Category Archives: Fear and anxiety

It’s hard being a family

I just read a great post over at Science-based Parenting (a group of parents writing from a "skeptics" perspective). Have you read the blog? The post resonated so well with many thoughts I've been having recently about teaching my children how to cope with their own intense negative emotions, especially when those emotions are aimed at the people they are closest to, those they need the most, those without whom they could not survive (literally). The post was a reflection on the movie (and book), Where The Wild Things Are. Go read it (trust me)… it invokes so many of what I believe are the key emotional experiences that form the building blocks of our personalities. Experiences in particular that involve jealousy, shame, anger and anxiety. I also reviewed the book here and suggested why the story has appealed to so many kids (and adults).

If you haven't figured it out yet, I don't think of childhood as a happy-happy, carefree, rainbow-filled period in development. I sure would like my children to experience as little pain and sorrow as possible, but I know they'll feel some. And I know that there's not a whole lot I can do about that. What I CAN do is give them a safe place to express and work through their tough emotions. I can also try to cultivate a family environment that does not quash all conflict, but instead works through it, with all the messiness that that might entail. (After all, it's within the family microcosm that children most often practice how to regulate, evaluate, negotiate, and express their inner worlds. If most emotions are left unexpressed and hidden, then it's difficult to get the chance to learn much about how to handle them later on.)  I can also own my own mistakes and communicate that to my kids in developmentally appropriate ways.

I suspect that one of the hardest realizations that comes about in childhood is the insight that your parents aren't all-powerful, all-knowing and perfect. Oy… the anxiety that must come about with this awareness… I wonder if it's a "sudden awareness" or if it slowly dawns on a child, much like the idea that Santa doesn't exist. I suspect that in some cases, traumatic family events may induce these more "sudden" realizations while a more gradual understanding of human fallibility may emerge in the absence of trauma… but that's pure speculation. Now I'm off to see if any developmental researcher has actually studied that "aha" moment when a parent loses their deity status in the child's eye…

When Parting May Not Be Such Sweet Sorrow

Wow! That was a lot of guilt purging last week. I hope we're all travelling a little lighter this week if only because we've been reminded that we are not alone in carrying that MOTHER LOAD of guilt. Seriously, thanks for all the sharing. Not only has it been great to hear that we are not alone, but it's been great to get to know you a bit. We aim to please…so the more you tell us, the more you can help shape this site, what gets covered etc. 

In that spirit..
Last week's group carthasis started with Bella's guilt over her departure to Europe, but someone (Paola?) mentioned that she was also interested in the garden variety of separation anxiety.  I thought I"d give a little background into the research on separation anxiety (regular kind) but then leave you with a couple of questions that, to my knowledge, are not so well covered in the research literature. The first is an issue about separation anxiety that I"ve experienced with my son (there we are in the pic in those "all important" early days). I've also heard about it from friends re: their experiences with their own children. Once again, it would be great to hear about your experience…

Here's a quick "Did you know…?" to set it all up (just some highlights mind you, the literature on attachment is MASSIVE).

Fig4 1. One of the key studies that influenced thinking on human attachment came from a study with monkeys. Infant monkeys were given a choice of a). a surrogate mom made of wire, with a plastic nipple attached that delivered food or b). a similar wire mother with no food access but who was covered in a soft terry cloth. Although they nursed from the wire mom, the monkeys preferred the cloth mum (as in, they spent 17-18 hours a day with the cloth mum versus 1 hour with the wire/nipple one), even more so when food was not at issue but the monkeys were frightened by some foreign object that entered the room. You can read more about the study here. Although this finding came from a study with monkeys and not human babies, it raised the idea that food supply may not be as central to developing an attachment to a caregiver (as previously believed) as comfort and security. 

