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Somebody on Bowlby-L wrote:

Hello again Juan Carlos,

I am currently writing an newspaper article about anxiety in children and why, in this country, we often tend to overlook the chronically anxious child.

I know you are very busy but if you have the time to respond, I would be most interested in your succinct opinion of how anxiety in children develops. To what extent do you feel a pregnant mothers' behavior and emotional states (stressors) will affect the in utero child (fetus) and make him/her more fearful and anxious in later life - assuming she is healthy and not taking medication or drugs? Thank you.

To which I replied:

Anxious children are overlooked because they are seen as overdependent, spoilt, jealous, possessive, greedy, immature and many similar names.

Viewed in the perspective of the Theory of Attachment, children described by clinicians as dependent or overdependent are ones who exhibit attachment behaviour more frequently and more urgently than the clinician thinks proper. Inherent in the terms, therefore, are the norms and values of the observer using them. As you may be aware, this leads to so many difficulties that it renders impossible to explain the child's behaviour in objective terms.

Overdependency, therefore, is not the term to be used. I prefer to use "Anxious Attachment" in its stead, especially because it enlists our sympathy: it respects the child's natural desire for a close relationship with an attachment figure, and recognizes that he is apprehensive lest the relationship be ended.

The thesis espoused by the Attachment Theory is that, even though other causal factors may play some part in the development of this condition, those about which by far the most evidence is at present available are experiences that shake a child's confidence that his attachment figures will be available to him when required.

The main cause of anxious attachment lies in mother's accessibility to the child's needs to achieve and maintain an optimal degree of physical and psychological proximity, from birth onwards.

Lack of mother or parent accessibility occurs all too often in an environment of distortion and falsification of the family context which leads to more anxiety and cognitive disturbances.

As Diana Baumrind has repeatedly stated, parents can be categorized as either authoritarian, permissive or authoritative. Authoritarian and permissive parents tend to be inaccessible and give the child a misleading account of what is going on in the family and the reasons for his anxious behaviour. This leads to serious consequences.

In the first place, no child cares to admit that his parent is gravely at fault. To recognize that mother is exploiting you for her own ends, or that father is unjust and tyrannical, or that neither parent ever wanted you or cared for you, is intensely painful. Given any loophole, therefore, most children will seek to see his parents' behaviour in some more favourable light. This natural bias of children is easy to exploit.

Not only are most children unwilling to see his parents in too bad a light but there are parents who themselves do all in their power to ensure that their child does not do so or at least that he does not communicate an adverse picture to others. This develops a state of mind whereby the child faces a dilemma: is he to accept the picture as he sees it or is he to connive with his parents' version?

Thus, the data reaching a child from his own experience and from his parents' view may be regularly and persistently incompatible. to take a real, though by no means extreme, example: a child may experience his mother as unresponsive to him and unloving and he may infer,correctly, that she had never wanted him and never loved him. Yet his mother may insist, season in, season out, that she does love him. Furthermore, if there is friction between them as there inevitably is, she may claim that it stems from his having been born with an ill or contrary temperament. When he seeks her attention, she dubs him unsufferably demanding; when he interrupts her, he is unbearably selfish; when he becomes angry at her neglect, he is held possessed of a bad temper or even an evil spirit. In some way, she claims, he was born bad. Nevertheless, thanks to a good fortune he doesn't deserve, he has been blessed with a loving mother who, despite all, cares devotedly for him.

In such a situation, as I said above, the child is faced with a most grave dilemma. Is he to accept the picture as he sees it himself? Or is he to accept the one his parent insists is true? to this dilemma there are several possible outcomes. One is that the child adheres to his own viewpoint, even at the risk of breaking with his parent(s), which, as you may easily surmise, increases anxiety, due to fear of loss of attachment figure.

A second and opposite outcome is complete compliance with the parent's version at the cost of disowning his own. This leads nowhere in terms of decreasing anxiety; on the contrary, the child is constantly trying to placate his attachment figure, and damaging his perception of the world.

A third, and the most common outcome is an uneasy compromise whereby the child tries to give credence to both viewpoints and oscillates uneasily between them.

A fourth outcome is when he desperately tries to integrate the two pictures, an attempt that because they are inherently incompatible is doomed to failure and may lead to cognitive breakdown.

As regards to what extent a pregnant mothers' behavior and emotional states (stressors) will affect the in utero child (fetus) and make him/her more fearful and anxious in later life, I suggest you read my protocol on mother-newborn interactions. You can find it on the Attachment Research Center Home page clicking on Libraries, publicattions and archives, point 7. A corollary to that project, once finished, would be to start a study on mother-in-utero-infant communication.