It was dark outside. My 4-year-old granddaughter was about to cross the sidewalk, when she noticed a swarm of black ants covering the area on which she was about to step. Alarmed at the sight of them, she froze in anxiety and helplessness.
What is anxiety?
In order to survive and stay safe in the world, our brains are equipped with an alarm system. This system is meant to serve us by moving us to caution when we are in danger. By the age of 6 months in utero, the fetus already has a working alarm system. Later on, it will help the child develop caution, carefulness, concern, and conscientiousness. This is an intricate system which involves the limbic system, the hypothalamus, autonomic nervous system, attention system, endocrine system and many special neurotransmitters. The alarm system plays an important role in development, and parents are a key influence in making sure that this system remains working in a healthy way.
The feelings of anxiety – being unsafe, apprehensive and restless — are only the tip of the iceberg, not only in children but in all of us. Beneath these feelings, there is much going on that we are not conscious of – chemically, physiologically and emotionally. There is almost no end to what can trip this alarm system, whether we are conscious of it or not. When we feel anxiety, it means we are in alarm.
What makes children go into alarm?
Children go into alarm at bedtime, when a new baby brother or sister arrives, when they go to daycare or school, when they go away to a dormitory, when their parents divorce, when teddy bear gets lost, when they realize that death is an inevitable part of life, when they are rejected by friends, when someone is angry at them, and so on. These sources of alarm are quite obvious, but then there are also the hidden sources of alarm – realizing that parents can’t keep you safe, that something bad could happen to someone you love, sensing you are too much to handle, that you can’t meet the expectations of others, that you are not important to someone you care about or that you must keep a secret that could divide you. All of these cause anxiety and a chronic vague sense of being unsafe, apprehensive and restless. These are the subjective experiences of an activated alarm system, even when we don’t see what is alarming us.
Children do not see what is alarming them because the experience would be too vulnerable. The anxiety that children feel is rooted in the very vulnerable fear of separation from the people and things to which they are attached. It becomes expressed as fear of darkness, ants, noises, shadows, monsters in the closet and crocodiles under the bed. With regard to parents and children, separation and the fear of separation are increasing in modern society. So, too, is anxiety. There has never been a time in history when children are separating from their parents in unprecedented numbers at younger and younger ages for longer and longer hours. Thanks to the work of Dr. Gordon Neufeld who has spent 40 years putting the pieces together for us to understand these intricate dynamics, we can prevent and solve the problems arising from too much alarm in children.
The Prevention and Solution of Alarm Problems
Deep attachment to a caring adult is the key to helping children feel safe and preventing the problems that stem from alarm. If all goes well, a child will develop this relationship with his parents by the age of 6. But when this relationship is disrupted by long hours in day care when the child is very young, the child cannot attach deeply and is left in a state of feeling insecure. The alarm system which is meant to alert us to danger in certain situations, now becomes stuck, creating a constant state of anxiety and elevated levels of cortisol (the stress hormone) in the child’s system. In this state, attention becomes scattered and learning becomes impossible.
Added to this growing problem is the escalating use of separation-based discipline practices – isolation, time-outs, the thinking chair, the silent treatment, consequences, ultimatums and sanctions – which further put the child into alarm, whether at home or in the classroom. It’s no wonder so many children are diagnosed with ADD. There’s nothing wrong with these children; they are simply in alarm, constantly scanning the environment to see where the danger is coming from.
The solution to the problem of anxiety in children is to allow them to come to rest in the security of an attachment relationship. The daycare center, the gan, school and any framework in which children are cared for must become part of the “attachment village.” Parents, teachers and caregivers together must make sure that children are properly attaching to those who are responsible for them and that these attachments are developing deeply. They must collect the children in their care regularly throughout the day (see separate article about the collecting dance), reduce separation as much as possible in the lives of children, bridge the separations between home and daycare center or school, and match make with each other the adults who care for them. These practices and rituals make a major difference in the healthy development of children, including a healthy alarm system.
The ultimate goal of development is for the child to become fully integrative – cognitively, emotionally and socially. Our yearning is for the child to be able to adapt to that which alarms him and find within himself courage in the face of alarm. This takes years to develop, and it cannot develop if we constantly push our children into alarm. We need to shield them from alarm as much as possible so that they can little by little adapt to the alarming futilities of life.
As my granddaughter stood frozen in front of the ants, wishing to cross the sidewalk, I came alongside her, took her by the hand and said, “Let’s count to three and then we’ll run and jump over the ants!” That’s what we did and we made it safely to the other side – together. This story is a metaphor. When our children are facing alarm, we must hold on to them, keep them attached to us and help them safely to the other side. Then they can grow up and become independent.
Shoshana Hayman is Director of Life Center, www.lifecenter.org.il, Faculty Member Neufeld Institute and Head of the Parenting School at Machon Lander Jerusalem Academic College.
For information about our professional and parenting courses, please call Life Center at 1599-550-777 or Machon Lander at 073-220-4206.