2. Of course the MAJOR line of research on human attachment came from Mary Ainsworth's work in the lab using something called the "Strange Situation". Basically, moms and infants come to the lab and spend some time in a "waiting room" of sorts (magazines for mom, toys for baby etc.). Over the course of 15 minutes, the people in the room change. At first mom is alone with baby. Then a stranger enters. Mom leaves baby with the stranger. Mom returns, then leaves again. Then the stranger also leaves and baby is alone. Stranger returns, then mom returns. Each of these scenarios last only a very short time; less than a minute to 3 minutes max. The researchers were mostly interested in what happens when mom and baby are reunited. Based on baby's reaction to mom's return, the babies were classified as either a). securely attached, b).avoidant attached or c). anxiously attached. The secure babies (about 65% of the infants tested) got upset when mom left but were comforted and quickly re-assured by mom on her return. In contrast, the avoidant (about 23%) babies were somewhat detached, did not show much emotion, even avoided mom or acted unaffected by her departure and also her return. Interestingly, biological markers (such as heart rate and skin conductance) later showed that these babies were nonetheless in distress. And the anxious babies (about 13%), were VERY upset at mom leaving, seemed upset or even angry on her return and were not easily reassured. 

The argument goes that securely attached babies, confident in a secure base to return to, are more free to explore their environment and therefore to learn. There is evidence that they fare better than avoidant- or anxiously- attached babies on complex problem -solving tasks and that they are generally better adjusted in later childhood and beyond.

3. In case you're freaking out because you don't believe that your child would react like a securely attached baby, here's something to consider. There is evidence that the proportion of babies in the different categories varies across cultures. E.g. supposedly there is a greater proportion of "avoidant" babies in studies with German infants  (although a more recent study with a German sample showed more of a "normal" distribution of babies across the three categories)  and of "anxious" babies in studies with Japanese infants.. Makes sense if you consider that parenting practices and styles definitely differ cross-cuturally, although perhaps less so nowadays what with the whole global village, internet etc. revolution.  In that case, it would be normal, and perhaps highly adaptive, for babies' attachment behaviors to reflect the culture they are being raised to function in.

4. A student of Mary Ainsworth – Mary Main – went on to do pioneering work on adult attachment. She was interested in how your memories regarding attachment with a primary figure when you were a child compared to the type of relationships/attachments that you form as an adult (in friendships but particularly in romantic relationships). Turns out that in ~75% of cases, that early style of attachment stays with you and is similar to the types of relationships/attachments formed in later life. Although, keep in mind that it has also been suggested that certain "buffering" factors can help mediate that connection. So a rough time in childhood does NOT necessarily mean that you are doomed to repeat that pattern as an adult.  

So there you go, some points to ponder. Here's what I'm interested in hearing from you:

My son has been very attached to me, since very early on. At 18 months of age, he would get upset if I left the room to go the bathroom, even if he was in the company of his father or grandparents who he knows very well and loves dearly. A good friend of mine's child went through a phase (granted he was quite young, maybe only 6-7 months or so) where he would get upset when she bent down over the sink to brush her teeth and was momentarily out of his view. Both of these kids improved immensely, but then with no warning would show this intense reaction all over again. No precipitating event, so stressful time, no new baby, move, change of preschool or daycare, illness of loss of a family member etc. Then it would subside, only to return again. And so it went. This summer,at almost 5, my son went to a day camp for the first time (for 2 weeks). He did not know a soul, it was in a location he did not know well, first time taking his own backpack, own lunch etc. But he did not even blink. "See ya Mum". That was it. Ditto the first day of school some weeks later. So we seem to have come out the other side. It's understandable to me that there may be sensitive periods in development when kids are more likely to suddenly seem anxious about separation agai
n, but sometimes he would sail through those sensitive periods without a blip and sometimes not. 

I'm interested to hear from you about "bouts" of separation anxiety. Anyone out there have a child who would "zoom" in and out?  At what ages?  What do/did you attribute it to?

Finally, as a mum of only 1, I"m always interested to know how kids with siblings cope with things. If you have more than 1, are/were your kids similar or different when it comes to separation anxiety?  Also, do you think that how the younger one or ones handled separation from you was different to how their older sibs handled it because they had sibs – read: company – to help tide them over until you returned? 

Send me your thoughts…


I’m leaving on a jet plane, my kids will never be the same again…

 I'm out of the country this week so I've got a few posts that will go up automatically for the next few days. As you'll see, it seems like I couldn't get my head around only one theme this week — probably has a lot to do with how completely out of control my life feels right now. It's all good: I'm LOVING being with my kids these days (they'll be 4 in March and there's just something about this age that seems to groove with my parenting style), I'm crazy-busy at work with some great projects, and I'm traveling overseas to work with fabulous people. Each one of these things seems great on its own, it's the combination / balance that I'm having a problem with. Yes, I know this isn't a personal blog, apparently I just need to get those excuses out. And it sets up the premise for today's post and tomorrow's follow-up…

I thought I'd post some thoughts about longer separations from our children. I don't mean leaving your child for a few hours or for the evening. I'm talking for a couple of days or longer. We've had two readers send questions about this issue, the gist of which boiled down to two main concerns: (1)  Are there better and worst ages to leave your child for a few days/weeks? and (2) What can I do to make the separation more bearable for my child?

