Academic journal article Contemporary Nurse : a Journal for the Australian Nursing Profession

How Social Myths about Childhood, Motherhood and Medicine Affect the Detection of Subtle Developmental Problems in Young Children

Academic journal article Contemporary Nurse : a Journal for the Australian Nursing Profession

How Social Myths about Childhood, Motherhood and Medicine Affect the Detection of Subtle Developmental Problems in Young Children

Article excerpt


This discussion is the product of a doctoral study that explored the historical, social and political influences on the experiences of mothers whose children were not identified with developmental problems until school age. Ethical approval for the study was gained through the Ethics Committee, James Cook University. Life stories of eight mothers (all names used are pseudonyms), who lived in the North Queensland region of Australia, were obtained through individual, in-depth interviews. The mothers recounted their experiences raising children with undiagnosed developmental problems in their pre-school and early school years. Table 1 provides an overview of the mothers and their children.

While this study had a number of aims, one was to ascertain ways in which child health professionals, such as child health nurses, general practitioners and paediatricians may utilise the experience of mothers to improve early recognition and diagnosis of subtle developmental and behavioural problems in children.

Subtle developmental problems are those developmental idiosyncrasies that often appear as singular developmental differences that are not considered to be seriously problematic for the child. Poor balance, difficult behaviour, short attention span, or a delayed developmental milestone such as speech, may, in isolation from other developmental delays, be considered as subtle problems (Williams & Holmes 2004). There are usually no obvious biological or environmental causes for the problems. It is often the mothers who notice these difficulties or delays in the pre-school years. Once children with subtle developmental problems attend school they may exhibit learning difficulties, behavioural difficulties, poor physical skills, or be socially isolated from their peers. At the time of diagnosis, most of the children in this study were identified as having behavioural, social and learning difficulties.

While it was anticipated that health professionals such as child health nurses would have regular contact with many mothers and their young children, particularly in the first three years of life, many of the mothers in this study only visited child health nurses occasionally. Mothers took their children to Maternal and Child Health Centres for 'well' child check-ups and immunisations, usually in the first few months of their infant's life. They were far more likely to visit their local medical doctor if they were concerned about their child's health or development. However, many of the findings in this study may be of interest to child health nurses as they are integrally linked to the medically orientated approach to health care, usually referring children to doctors when concerns about development arise.

Mothers told about their experiences with their children and these stories were transcribed and read through the lens of a number of literary theories. (see Williams & Holmes (2005) and Williams (2006) for further detail about the methodology and method).This paper focuses on the findings from a semiotic analysis that seeks to explain the role myths play in defining underlying social values that affect what people think, say and do. Specifically, attention was paid to the relationships between mothers and their families, friends, community members and child health nurses and doctors in the years leading up to school attendance. Consideration was given to the role that social myths play in influencing how mothers, nurses and doctors and others in the community viewed children's development, what mothers did when concerned about their child and how child health professionals responded to those concerns.


The term 'myth' usually conjures up images of ancient stories or fairy tales where imaginary creatures roam the earth. These images may lead one to suppose that myths are make-believe and of little relevance to society. Yet authors such as Levi Strauss (1966), Malinowski (1954) and Eliade (2003) suggest that in traditional societies mythical stories of heroes and heroines, 'good' and 'bad' people, boys and girls, magicians and healers were important because they created a link to the past that promoted a sense of cultural security. …

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