According to the late professor of psychiatry and infant mental health specialist, Daniel Stern, one of the psychological challenges facing parents, especially mothers or primary caregivers, is that of keeping your baby or young child alive. This burden of responsibility can bring about huge stress and anxiety for parents. Crime, medical crises, accidents and natural disasters have crossed the minds of most parents at least once. Some have gone over the possibilities repeatedly and they’ve planned emergency exit and SOS strategies as well as ER hospital dash routes!
On one of the Babies in Mind parent Whatsapp support groups, new mothers posted some horrifying videos of near-child-abductions. Each one was an attempted – but failed – kidnapping. It was a devastating and nerve-wracking reminder of the reality of some people’s lives. It’s true that children can be in danger in so many ways and that they are not yet in the position to make judgement calls to ensure their own safety. Interestingly, many of us received communication that the warnings and news flashes about recent child kidnappings were actually fake news. There was a request that we do not fuel the panic or spread rumours about danger that isn’t actually there. But sometimes bad things do happen to young children. So the message to parents and caregivers from Children in Mind is that your baby or young child knows instinctively that he or she is safest when very close to you. If you can’t be there in person all the time to keep your young child safe, then a substitute parent needs to do that job for you. That person needs to be someone you trust with all your heart. The fear and even paranoia that parents – especially mothers – have about the safety of their children is based on realistic wisdom. Your child relies on you for safety and security. But this responsibility can feel so terrifying for some parents that it can cause them to become psychologically unhinged.
One of the pioneering psychoanalysts, John Bowlby, explained how the attachment between young children and their parents has the crucial function of keeping the child alive. Instinctively, young children cling to their parents when they feel they are in danger. Trust in their close family is vital and fear of strangers is a perfectly sensible survival strategy in a world that is filled with danger. Mark Solms and Oliver Turnbull in their book, ‘The Brain and the Inner World’ discussed what they called distress vocalisations or separation calls. Baby humans and animals call and cry (howl or chirp) when they are separated from their primary attachment figures, often their mothers. The innate wisdom of this crying for the mother – or father or trusted other – is that babies feel themselves to be in danger without their caregivers, so they instinctively yell for their lives when they are apart from them. For young children to be kept safe, a trusted caregiver should be close by, watching for possible dangers. Solms and Turnbull’s research also reminds us to teach young children to make the biggest noise if there is possible danger: yell, scream, bang, call and draw audible attention to yourself. Interesting – and perhaps sadly – those authors have explained how baby animals, when it is clear that help is not going to arrive, instinctively stop calling out to be rescued. They give up. Researchers think that babies might be conditioned biologically to keep very quiet if help does not arrive because if you are young and alone in a dangerous world, it’s probably best to be silent and to pretend you are not there at all. That might be your best chance to escape being eaten or killed by predators.
As always, the challenge for parents is huge and the anxiety levels are high, especially if you parent consciously. Of course, you do need to be aware of emergencies, including kidnappings, accidents and injuries. See these safety tips here and here to ensure you are equipped to handle a crisis. But recognise too that raising children can be really scary! Keep yourself as emotionally stable and mentally healthy as you possibly can. Bring focus and time to the relationships of your inner circle and hold babies and young children as priority number one. They need that from you!