Since my kids turned one and I returned to work full time, I've thought (and freaked the freak out) about these questions a lot. I've had to leave my kids for 2-6 days at one time about twice per year for business trips. Leading up to these trips, I invariably get very anxious about how my boys will cope. I try to remind myself that they're with their father, that he is an equal partner in this parenting gig, that they love him equally and need him equally. But who am I kidding? There's no doubt about the equal love, but the attachment is different and when they get tired, hungry, hurt, frustrated, or challenged in other ways, they want mommy (and I fully recognize this isn't the case for all family situations). But we do what we have to do — some of us have little choice but to leave our kids for a few days and many of us actually think it's healthy to go away for a weekend or so without the kids (count me in both groups). 

So… are there better and worst ages to leave your kids for a while? For those of you who have been following this blog for longer than a couple of weeks, you'll probably have a good guess at my answer. Yes, I DO think there are certain stages that will be harder than others for your children to deal with separations. Those stages happen to correspond to the sensitive windows in development that I spent 6 months talking about in terms of sleep training children. The same stages that are particularly difficult for sleep training are also generally difficult for ANY transition, especially those that have to do with separations. Before the age of about 8 months or so, I actually think these separations are not too bad for babies (I suspect they're much harder on moms). They haven't yet reached the big 8 – 11 month transition that will usher in a sudden burst in working memory and allow the child to understand that "out of sight is NOT out of mind." Even when mom is not in the room, she's "out there" somewhere… As I've written at length, this ability to keep mom in mind even when she's not present results in the onset of full-blown separation anxiety — NOT a time when you first want to take off on your child for days on end. Another stage you may want to avoid leaving for extended trips is the 18-21 month period. This is a DOOZY (and, of course, it happens to be one of the ages when I DID have to leave my boys… I remember the weeping phone calls to this day). I won't get into all the MANY, MANY reasons why this stage is considered the most dramatic transition period in early childhood… you can read about all the gory details here.  Suffice it to say that children are really GETTING social interactions in a way that they weren't able to before — "real" language takes off, they understand simple rules and family members' roles and they get the idea that they are expected to follow rules and respect those family roles. Most parents report this stage as the most intense emotional period in their child's life, fraught with buckets of neediness, moodiness, tantrums, meltdowns, and general crazed vulnerability (there's lots of research to back this up, reviewed in our book). Leaving your children for extended periods during this phase may heighten their sense of vulnerability and neediness and it may take a while before you child "forgives" you for leaving, once you are back. 

The other stages to watch out for are the 2.5 to 3 year old period and the 3.5 to 4 year old stage. Different developmental issues are at play at each of these various sensitive periods, but the general rationale for avoiding long-term separations during these phases are the same: these are developmental transitions during which children are more emotionally vulnerable, more attuned to separations and their meaning, and they're in need of more reassurance and support than at other more stable periods.

Ruby's jetplaneA couple of extra considerations: (1) Kids will likely be more vulnerable at the beginning of these sensitive periods, when new cognitive acquisitions are just emerging and they're coping with this novelty; the more into the stage they are, the more likely it is that they've started to learn to cope with their new sense of the world (and the accompanying new skills). Or at least that's what I'm telling myself, as my kids round the corner of a sensitive stage (3.5 – 4 years old) and I'm gallivanting in Europe. (2) If you gotta go, you gotta go. Sometimes we have no choice but to take off during one of these sensitive periods. In those cases, the mere recognition that it might be tough on our kids might be important. We can try to put in place some plans that might help ease children's distress like scheduling more phone calls (or less, depending on how your child responds to these brief connections from afar) and/or taking some extra time off when we return.

