Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears, by Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.

The Opposite of Worry:
The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears
Author: Lawrence J. Cohen, Ph.D.
Publisher: Ballantine
Publication Date: September 3, 2013
This book is full of practical, easy to understand and--more importantly--easy to implement ideas for cultivating and modelling positive coping skills for your anxious child. I was first drawn to this book not because I have a particularly anxious child but because, at three, my daughter has a few fears that send her into a tailspin (mostly related to animals and insects, and occasionally new experiences) and I wanted to help her get a handle on it before they became full-on phobias. I guess that's a pretty anxious reason to read this book. But I'm so glad I did!

Dr. Cohen begins by talking about an experiment he did in school with two chicks (I mean actual baby birds here, in case you were thinking anything else). He did an experiment in which he took one chick away from the other one and held it down briefly (he didn't hurt it). Then he stared at it "trying to imagine how a hawk would look at a chicken" to see how long the chicken would stay immobilized before deciding there was no danger. After a while, the chicken did indeed get back up. The second experiment involved taking both chickens and immobilizing them both, then releasing them. It took a lot longer for the chicks to get back up in that case. In the third experiment, he took both chicks but only immobilized one while the other walked around. In that case the immobilized chicken got up much faster than in either other case. From that, Cohen concluded that the scared (immobilized) chicken looked to the second chicken for reassurance that everything was clear. If the other chicken was walking around (not getting eaten) everything must be fine. If the other chicken is also crouching down immobilized, the danger must not have passed. 
File:K√ľken vor dem ersten Ausflug.jpg
photo credit: wikipedia

Dr. Cohen says that children behave in a similar manner. When they are alarmed by something (which causes anxiety) they have to wait for the "all clear" signal to know the danger has passed. If their "second chicken"--which is often their parents--behaves in a way that indicates everything is fine, the child will relax sooner. If the parent is also showing anxiety, the child will remain anxious longer. Of course many children who experience high anxiety do so because their "danger warning" trigger is set too high (i.e. they see danger everywhere, even in mundane things) or their "all clear" trigger is set too low (i.e. they have difficulty believing the danger has passed, even after being shown that it has).

The analogy of the second chicken is a great introduction to the book because it helps lay the groundwork for seeing anxiety in children as heightened responses to normal behaviour. It's important for us to recognize danger and to remain on high alert until we're sure the danger has passed, and it's natural for us to look to others around us to gauge their reactions to the situation. Sometimes helping children deal with their heightened anxiety is as simple as helping them lower their alarm response or exaggerating their "all clear" response. Well, it sounds simple but it can actually be quite frustrating for parents when your child refuses to walk into a room because she saw a bug in there an hour ago (true story).

That's why I'm so glad I found this book. Although my daughter's fears are not what I would classify as "high anxiety" she still has things that scare her to the point that she can't calm herself down, even if we reassure her that everything is safe. This book has already helped me find new approaches that are really working. I'll give an example from just a few days ago.


My partner and I took our three-year-old Magda to the Museum of Natural History here in Halifax, Nova Scotia. It's one of her favourite places and she was excited to go. While we were there it was time for Gus, the museum's resident 90-year-old gopher tortoise, to go for his walk. All the other kids were excited to see him but Magda was too terrified to even go near. The tortoise is no bigger than a soccer ball, extremely slow moving, and was accompanied by a museum staff person. Mostly he was just standing still on the carpet eating some lettuce while small children patted his shell. Still, Magda couldn't be convinced to walk past him, even to get to the other parts of the museum. Her dad was getting frustrated and he was ready to pick her up and just carry her past the tortoise, which was causing Magda to be even more agitated. 

I decided to use some of the techniques from The Opposite of Worry.


Gus the Gopher Tortoise
Instead of getting frustrated with Magda, I exaggerated my own reaction by pretending that I was scared of the tortoise too, except that I was scared that he was too cute and the cuteness was going to knock me over. "Oh no! I can't look! It's too cute! Look! He's eating lettuce. That's so cute I think I'm going to faint. You look for me. Is he still being cute?" After a while Magda started to giggle and assure me that yes, he was still being cute and maybe I shouldn't look yet. Then I said, "Do you think we can get closer or is it too cute? If it's too cute I might fall over!" Magda giggled again and said, "No I think we can go closer." Before long she was patting Gus and asking the staff member all kinds of questions about him. She completely forgot that she had been scared and enjoyed the rest of our visit.

Then we got to the bear display.

The bear display is a life-sized and very realistic stuffed bear in a glass display at the end of a hallway. As you approach the bear starts growling, thanks to a speaker with a motion sensor. Although Magda has loved the bear during previous visits, this time she refused to go near it, claiming she was too tired, too hungry, too interested in whatever was on the opposite side of the museum, etc. I knew she was scared and I decided to see if she could overcome that with a little game I learned in the book.

I told her she didn't need to walk down the hallway but asked if she could keep a lookout for me while I approached the bear. "Is it still safe?" I'd ask her periodically as I dramatically crept down the hallway. "Is it all clear?" I'd say, looking back to see her nodding vigorously. When the bear started growling, I pretended to be very startled then looked back at Magda. "Is it still okay? Can I keep going?" Before I knew it she was running down the hall toward me, telling me she'd hold my hand while I went up to the bear so I wouldn't be scared. That's a good second chicken right there.

Disclaimer: I received a digital galley of this book free from NetGalley and from Edelweiss (Above the Tree Line). I was asked to write an honest review, though not necessarily a favourable one. The opinions expressed are strictly my own.


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