It was dark outside. My four-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 was filled with anxiety, frozen in 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 move us to caution when we are in danger. By the age of six 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.
What makes children go into alarm?
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. This produces feelings of being unsafe, apprehensive and restless.
Children go into alarm at bedtime, when a new baby arrives, when they go to school, 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 divides 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 alarms them because the true root of alarm is the fear of separation from the people and things to which they are attached. This vulnerability is too much to bear. It is less vulnerable to fear darkness, ants, noises, shadows, or monsters under the bed. Today more children are experiencing anxiety as they face separation from their parents in unprecedented numbers at younger and younger ages for longer and longer hours. Dr. Gordon Neufeld has given us the insight into these intricate dynamics, so that we can prevent and solve the problems arising from too much alarm.
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. Children need to rest in secure relationships, in the context of home and in any framework in which they are cared for. Parents, teachers and caregivers together must be mindful of this most basic need.
As my granddaughter stood frozen before the ants, 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 their destination. Then they can grow up and become independent.