Moomah the Magazine
(Don’t) Be Prepared

(Don’t) Be Prepared

- By Dr. Anne Marie Albano

I was discussing a very bad habit of mine to my dear friend Dr. Anne Marie Albano, the Director of the Columbia University Clinic for Anxiety and Related Disorders:
“Late at night, when I can’t sleep, I log onto news websites and find that no matter how hard I try not to, I click on the most horrifying and salacious stories. I always regret doing it, but again and again I repeat the pattern.”
“Ah,” said Dr. Albano, “that’s your threat bias kicking in.”
“My what kicking in?” I asked excitedly, as her naming it immediately made me feel like she might be able to cure me.

Over the years, I’ve conquered many aspects of my chronic anxiety, and Dr. Albano is well aware of my efforts. Anxious people have a much greater tendency to be hypervigilant about fear, even when there really is no threat at all. In my mind, I click on these articles with the notion that if I am hyperaware of each horrible thing that could possibly happen, I will be more prepared to deal with it. In actuality, my body is already well equipped to deal with emergencies.

Faced with genuine threat, my body will quickly activate a sequence of nerve cell firing, and chemicals like adrenaline, noradrenaline and cortisol will be pumped into my bloodstream. My respiratory rate will increase. My blood will be shunted away from my digestive tract and redirected into my muscles, making me quicker and stronger. My pupils will dilate as my awareness intensifies and my sight sharpens. My impulses will quicken and my perception of pain will diminish. I will essentially become as close to a superhero as I can ever hope to be.  Reading those terrible news stories about horrible things will have served me no good other than keeping me from getting sufficient sleep. The irony is that although I suffer with chronic anxiety, when the sh$t really hits the fan I am cool as a cucumber. Rushing the kids to the emergency room for stitches?  No problem; I go into a Zen-like state. I know what has to be done and I do it.

This trait can have a big impact on our parenting style, and so I asked Dr. Albano to write more about this subject. As for myself, I get my news from my husband on the Daily Show because I trust he won’t needlessly scare me. I read newspapers where I can take out the sections that will only alarm me, and I go to websites that only inspire and soothe me (see links below).

- Tracey Stewart

Threat Bias and Parenting


Jenny watched as her 5 year old daughter, Sasha, walked away from her and into the play area of her new preschool.  Across the yard, several children were playing together.  Sasha turned and looked back at her mom, frowning and hesitant to continue, but Jenny smiled and waved, “you’re going to meet some new friends!”  As Sasha continued to walk towards the other children, two of the girls looked her way, whispered to one another, and then started laughing.  Seeing this, Jenny’s heart sank.  “Sasha, come here to mommy for a minute!”  She hurried to take her daughter aside and pulled her close.  “Mommy is going to miss you so much today, so maybe we can sit together a little bit longer.”

What's happening in this situation?  At face value, a child is walking to join a group of children at her new school.  She's a bit hesitant, which is to be expected, but makes her way towards the group that is playing.  So far, so good.  But, her mother is watching from the sidelines, and decides to call her away from the children. "As Sasha continued to walk towards the other children, two of the girls looked her way, whispered to one another, and then started laughing."

We don't know what the girls were laughing about.  We don't know what they said to one another and what they would do next.  But, Jenny interpreted their behavior as a potential threat to her daughter, and called Sasha back to her.  She acted to protect Sasha from some potential slight or rejection that could have occurred.... could have, and then again, maybe it would not work out that way.  It is possible the girls were simply laughing and enjoying their play, and this had nothing to do with Sasha.  We'll never know, Sasha will never know, but Jenny at the time was convinced that these children were going to be mean to her child.  She's seen this before, in her own childhood and a few times, at Sasha's old school.  She's protecting her child from a threat.

Getting ready for school one morning, 6 year old Danny told his mother that he felt “funny” in his tummy.  Kate took his temperature and that was normal, he did not have any pain or aches, just that his tummy felt a bit funny. No tears, no whining, just a matter of fact “it feels funny.” A field trip to the local Firehouse was planned today, which meant that Danny would have to ride a bus with his class and would be out for several hours.  Kate wondered, “Is he coming down with something?”  “What if he gets sick and throws up?”  Danny had been ill in school several months back, and cried because it took his mother some time to come and pick him up.  Recalling Danny’s upset at both being sick and having to wait for her, Kate decided to keep him home from school.  Danny played all day, running about as usual and accompanied his mom on her errands.  The next day he went into school without mentioning any more funny feelings.

Once again, Kate did not know what may happen with Danny’s stomach that day.  Perhaps it would be nothing, but then again, maybe he would become sick.  She, like Jenny, were doing what good parents naturally do… look after their child, comfort and protect the child from something unpleasant happening.  A look closer at each situation finds a concerned parent who is zeroing in on some ambiguous cues:  the girls were laughing…. my tummy feels funny.  What occurs in these situations is the parent makes an interpretation about the cues according to their experience with the child and their own past…. in each case, these cues were viewed as threatening, rather than as just one scenario among many that may happen that day.  The girls may well have welcomed Sasha and we saw that Danny was happily playing and did not become ill.  Reacting once or twice with this interpretation probably is fine.  But, if a parent continues to interpret situations with a threat bias…. the idea that a potential danger or difficulty will happen to the child when in fact, other possibilities exist…. then the child is deprived of engaging in the situation.  Also, even if there was going to be a difficult moment for the child, there’s a point where children do need to learn how to problem solve by struggling through these situations and seeking their parents’ counsel and support for handling difficult situations as they occur.

The “threat bias” is not a friend to parents or children.  Real threats definitely need to be addressed, but ambiguous situations such as those above can be reasoned with by thinking through all the possibilities to avoid an “overprotection trap” for the child.  Children who are given opportunities to problem solve and master different situations in early childhood are much better prepared for the adolescent years, where more complex and nuanced situations will challenge their coping skills (and their parents) quite often.

Anti-Threat Bias Websites We Love


Yolanda Edwards and Pilar Guzman, the founding editors of Cookie Magazine have created a heartfelt site that filters out all the noise of parenting and just provides pure joy and fabulous ideas. Click Here for inspiration.

Apartment Therapy

Therapy comes in many forms, and one of my favorites is crawling into bed with Apartment Therapy. Ooooohhhhh, ahhhhh, YES! YES! YES! If I were smoker, I’d have to follow my viewing of this site with a cigarette. Click Here for apartment porn.

Dinner a Love Story

I have found there is still hope for me thanks to Jenny Rosenstrach's incredible food site. She knows I'm busy and challenged in and out of the kitchen and yet she manages to motivate me to embrace the possibilities. Click Here for yummy goodness.

Posted in: Parenting   

Share |

<< previous article

next article >>

Recent Comments

No one has commented yet... be the first!

Join the conversation!

Subscribe Now

Get each new issue of

Moomah the Magazine

delivered to you every fortnight

For Free!

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Pinterest
  • Instagram
  • RSS
skip to site