An article in the NY Times by Jane E. Brody appeared shortly after the Newtown massacre—”When Anxiety Interrupts a Child’s Life”. I certainly have no quarrel with her lead sentence, “Is it any wonder so many children are anxious?” as she spoke of the horror in the news. But by the second paragraph I was dismayed. She wrote, “but much of what children fear is rooted more in imagination than in reality,” and that, “comforting children seized with irrational fears can be a difficult task.”
Rooted in irrational fears? To that I say, hold on there. For many children, the fear may look irrational because the triggers are not apparent, but if parents would listen to their children and ask thoughtful questions about their fear, they might learn something about what underlies their anxiety. To tell a child his or her fears are just their imagination is unhelpful, discouraging, and dismissive of what might really be going on.
The author quotes Daniel Smith, author of “Monkey Mind,” as recommending anxious children be treated the same as adults, with cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and antidepressants. A study was cited which supposedly backs up that claim. But take a look, the study compared the use of only CBT and Zoloft, and concluded that combining the two worked better.
Also quoted was Tamar E. Chansky, author of “Freeing Your Child From Anxiety,” who with slightly more sympathy said, “the goal was not to put down children’s fears but to help them see that their fears are unwarranted and that they can overcome them.”
But what if their fears are warranted? Wouldn’t it be better to look for answers? Does it make sense to deal with upset within the emotional right brain with the unfeeling detachment of the logical left brain? And medicating a still developing brain? That is a dangerous path.
A New Paradigm
There is growing awareness that the the root cause of fear and anxiety is not at all irrational, nor imaginary, and can be discovered. Take the work of the Association for Prenatal and Perinatal Psychology and Health (APPPAH) of which I’m a member. Its mission is to “educate professionals and the public about, and advocate for, the life-changing discoveries made in the area of prenatal and perinatal psychology and health. APPPAH illuminates the life-long impact of conception, pregnancy, and birth on babies, families and society.”
Many children’s fears are memories of a rough beginning—caused by external stress during gestation, a traumatic birth, or problems with bonding to his or her caretakers during those vital few months after birth. Some may be the results of poor parenting, but often through no fault of the mother, something goes wrong. Trauma is remembered, and can be triggered by something as simple as flashing lights or loud noises, as sometime happens to children who spent time in the neonatal unit. All prematurity is stressful, as is being surrendered for adoption.
APPPAH founder, Dr. Thomas Verny, in his 1981 ground-breaking book “The Secret Life of the Unborn Child,” described the case of a newborn who turned away from her mother and refused to suckle at her breast. After an experiment in which the baby girl readily accepted another woman’s breast, the obstetrician learned that her mother hadn’t wanted to get pregnant, and had wanted an abortion. She said her husband wanted the baby, that’s why she had her. Dr. Verny concluded that because the mother had not bonded with the child, the child refused to bond with her—a good example of just how much consciousness exists before birth. I’ve worked with highly anxious adults who sourced their anxiety back to the womb—one discovered he was conceived by date rape, another by incest, and a third got the strong message that she was a problem and the cause of her mother’s pain.
Children’s fears may also have their source in prior lifetimes. Author Carol Bowman discovered the source of her son’s panic attacks at age five (the first event during 4th of July fireworks, the next at a swimming pool) were traced back to a past-life memory of being killed during the Civil War. A few days after regression therapy, his fear of loud noises had completely disappeared.
Had Ms. Bowman sought help from therapists such as described in the NY Times article, not only would her son not have recovered as quickly as he had after one simple and painless procedure that likely took less and thirty minutes, nor would he have had to endure hearing that his problem was his own doing— there was something wrong with his mind. Worst of all, if things had gotten worse, as they may have, his desperate mother may have decided she would do anything to reduce his anxiety and agreed to an antidepressant.
What Robert Whitaker, an award winning medical journalist says about medicating children should be intuitively obvious: We should not medicate a still developing brain. He wrote, “The medicating of children and youth became commonplace only a short time ago, and already it has put millions onto a path of lifelong illness.”
Advice for the parents of fearful or anxious children
1. New York Times article, When Anxiety Interrupts a Child’s Life, by Jane E. Brody.http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/helping-children-gain-control-over-an-anxiety-disorder/
2. Verny, Thomas, MD, with Kelly, John, “The Secret Life of the Unborn Child,” Dell Trade Paperback, 1981
3. Bowman, Carol, “Children’s Past Lives: How Past Life Memories Affect Your Child,” Bantam Books, 1997
4. Whitaker, Robert, “Anatomy of an Epidemic,” Crown Publishers, 2010
5. Research on 5HTP for night terrors: European journal of pediatrics 163:7 2004 Jul pg 402-7
6. AHHHPA’s website is birthpsychology.com