Bluffs of Mendocino (Photo by Maya Gilbert)
by Jack Elias
Author of Finding True Magic and The Outrageous Guide to Living Fully, as well as a gifted coach and counselor, Jack Elias has practiced Buddhist meditation and psychology for more than 55 years.
I was asked recently, “Given how much violence and political unrest has increased in our society, isn’t it healthy to fear for my child’s safety?” The welfare of our children is a compelling natural concern for almost all living beings — not just human beings. That concern is built into the parental instinct of humans, but also whales, dolphins, elephants, and many other animals.
Here in the U.S., we have begun to experience a degree of potential danger in public places that most of us did not previously think was possible. We are now living in a new world where –– even prior to Covid-19 and social distancing –– schools, churches, and shopping centers are no longer assumed to be safe gathering places for ourselves or our children.
So many in our society, especially those with light skin, have long taken for granted a certain level of safety. Frankly, if we are white, the existing dangers have remained invisible to us or relegated in our minds to other, remote parts of the world. If we are people of color, we may never have felt secure even in our own country and now feel far less safe.
But now, whatever level of safety we once expected or hoped for, is being destroyed by an increasing number of threats. In addition to tragic news of the pandemic, we see divisive political clashes as well as domestic terrorism in the news and online. Witnessing so much unrest raises a vivid area of concern for us: the wellbeing of our children. What may begin as a reasonable concern can sometimes grow into persistent worry, anxiety, and fear.
I am not merely an armchair philosopher on this issue. Long ago I lost my firstborn child after a long terminal illness, one which year after year made it increasingly difficult for her to breathe. I know what it is to fear losing your child, and I know what it is to lose her.
Healthy Fear vs. Obsession
In my clinical work with people, I’ve discovered there is quite a lot of confusion around fear. People often believe they “have to” be afraid of terrible possibilities. They think this fear and worry are proof of their love and care.
But if I say, “I worry because I care. I’m afraid because I care,” what else am I saying? Actually, I am suggesting it is somehow good or virtuous for me to stay fearful and to worry. But does my thinking this way really equal caring?
The fact is, fearful thinking and worry are never helpful. When we keep ourselves engaged in constant worry and fear about our children’s safety or our own wellbeing, our fear even becomes harmful. Why? Because obsessive worry blocks us from having the mental clarity to create effective solutions, even regarding our family’s safety. So what should we do?
First, we need to understand clearly that when we talk about “unhealthy fear” or “fearful obsession” we are not talking about the well-known fight, flight, or freeze response. This is a built-in protective response born of our natural instinct and need for survival. We don’t need to try to eliminate that.
The fear that causes us problems is psychological fear: the fearful thinking and storytelling that keeps our body sparking adrenaline and other stress-related hormones such that our mental and physical wellbeing are degraded. This destructive mental activity blocks the beneficial mental activity of constructive, solution-oriented brainstorming –– exactly what we need in order to meet and move beyond our challenges.
What does all this mean? Your worry and stress do not help you or your child! In fact, your worry and stress teach your child to be worried and stressed. Children look to Mom and Dad, to their teachers and caregivers, to learn how to respond to whatever life presents. They repeat the behaviors they see.
4 Steps Parents Can Take To Support a Child’s Safety
1. Learn about child development. Most importantly, understand that children are NOT little adults. Before the age of 7, generally, a child cannot discriminate or evaluate. They don’t know that you as an adult have an inner, often conflicted, life that triggers your emotional reactions. If you tell them it’s “their fault,” and that they are “bad” (child’s translation: “unlovable forever”) they will believe you! By working with your reactions and weighing the words you say to your child, you can protect them from self-loathing, which is often more damaging than any physical harm they may survive.
2. Use age-appropriate language. This lets children know that adults have inner lives. You can explain that adults get confused in ways that trigger them to act angry and sad. Make it clear to your child that your emotional state is not their fault or their responsibility. Let them see your vulnerable humanity. This shows children the inner strength you have to treat yourself with kindness and respect in the midst of your emotional struggle, and it shows you taking responsibility for it. Sharing this way enables your child to understand that they are not guilty of causing others’ emotional suffering. And it gives them a healthy model for dealing with their own emotional life –– with self-kindness, self-respect, and courage.
3. Relate to your child with kindness, respect, and encouragement. This is not a moral guideline. It is a practical, strategic guideline. Let your child know they are loved, valued, and worthy of basic respect no matter what mistakes they make (even destructive ones) and no matter what circumstances they find themselves in. In other words, do not shame your child or put them down.
4. Give your child the support to honor and express their true thoughts, desires, and values without fear of being punished or ridiculed for sharing them. The sad fact is that even in these times of escalating violence, the source of the greatest harm to our children is our society’s all-too-common misguided sense of entitlement to mistreat them, shame them, or take them for granted. We may be their parents, but we do not own them!
What Else Can We Do to Help?
In thirty-two years of working with clients in private practice, I have learned that the core of a great many problems is often some form of learned self-rejection, a numbness to one’s own true needs and desires, and even sometimes a learned self-hatred. These ways of thinking are delusions. So why are they passed on generation after generation? Because in large part we rarely recognize the delusions we learned when we were gullible children.
Recently someone told me their father was “never abusive and was always kind.” A few minutes later they mentioned that their father frequently said he, “didn’t like whiners.” My heart sank. The person sharing this clearly agreed with that point of view.
I wasn’t entirely surprised, though. A child will often adopt an insult like this as their own point of view. This is a survival mechanism: “If I agree with them, they won’t hurt me.” When a parent criticizes a young child this way, the child doesn’t understand that the criticism is directed at an unacceptable behavior (whining) and not at the child as a person. Nevertheless, the child feels the comment as a painful, visceral rejection of their entire being. And in the worst cases, the parent actually means it that way.
Children who take on and internalize such negative self-messages may suffer for years in flimsy relationships or experience long periods of self-imposed isolation and loneliness.
This is a kind of long-term harm that we can and should be genuinely concerned about. We can do everything in our power to avoid passing on the mind of criticism, worry and fear to our children by putting focus and energy into kind, encouraging, creative thinking.
Of course, we must do all we can to bring safety to our communities, to our streets and neighborhoods, so that our children are free to enjoy and explore growing up. Even as we work to protect children’s safety, we can place our focus and energy where it can do the greatest good day-to-day. Let’s give ourselves to the worthy project of kindly healing our own confusions, delusions, and wounds. That way we won’t pass on these harmful delusions to our children.
We may not be able to shield ourselves or our children from every harm, but we do have the power to change our careless words into caring ones, to transform our fear into fierce love, and trade our worry for wisdom. May you and your family be safe and healthy. May kindness flourish in our country and our communities.
© 2022, Jack Elias, CHT, All Rights Reserved, reproduced with permission