“A frightened chicken looks to the second chicken to see if it’s safe. When the second chicken is walking around happily, it seems to signal the first chicken that all is well: That second chicken isn’t scared – and hasn’t been eaten – so it must be safe for me to get up and walk around. When the second chicken is immobilized, the first one seems to think, I don’t see a hawk, but that second chicken must see one, since it hasn’t gotten up yet. I’d better stay where I am… The chickens stay immobilized longest when they look in the mirror – they see their mirror image as another scared chicken.”
The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears
by Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD
What does this concept of the Second Chicken mean to us as parents? In means that children look at us to determine whether the world is a safe or a dangerous place. For our children we are the second chicken.
Ideally all the parents in the world would be the calm second chicken, so when anxious children look at us for clues about safety or danger, they will see a happy and confident second chicken, happily hopping around and sending a clear message that the world is a safe place. But many of us are so far from that ideal! And we want to fix our children. We will take them to the doctor, therapist, psychologist, or psychiatrist. We will throw any amount of money at it. Just fix my anxious child, please. I don’t want them to suffer from anxiety like I have suffered all my life.
As parents, and especially anxious parents, we will try anything and everything to get our kids to be “tough,” “brave,” and “confident,” or at least appear that way to the rest of the world. We have to make them that way so they do not get eaten alive navigating the jungle of our cruel and heartless world. We go through sticker charts, rewards, bribes, threats, coercion, punishments, shouting, books, movies, competitive sports (to toughen them up), performing arts (to get them used to speaking up in front of the audience), etc… It is exhausting… and it doesn’t work…. sigh… We must try harder, we say, there must be a specialist out there who can help, there must be a parenting book that will offer a silver bullet solution… Maybe a pill that will cure anxiety for children with no side effects? That would be so easy.
It is not about us, we tell ourselves. We don’t need fixing. We are just worried about our kids. Unlike them, we have a valid reason to worry, to be nervous, to be scared, to be anxious, because we know how dangerous and challenging this world is. We are trying to protect them. We have to keep them safe. It is our job as parents. Their fears of monsters under the bed are absurd and childish. Because they are kids. They are supposed to be care-free and just trust us to take care of everything. Do you see the paradox?
Somehow we forget that whoever said “children don’t have a worry in the world” does not at all remember what it was like to be a child.
We are mammals. Social animals. We live in packs. In his book In an Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness, Peter Levine describes a herd of gazelle grazing peacefully on a meadow. Then the rustling of some bushes, a fleeting shadow, or a whiff of an unfamiliar scent alerts one member of the herd. This gazelle stiffens in alertness and preparation for escape. The other animals of the herd instantly attune to the postural shift. They all scan together (more ears, noses and eyes) to localize and identify the source of threat. This is what our brains are biologically and evolutionary designed to do. We imitate others to keep ourselves safe. If one bird in a flock on the ground suddenly takes off, all the other birds will immediately follow. The one bird who stays behind may not live.
Imagine sudden uptight posture and recoiling of the hiker in front of you. Would you actually need to see what he is scared of before you become on high alert and back away? It happens automatically. Even when there is just a hint of perceived danger coming from another person, our posture, our heart rate, our eyes, our whole body and autonomic nervous system react. What would happen if we ignored the signals of danger? Is it a wise thing to do? Is that what we should teach our kids?
One’s posture and facial muscles signal emotional states, not only to others, but also to ourselves. This is how we really communicate with our children. What we say matters very little compared to the non-verbal messages we send every second we are around our kids. And, unfortunately for us, anxious parents, it is impossible to fake.
Have you noticed that when you are around people who have calm, graceful, and relaxed posture, you are calmed and soothed by their presence? What if they offer reflective listening, empathy and compassion? What if they model self-compassion?
So what should we do?
My suggestion is to leave our children alone for a few seconds and go work on ourselves, and our own anxiety. All those money and time are much better spent on turning ourselves into a source of calmness, security, confidence, and coping skills for our children. If we tackle our own anxiety we send a ton of positive message to our children that will last a lifetime.
- Child sees that Mommy has anxiety and it’s OK. Child gets the message: “There is nothing wrong with me feeling anxious sometimes, it is perfectly normal and nothing to be ashamed of.”
- Child sees that Mommy is working on her anxiety. Child gets the message: “There are things I can do to lower my anxiety, just copy what mommy is doing (belly breathing, taking time for herself, positive self-talk, self-compassion, going for a walk, exercise, asking for help, taking a bath, playing a game, talking to a friend, blowing bubbles, cuddling with pets, creating art.)”
- Child sees Mommy practice what she preaches.
- Child becomes more open and responsive when Mommy shares her favorite relaxation strategy or how she talks back to her negative thoughts.
Are some children a lot more anxious and sensitive to perceived danger than other children? Absolutely. And that’s a great topic for another post. Yet, I believe that no matter how sensitive your child’s nervous system is and whether they are temperamentally and genetically predisposed to higher anxiety, the first line of attack in managing this anxiety should be surrounding this child with calm and relaxed second chickens, or gazelle, which will allow their autonomic nervous system to finally let the guard down.
So, in conclusion, if an anxious child is brought into my office for therapy and I am asked to “fix the child and make them less anxious,” I will most likely end up having a long and painful conversation with the parents about whether the child is really the one who needs fixing.