There’s one study that I cite where a picture of a lamp was paired with a shock to the hand. So then if you have several rounds of that, people develop this fear where essentially if they see the picture of the lamp, they’ll have a fear response to the picture, even when it’s not followed by the shock. And then extinction is when there’ll be several trials of seeing the picture of the lamp followed by no shock, so eventually their levels of fear response tend to go down. And these researchers found that women with a higher level of estradiol, which is a form of estrogen, had a longer extinction recall, meaning that they maintained a higher level of fear than women with lower levels of estradiol. So looking at how sex hormones could influence how people catch and retain fear.
And women tend to have a more muted fight-or-flight response, some scientists have dubbed “tend and befriend.”
One thing that’s sort of interesting is that with levels of stress hormones, like epinephrine and norepinephrine, men’s physiological reactions to stressful events tend to be stronger than women’s. So this fight-or-flight response seems to be more pronounced in men. And scientists conjecture that this makes evolutionary sense — that obviously a sensitive fight-or-flight response would make a lot of sense if you’re hunting or you’re fighting adversaries. And women tend to have a more muted fight-or-flight response, some scientists have dubbed “tend and befriend.”
Women tend to respond to stress by producing more oxytocin, a hormone that’s thought to promote attachment, and it spurs women to tend to their young and fuels more relationship formation with other members of the group. You could see why this would maybe be evolutionarily advantageous — if the group is being threatened, you tend to be worried about your kids and making sure they’re okay — but one of the disadvantages of this response is, it could reinforce worry and avoiding threats: “Where are my kids? Are they okay? Let’s get out of here.” Which could reinforce this idea that you can’t cope on your own, or a pattern of avoidance, when we know that avoiding situations that make you anxious tends to reinforce anxiety.
Women tend to respond to stress by producing more oxytocin, a hormone that’s thought to promote attachment, and it spurs women to tend to their young and fuels more relationship formation with other members of the group.
With kids especially, though, it seems like it’d be hard to know when to make them confront whatever it is they’re avoiding, and when to let them stay safe in their comfort. How do you decide where to draw that line?
It’s all about impairment — obviously, having a shy, socially reticent child is not a disorder. Being introverted is not a problem. What we’re talking about is impairment, when it’s preventing a child from doing things that are age-appropriate, or doing the things they want to do when they want to do them. [For example], a child really wants to join in at a party, but can’t get themselves to do it. The way that the professionals do it is, they have parents create a fear hierarchy with their kids, so there’s a certain goal. Say your goal is to have your child attend a birthday party and not cling to your leg the whole time, but actually engage in the activity. That wouldn’t be the first thing you would do — you wouldn’t throw them in the deep end of the pool. You would start with maybe having them wave to another kid from right by your side, and then eventually say hello, and then eventually say their name or ask a question.
You have a daughter of your own. Have there been any situations where what you learned writing your book has influenced your parenting?
There is some evidence that controlling and rejecting parenting can fuel anxiety in children. I think what researchers have come to see is that if your child is temperamentally anxious, if that’s how your child is wired, what parents will often do is respond to the children by helping them avoid the situations. We all love our kids and we don’t like to see them in distress, so a natural reaction is to help them avoid that distress and maybe skip that sleepover they’re worried about, or not continue with that soccer program. Or even speaking for their children if their children are too afraid to talk to a teacher or talk to another child. But that just ends up reinforcing that anxiety because that sends a message that the kids can’t do it on their own. And at the same time, they’re not developing those skills. They’re not actually learning that yes, they can do it.
So there are some really interesting programs that are now cropping up to help anxiety disorders in young children. And obviously, my daughter has a genetic predisposition to anxiety, which I try not to see sort of every personality quirk as a nascent psychiatric disorder. I don’t want to do that to her, but I walk a fine line. I don’t have a son, so in terms of the gender differences, I can’t see in vivo how I may be treating her differently.
But it’s strange — I don’t tend to be that parent who hovers in the playground. I’m more likely to give her a longer leash than my husband is. That’s actually something I try to pull him back on, because he’s the more anxious parent in terms of her physical safety. Which is sort of ironic, I think.
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