But that's the topic for the next post: What CAN we do to make separations from our children less stressful? (Hint: See this pic of one of my boys? That's just one of WAY too many guilt presents he got after I returned from my last overseas trip <sigh>)

Tell us: Have you left your child during one of these sensitive periods or during more stable ages? How did it go? Do you think it's easier to leave younger or older children? How have your children coped with your times away? How have you coped? Do you think it's generally a good or bad idea to leave your children (with a partner or grandparents or other trusted caregivers)
for a few days?

(I haven't said this in a while, so I wanted to remind readers: ALL opinions are very welcome, whether they conflict or are consistent with mine. We want to know what YOU think. What YOUR experiences have been. And I'd like to hear from those of you who DON'T think it's wise to leave kids just as much as I'd like to hear from those who do. Really. Let's talk…)

Helping our kids with the things that go bump in the night

I took my
kids today to the doctor to get them some shots that they were missing. I told
them that they were getting new "superpowers" that would make them
even stronger and more powerful; that their bodies would now be able to fight
even bigger germs and other teeny tiny things that could make them sick. It was
silly, but they got SO into it and it worked to not only help them sit still
for a needle, but also to feel great about it afterwards. And that got me
thinking… What kinds of things do we do, and can we do, to try to lessen our
children's fears? I'm talking about those everyday fears, the reasonable,
relatively common, everyday fears. I thought I'd throw out some ideas and then
ask you, dear readers, to chime in with your own suggestions. Tell us: What are
your chidlren's everyday fears and what do you say to them, what do you do,
watch, read, play, that makes them feel better?

 This isn't going to be a heavily science-based post. I just
wanted to let you know about a few books that my own kids love and share with
you some others that my mom friends have recommended. If you have some others
you'd like to add to the list, please do…

There are some GREAT books out there that deal with
children's common fears. I think books are so helpful because they provide a
safe context in which a child can talk about her fears and face them in the
light of day, with your emotional support (if you read the book to her or
listen to her read it aloud). Books are once-removed from the actual thing that
is so frightening, so children don't feel overwhelmed by addressing them
(compared to trying to expose them gradually to something they fear, for
example, which may be too difficult for some kids). Books also give kids the
unbeatable feeling that their fears are shared by other people: Look! A book
has been written about it! Other children also have the same feelings! For many
children, part of the horror of their fears is that they feel so alone with
them; they feel like they're the only ones that are so scared and the only ones
that can't be brave enough or strong enough to deal with these things. I'm not
an expert in children's books, so I am in no way suggesting that this list is a
definitive, or even great, list. But see what you think…

For fear of the dark (and/or the monsters that lurk

What's that Noise?:  "This cheery tale proves
that there's safety in numbers, at least in the dead of night. With the lights
out, a chilly violet glow falls over the bedroom of Alex and his younger
brother, Ben and suddenly it feels as if the boys are hosting a veritable
convention of spooky noises ("aroo aroo aroo") and spectral shadows
(a branch outside casts a shape that's a dead ringer for a boy-eating dragon).
Ben wants Alex to come over to his bed and sing a silly song to buck up their
spirits…" (From Publisher's Weekly)

·  My kids love Can't You Sleep Little Bear? I think I've read it to them 200 times
now. It's a classic: Big Bear helps Little Bear feel less afraid by putting
bigger and bigger lights into his room to get rid of the dark. But what really
helps the most, in the end, is Big Bear snuggling Little Bear outside, by the
moon, the biggest light at night.


·      Scaredy Squirrel at Night: I have a thing
for this little neurotic squirrel. So do my kids.  “Scaredy is too terrified to sleep, and on lively pages
formatted as charts and diagrams, he presents potential night visitors
(unicorns, polka-dotted monsters) and how he will guard against them (molasses,
banana peels). Some vocabulary words will be a stretch for a young audience
(hallucinations, drowsiness), but kids will be amused by the lively, busy
compositions packed with silly details, and those who share Scaredy’s insomniac
tendencies will enjoy the reassuring outcome.” (From Booklist)

For children dealing with separation anxiety, particularly from mom:

  • Mama always comes home
    Mama Always Comes Home: 
    My kids LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this book. And they request it like clockwork when I've been working too much or too late or when one or the other is just feeling like they want more mama time. It can help all mothers, but I think it's particularly relevant to moms who work outside the home and therefore have to leave their kids daily. The "Mama always comes home" refrain can often be heard when I'm heading out the door in the morning… and it does WONDERS for my boys.
    "Mama Bird… feeds her babies, then tucks them
    beneath a quilt in their nest before digging up more worms; Mama Cat
    leaves her kittens in the barn to have a sip of cream in the house;
    Mama Dog runs out to play with her boy. Each example ends with the
    refrain: "Mama always comes home." At the end of the story, the human
    mother explains to her little one, "I want to stay,/but while I'm gone
    have fun and play,/and soon, before you know,/time will fly right by,
    and then/I'll be coming home again." (From School Library Journal).

