Palo Alto Counseling, Psychotherapist in Palo Alto and Menlo Park, CA, California - Carol Campbell, MFT
706 Cowper Street, Palo Alto, CA 94301 • (650) 325-2576
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Raising a Secure Child in a Paranoid World

by Carol Campbell, MFT

Throughout most of human history, I would guess that the greatest dangers to raising healthy children were generally physical dangers: attacks by wild animals, the scourge of famines, terrible rates of child mortality and maternal deaths in childbirth, raids by warring tribes, vulnerability to fierce weather extremes, disease, etc.

Most American children born today will live relatively long lives free from actual physical harm from such outside forces. However, our children are at risk of living their entire lives in severe states of anxiety. The dangers encountered by modern Americans are much less physical, and much more psychological, than ever before in history. The most prevalent damaging emotion characterizing our American culture might well be paranoia.

We are told we all need guns to protect ourselves from the bad guys. We are supposed to check online to see if the bad guys live next door. Some people view the government itself as a threatening enemy. We are warned that children must be driven to school, play dates, and activities, because they could be kidnapped if they were allowed to walk or ride their bikes. We need to check our computers regularly for malevolent viruses or thieves out to steal our identities. We are told that if our kids are aced out by other kids from getting into the right preschools their lives will have already been severely damaged.

Given that our world is so thoroughly saturated with paranoid legends and practices, how is a parent supposed to raise a secure child? How can a kid grow up feeling safe, when the morning newspaper or media broadcast is full of stories of violence, deceit, danger, and disaster?

Here are some suggestions for parents:

Helping Your Baby Feel Safe in Utero

The baby in utero lives in a watery world that is exquisitely sensitive to the emotional state of the mother, and fully capable in the later stages of gestation of hearing sounds from the environment outside the mother's body. Too often, modern day babies may be subjected to disturbing levels of anxiety-induced body chemistry, because expectant mothers are taught to worry. What began as good intentions for encouraging healthy pregnancies has sometimes morphed into a foolish concern about trying to produce a perfect child. Anxious pregnant couples generate arguments and distress over what to eat, what not to eat, what brands of products to buy, what fashions the baby should wear home from the hospital, where to have the coolest labor and delivery experience, how to photograph every moment of the pregnancy, etc., etc. Competitive childbirth is too often unleashed within extended families, neighborhood groups, and birthing classes. The innocent baby can be the biggest receptor of bad feelings being tossed around by the parents.

  • Pregnant moms would be wise to lay off the worrying. Refuse to listen to anyone – including me – if that person says one word to increase your normal anxiety about birthing a baby. If you find yourself ruminating, comparing yourself or your baby excessively to others, or agonizing about whether or not you can do a fine job of parenting this baby, call a Marriage and Family Therapist. Get some professional help to work through whatever your own issues are so that you minimize what you pass on to your child, first through the chemistry of your body, and later through the emotional environment you provide for your child.

Parents of Babies

Just after birth is an especially remarkable time of growth for the baby's brain and nervous system. Parents who are hyped up about wanting to have a perfect infant to share with the world (as evidence of what great parents they are) could well be shaping their baby's patterning in destructive ways. The wisest and most compassionate parents will be absolutely consumed with a primary preoccupation of loving and tending to the baby, not with reaching out to all the family and friends who are eager to meet the baby.

  • Hold the baby, speak softly to the baby, gaze into the baby's eyes, watch for the baby's signals of distress or hunger, calmly tell the baby what you are thinking, and ask the baby what the baby is feeling or wanting – not that a baby can respond in your native tongue, but that you are learning to ponder what your child is slowly learning to think in this amazing preverbal stage of life. You can learn to let yourself feel whatever the baby seems to be feeling, and then tell the baby what you are noticing. For example, when your baby screams in sudden awareness of terrifying hunger, you can feel the awful anxiety behind it, but hold onto your adult sense of how to solve a problem without panicking. This will facilitate the unconscious work of parenting, in which you let the baby use you as a storage place for bad feelings like hunger or terror, and you slowly help the baby to understand what is going on, and that you are available and present with an ability to make things better.

Parents of Children

Just because the rest of the world is crazy does not mean you need to be. If every parent of children could have a psychotherapist to confide in on a regular basis, they could have a built-in reality check for their worries. Here are some ways you can raise a child who generally feels safe even in a paranoid world:

  • Turn off the media sources of bad news, horrifying photos, doomsday predictions, etc. If there is really something important for you to know, word will reach you. But you don't need your children to have terrifying visual and auditory input filling the family home.
  • Wait a long time before even thinking of taking a small child to the movies, even the ones supposedly produced for a child audience. Small children cannot distinguish fantasy from reality accurately on a consistent basis. A 6-year old who watches Bambi's mother get killed by the hunter can be sent spiraling into irrational fears of losing a parent. If the fears are unconscious, the child could easily just suffer without a way to let you know directly that there is a problem. There is something wrong when parents are afraid to let their children go outside to play, but think nothing of taking them to see movies filled with terrifying visual and auditory experiences.
  • Teach your children the value of protecting and sharing the world's resources. Teach them that there is enough for everyone if we are kind to our siblings and neighbors. Speak out when you see injustice. Demonstrate that life is more full of joy and confidence when we walk lightly on the earth.
  • Tend to your family's spiritual needs. The terrible maladies of our time, such as terrorism and bullying and suicide bombings and endless warfare, stem from fundamentally spiritual problems. People who want to die or to kill others have become enraged and revengeful because of trauma that has damaged their spiritual selves. (Ironically, sometimes that spiritual damage has been inflicted by religious figures or fundamentalist beliefs.)
  • When bad things happen, let your children know that caring adults are responding. Children need to believe that they are not alone in their pain, and that most of the time what has been broken can be repaired. Make sure that, as your children get older, they have opportunities to participate in healing what is hurting. Demonstrate your caring by being a community volunteer, donating to causes you support, being kind to your neighbors, etc.
  • Get some psychotherapy if it seems that you are unable to escape generalized anxiety yourself. If you don't feel safe in the world, there is little chance your children will either. Many of us bring deep-seated issues from childhood into our adult lives, so that no matter how many behaviors we try to demonstrate to come across as feeling safe, inside we are trapped in a scary world. Psychotherapy can help resolve such issues, and let a parent have far more confidence about raising children to feel secure in a paranoid world.

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Calls regarding appointments are welcome at my private voicemail: 650-325-2576.

Carol L. Campbell, MFT, is a licensed marriage and family therapist providing psychotherapy and psychoanalysis for individual adults and couples in Palo Alto, California. She has degrees from Brown University and Santa Clara University and has been licensed since 1991. Carol is a graduate of the Palo Alto Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy Training Program sponsored at Stanford by the San Francisco Center for Psychoanalysis and was a candidate at the Psychoanalytic Institute of Northern California in San Francisco from 2010-2011. She is also a clinical member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists and the Northern California Society for Psychoanalytic Psychology.

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