Guardian Angels

They Could Be Real if Children Believe That They Are, a Psychologist Says

by Patricia McBroom

A belief in angels may be something to foster in children, if the work of a Berkeley psychologist is any indication.

A belief in mysteries and miracles"is not something to dismiss as irrational," said Lisa Capps, assistant professor of psychology.

Capps has found that normal, healthy children have an optimistic bias in believing they will be protected from harm that others encounter. They think they have all kinds of control over negative events in life, rating themselves as less likely to be affected by danger than the"typical kid," she said.

"It's important for parents to provide this illusory faith," said Capps."It gives an extra buffer against fear, anxiety and depression."

Capps' study comparing children of normal parents with those of very anxious parents is among the first to explore the benefits of optimistic bias in children.

The presence of protective illusions was identified among mentally healthy adults several years ago, giving rise to an emerging field called"health psychology." More recently health psychologists have recognized the importance of such"illusions" in recovering from illness, whether mental or physical or the result of trauma.

But children are more difficult than adults to study, and the evidence that they also benefit from wearing rose-colored glasses has been harder to gather, said Capps.

"It appears to be adaptive to think you have more control over negative influences than you do," said Capps. "People who think they are going to do better actually do better. Now we have evidence that these same illusions benefit children."

In her study of the children of anxious parents, Capps chose 16 offspring, aged 8-14. Their mothers had agoraphobia, one of the most severe anxiety disorders. Literally, a fear of open spaces, agoraphobia is more aptly described as a fear of being any place where one feels alone and vulnerable to panic attacks. People with agoraphobia may fear driving or flying, among other things.

Through a series of interviews and questionnaires given to the children and the parents individually, Capps discovered that this group of young people -- although they did not have agoraphobia -- had no belief that they would be protected from harm. Compared to the rosy views of the children of normal parents, these children thought they had very little control over negative events in their lives.

The optimistic bias was detected specifically in one test that asked the children to rate their chances of being affected by a series of 40 dangers in life, such as cancer, flu, earthquake, gang violence, broken bones, toxic waste, too much stress, too much drinking. Children rated the chances of an average person and then rated their own chances during their lifetimes.

The children of normal parents would always give themselves an edge, rating their chances as less than the average, said Capps. But the children of anxious parents had no such bias -- no difference between themselves and the average person. In addition, they talked often about their fear of death, while the control group of normal children rarely mentioned death.

In another test, the children were asked to place index cards with the names of different dangers into one of four boxes, labeled a lot of control, pretty much control, a little control and no control.

Indicating their optimistic bias, the children of normal parents usually chose the boxes labeled"a lot of control," or "pretty much." But children of anxious parents often chose the box labeled"a little control."

"Somehow these children are stripped of a belief that they will be protected from harm," said Capps."In contrast to normal children they seem to sense that the world is a less safe place to be."

Although children of anxious parents are known to be at risk for anxiety themselves, little is known about the socialization processes that are involved.

Capps' study identified several family dynamics that seemed to contribute to these children's loss of a sense of security.

Significantly, the mothers who were most anxious when they were separated from their children were most likely to have children without the optimistic bias. Even though many of these mothers might have believed that separation was good for their children, their anxiety seemed to affect their children. Often the anxiety was about the mother's own vulnerability, not that of her children, said Capps.

In addition to this study, published in a recent issue of the British Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, Capps also has done ethnographic work to discern how panic is constructed socially in families.

"These mothers are not saying, 'It's a dangerous world. Anything can happen.' But still that message is being communicated," said Capps, who is co-author with Elinor Ochs of the book"Constructing Panic."

She said that mothers may socialize their children for anxiety with the stories they construct about day- to-day events.

For instance, if a child happened to play with a piece of plastic, the mother might warn him not to take it to school, since people might think it was a gun and the child might be suspended.

"She involves the children," said Capps,"in stories that describe a world spinning out of control."


Copyright 1997, The Regents of the University of California.
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