For children
with general worries/anxieties:

·      Wemberly Worried: I really like Kevin
Henkes’ books. My boys are just getting into them, but they’ve loved this book
for a while, constantly asking “But WHY is she so worried?” and “What’s going
to happen to her?” Wemberly worries about really teeny things (shrinking in the
tub) and big, bad stuff (not fitting in at school). The book acknowledges that
all sorts of anxieties can come up in the course of a day and ends reassuringly

Finally, I’m
going to go out on a limb with this last one (and probably freak my co-blogger
out as I go all “psychoanalytic”). I think one of the biggest fears children
have is the fear of their own emotions, particularly the negative ones, and
more specifically their own feelings of anger. It can be a very intense
experience to feel the rush of intense anger that can take over children’s
little bodies. Often these feelings of anger are accompanied by scary or
violent images and “appraisals” or thoughts about wanting to destroy, hit,
bite, or just generally go nuts. (These ideas I'm putting out here now are heavily laden with principles
from psychoanalytic theory and, for once, I’m making no apologies.) Little kids’
anger can be particularly frightening when it’s directed at people they love –
it can really freak them out to feel the intensity of their desire to want to
hurt their little brother or annihilate their mother or to just GO WILD against
anything and anyone. We’re usually ok with trying to talk about concrete stuff
– fears of the first day of school, fears of the dark, fears of the funky
shadows, strange noises and bumps in the night. But the scary stuff that
bubbles up from children’s own little minds (and adults’, let’s be real), the
images and thoughts that are dark and shaming and overwhelming, those we’re not
so good with getting at with our kids. And that’s where another book, probably
my favourite, comes in handy. It’s not exactly a hidden gem; it’s probably the
most popular book in children’s literature (it’s certainly in the running). Of
course, I’m talking about Where the Wild Things Are. Max is sent to his room
for being wild and disobedient and his is PISSED. He takes off and battles with
his “demons,” lets his freak flag fly and then comes home to realize that it’s
all acceptable. Because inside all of us, is a WILD THING.

– Isabela

Why we fear and how to deal with the scared child

Halloween is a great week to talk about fears!  Just leaving home this
morning revealed a spookier neighbourhood than I remember seeing the
last time I looked up to take it all in on the way to work.

So why do we fear? Makes sense that one explanation appeals to evolution. The idea is that we have evolved a tendency to notice quickly potentially scary things. The sooner you can pick up on that snake in the grass, ferocious lion coming at you, or huge brown bear within swiping reach, the faster you can act to avoid it, flee, get help, make some noise etc. In other words, it's essential for your survival.

Some very cool recent research has shown that children as young as 3 years of age will notice potentially scary things more quickly than non-scary things (think snakes vs. flowers). Since we find the same pattern in adults, this suggests that the rapid response to potentially scary stuff kicks in rather early. Good thing, if you want to make it past early childhood!  Rather than summarize how the researchers came to these conclusions, take a look at the video and see for yourself. Just keep in mind that since they didn't actually measure fear (which you could do by say, looking at heart rate or other biological markers), the study is really getting at PAYING ATTENTION to fearful stimuli rather than being afraid of it. Still, it makes the point quite nicely that we may be equipped to pick up on that thing that just might be about to pounce fairly early on. Check it out.

My point here is to say that fear serves an important purpose. You want your child to notice potentially harmful things and to act accordingly. Thing is, not everything is a predator about to leap. So children need time to sort out what they should be afraid of and what they don't need to fear. Think of the differences between a cartoon snake on television vs. in a 3-D movie vs. a real snake in the zoo or in your back yard.

