Thursday, February 21, 2008

Considering anxiety

One of the gifts of raising children is an opportunity to learn what we are trying to teach them. This morning on npr I heard part of a segment about children's play and how its character has changed, and potential consequences of this.

It seems that a basic common denominator of learning, the substrate, is an ability to self-regulate. I think of it as the ability to sustain oneself while waiting through uncertainty. In watching children interact in a variety of settings, and especially with each other I'm able to see when that ability is lacking. I get a sense inside that this ability is what is needed.

I looked up 'anxiety' on just before beginning this. Over my life I have visited this theme a number of times. suggests that it is anxiety that makes us uniquely human.

I'm wondering if we're born with it as a sort of life force; sort of a by-product of having a nervous system...(bwahahaha--guess my system is 'nervous'). The way I experience it is as a call to action--and a drive to know. I suppose to know if something is safe or not. Perhaps 'safety' is a commodity that appears at all levels of the psyche; perhaps we experience it on some levels as 'getting what we want.' I suppose that uncertainty at any level, from will-mommy-come-to-get-me-when-I'm-hungry, to not knowing how to categorize something, to not knowing what the future holds--at any level I think uncertainty spurs a 'potentially unsafe' alert. One way of relieving uncertainty is to have what you want. Now. NOW.

I suppose that just about anything can be threatened; our self-esteem, an idea, a world-view, our way of life, our lives.

One of the difficult things I've found about being around children is the demand to relieve uncertainty. NOW. I suppose part of it is because theirs resonates with mine. So I experience even a ghost of it, and it's uncomfortable, and that's if it doesn't provoke a full-blown case of it in me.

Remembering this scenario: Playdate. Preschool children, parents. A toy that has been lying off to the side undisturbed for the duration suddenly catches one child's interest. Like an electrical pulse suddenly the other children become magnetized to it too. Some child gets to it first. Perhaps as the mother of the first child that headed toward it (and got there too late) part of me inside is suddenly on alert--feeling the pinpricks of my child's heartbreak at being denied tugging on me. Other parents' anxiety levels rising too: will there be a fight? Will my child have a chance to play with it before it's time to leave? Will my child be forced to surrender it prematurely?

Through some transmutation, this toy that has been completely neutral now becomes a heart's desire. Furthermore, the awareness that this is an object of desire for other children suddenly makes it that much more precious to the child holding it. (In my heart while feeling anxiety for my child, I'm also aware that it is a fatal mistake to indicate interest in the object. I can see that my child, and other children, lack the ability to sustain themselves through the pain of uncertainty: "will I get it? Will I be able to have it as long as I want?" Therefore they are helpless before their impulse to ask, plead, demand--thereby putting off the moment when they can get it. Which may make them even more frantic.) I can see that they merely add fuel to the fire of the possessor's desire to hang on; if they could wait a bit the possessor most likely will lose interest in the object and turn to another toy. I also see that the child who can tolerate the uncertainty seems to fare the best emotionally in that case.

It's interesting to watch a roomful of unbridled acquisitiveness. It's more interesting to watch how parents manage their own ambitions for their children (including me). How high do we jump when anxiety pricks? I find myself surreptitiously watching the she about to put it down and if she does will my son be in position to get it? Feeling the impulse to steer him in that direction, then embarrassed that I'm strategizing getting a few moments of play with a coveted object for my son. Realizing the moment is past anyway. He no longer wants it.

And I'm also realizing the ability to sustain myself while waiting calmly inside is a skill that would behoove me to get better at.

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