I am thrilled today to be hosting a guest post from one of my heros, Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD, author of Playful Parenting. Today’s article is adapted from his new book, The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears. Enjoy!
I needed an idea for my eighth-grade science experiment. My mother was the director of a nursery school, and every spring the children hatched chickens as a project. I cared for the eggs and the baby chicks on nights and weekends. My sister Jeanie was studying to be a psychologist at the time (I guess you could say it’s the family business). She told me about her professor’s research on tonic immobilization, also known as “playing possum.” Many animals, including chickens, play dead when they are too scared for fight or flight, or because they know instinctively that hawks won’t eat anything that isn’t alive. I had my science experiment!
Once the baby chicks were a few days old, I gently held each chick on its side and stared into one little eye, trying to imagine how a hawk would look at a chicken. After I let go, it stayed immobilized for about a minute. Then it popped up and walked around again, demonstrating the cycle of fear and recovery. In the next experiment I immobilized two chicks at once. They both stayed down much longer than either one alone did—about five minutes. Then I let one chick wander around the box while I immobilized another one—it popped up after only a few seconds.
My conclusion: 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. My sister’s professor, Dr. Gordon Gallup, found that chickens stay immobilized longest when they look in a mirror—they see their mirror image as another scared chicken.
Years later, as I began to work with families, I wondered why some parents have such trouble reassuring their anxious children. My old second-chicken experiments gave me a clue to this mystery. Children who are slightly anxious just need a brief word of reassurance or comfort from Mom or Dad — the parent is the unafraid second chicken. Children who are highly anxious often ignore reassurance, or it makes them even more upset. Sometimes that’s because they have anxious parents. When these children look around they see an anxious parent — a scared second chicken who confirms their view that the world is a dangerous place.
Even when parents are not anxious, children with high anxiety may not notice the relaxed person in front of them. That’s because anxiety can lead people to see the world through a lens of danger. It’s as if they always see a scared second chicken, like chickens immobilized in front of a mirror. Whether their parents are anxious or not, children with high anxiety often remain frozen in that feeling.
I started encouraging parents of anxious children to stop their endless attempts at reassurance. After all, the unafraid second chicken does not soothe the immobilized chicken’s fear with logic, words, or behavior modification. I developed a technique I call The Second Chicken Question: “Would you look in my eyes and see whether or not I’m scared?” This draws them out of their frozen fear and helps them find security. It works much better than “There’s no need to be scared.”
What kind of second chicken are you? What kind would you like to be? Children who are anxious often have a hard time being playful or lighthearted. And they have a hard time believing that the world is safe. That’s why I have taken as my motto something I learned from a boy who met with me for help overcoming his anxiety. Later, his mother told me he wrote a note and put it beside his bed: “Do something scary, fun, and safe every day.” That’s a great challenge for all of us, children and adults alike.
Adapted from The Opposite of Worry: The Playful Parenting Approach to Childhood Anxieties and Fears, by Lawrence J. Cohen, PhD.
About Brian Leaf
Brian Leaf is author of the forthcoming parenting memoir, Misadventures of a Parenting Yogi: Cloth Diapers, Cosleeping, and My (Sometimes Successful) Quest for Conscious Parenting as well as the yoga memoir, Misadventures of a Garden State Yogi: My Humble Quest to Heal My Colitis, Calm My ADD, and Find the Key to Happiness. You can find him online at www.misadventures-of-a-yogi.com.