As with everything in development, there are also individual differences in fear responses. Children vary in how sensitive they are to scary things, in how strongly they react and in what they find scary. They may also cycle through times of being scared and times when they are not. My advise?  First of all, acknowledge the fear. I hate snakes, but have no problem with heights. Others may not be the same. But telling me to just forget about it, or how so and so doesn't fear snakes will not help. So even if it's hard to understand what's scary about a Disney character, the fact is, your child finds it scary. It can be very reassuring to hear someone say, "it's okay to be afraid" or "I can understand how you feel, sometimes I feel scared too". Second, don't force the issue. There's no timetable for getting over your fears. I like to use a bit of cognitive behavioural therapy or talking my son through his fears. In other words, I try to get him to think differently about what he is afraid of in the hopes that it will affect his behaviour e.g. "That's something in your book, it's not here in your room. It can't come out of the page to hurt you.". We revisit the fearful thing every once in a while but I don't push it. Eventually, he moves on.

My little guy helped me pick out a witch's hat for Halloween, then made sure to stress that I should be a good and friendly witch. It's a small thing to ask for while we work through our fears. And hey, I kinda like to think of myself of as a good and friendly witch anyway.

Please share your stories on dealing with fears. I"m particularly interested in the first time you noticed a fear response in your child or children, the context, how old they were etc. On my next post, I'll talk a bit more about what might contribute to those early fear responses.

– Tracy

In the spirit of Halloween, let’s talk about children’s fears this week

This is such a rich topic and, given that Halloween is just around the corner for those of us in North America, it's a timely one. It's also timely because we just got a great question in a previous comment section about just this issue. Christy asked:

If you're
looking for questions for new topics, maybe something on fear? My 2.5
year old is going through a big "I'm scared" phase. Some of it seems
Halloween related (wanting to see the displays, saying he's scared and
wants to leave, talking for five minutes about how he was scared,
asking to go see it again. Repeat.) but he's also suddenly saying he's
scared of the kids at the playground, going down the slide, etc. and
talking about scary dreams, which seems to go beyond just the holiday

So, if you've been reading this blog for a while you will know that 2.5 years old will ring a bell for me immediately. That's because it is one of the developmental transition periods we've been talking so much about in the context of sleep (usually between 2.5 and 3 years old). As you'll see, all those developmental stages are equally important for a whole host of other social, emotional and cognitive challenges. If you want to know more about what's happening around 2.5 years old in terms of the cognitive changes, read this first. For the social and emotional implications, check out this post

OK, now that you're up on the developmental theory, you can see why the example that Christy gives of her son is SO VERY common at this age. Children at this age are obsessed with testing their power and control in different contexts. That's why they're always testing YOUR limits at this age — because you provide the ultimate litmus test of how very powerful your child CAN be, in a relatively safe context (it's why tantrums can be so horrible, why they seem to stop listening to any of your requests, why they are constantly wanting to "do it myself" and so on). So… when children ask to see something scary and then shy away from it immediately, and then go right back to asking for more, they're playing with this power and control boundary. They're testing just how strong they are and just how independent they can be; at the same time, they're rushing back to "touch base" with you to refill on the emotional security you can give them. The point is that new fears, and testing how "brave" they can be in the face of these new fears, is absolutely textbook at this age. So is the crazy-making "Help me/Get away from me!" behaviour. Again… they're working all this out because it's all new to them.

There's so much more to say about children's fears and there are different points to make across different age groups. But there is one thing we can generalize: New and seemingly overwhelming fears are most likely to come up during the sensitive periods in development, those transition periods I keep talking about (4-5.5 months, 8-11 months, 18-21 months, etc.). During these transition periods, kids are working out so much new information and mastering a whole set of new cognitive and emotional skills, so they're super vulnerable. And, obviously, vulnerability breeds anxiety and this anxiety can bring forth irrational fears, such as a recurring fear of the dark, or the worry that some person (or animal!) is angry at the child, or that the slide that used to be so easy to come down on may actually cause the child to break a bone. Bad dreams and even night terrors can pop up during these periods also. 

And, you know, the random proliferation of ghosts and goblins, witches and gravestones all over their previously humdrum neighborhoods can't help the poor little dudes…

What are your kids afraid of? Does anyone else notice that children can go through these periods of increased fears and anxieties and then settle down again into a more secure phase? Were you a fearful child? If so, what helped or hindered your feelings?