu items (apple slices instead of French fries), they are infrequently selected.

What would Batman eat? Priming

Study of 22 children presented with 12 photos of 6 admirable and 6 less admirable models incl Batmand and Superman.  Asked, ‘Would this person order apple fries or French fries?’ In the health prime condition, the same children were shown 12 photos of 6 healthy foods and 6 less healthy foods and asked to indicate if each food was healthy or unhealthy.


When children were asked what various admirable people – such as Batman or Spiderman – would eat, 45% then chose apple slices over French fries (cf 9% in control group).  Incidentally, knowing which foods were healthy or not made no sigificant difference to food choice.  [Wansink et al,  Pediatric Obesity, 7: 121–123. doi: 10.1111/j.2047-6310.2011.00003.x]