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How (and why) to create emotional safety for our kids

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When I became a mother, my career as a psychotherapist took on a different meaning. I find myself reflecting on how impactful the early years are, and what that means to me as a parent with young children. Many of my adult clients come to me because they struggle with relationships, anxiety, depression or difficulty making decisions. They have shame, guilt, unrealistic expectations for themselves and trust issues. Most of this originated in childhood.

Bonding with a primary caregiver in the early years is critical for emotional safety and healthy development throughout life. Caregivers need to create an environment for children that is dependable, trustworthy and loving.

Most parents are well-intentioned with their children. But sometimes parents unknowingly project their own fears, insecurities and past experiences on their children. That can create emotional distance between parent and child. Children who feel shamed, scared, intimidated or don’t feel they have a place to talk about their feelings openly can be predisposed to feeling fearful, unloved and plagued with self doubt.  Feelings like embarrassment and frustration cause the brain to go into “fight or flight” mode. This has a strong impact on learning, which is why it’s important to cultivate emotional safety in the classroom.

We are all human, so it’s impossible to create a 24/7 perfect environment for our children. But we try our best to foster emotional safety, creating healthy boundaries and guidance while also giving the child permission to be who they are.

Here are some ways you can create an environment of emotional safety for your children:

Don’t dismiss feelings, hoping to make your child more resilient: A client of mine was bullied as a young child. Her mother didn’t comfort her and instead would encourage her to tough it out and “deal with it.” My client felt she had no safe space or support, and learned not to trust other people, causing anxiety and distrust in her relationships.

I truly believe the intention from the parent was good. It’s so hard to see our children suffer, and the easiest thing to do with uncomfortable feelings is to tell someone to forget them and plow through it. But that teaches children to not trust their own feelings. They judge themselves because they constantly feel they shouldn’t have the feelings they do, and that something is wrong with them. You can help your child work through a difficult issue while acknowledging their experience as something that is true and real to them.

Validate and empathize: Validation is the most important part of any safe relationship. Validation is saying “Your perspective is important to me and you make sense.” Validation is not agreement. Validation is: “That makes sense you were so angry when your friend took your stuff without asking.” If there is a behavior that is inappropriate, such as your child hits the friend for taking her stuff, you can validate her anger but also let her know that hitting someone else is not okay. Boundaries and consequences can simultaneously exist with validation. Empathy is similar to validation in the sense that it acknowledges a feeling that the child is having. When your child comes home from school and says everyone was ignoring him, empathy is: “That sounds like a really tough day. You must have felt really sad.” Most of the time people aren’t looking for solutions in those moments, they are looking to feel heard, accepted and understood.

Their worth is more than their accomplishments and their story is their own: My adult clients who struggle most with self-worth and are plagued by constant self doubt are those who learned from their parents that their worth is based on how much they excel at something. The parent can send these messages to the child by only praising the child when they do exceptionally well at school or activities and by showing disappointment or disapproval when the child does not do as well as the parent expects them to. Your child is not you. Your child will have different interests, talents and skills than you. Simply allowing your children to be who they are and letting them explore their individual path is invaluable.

Let them know it’s okay to fail: The word “fail” has such a negative and powerful connotation. Why does failure have to be bad a bad thing? If we didn’t make mistakes and if we didn’t fail, how would we grow? We connect to others through our vulnerability, our honesty and our imperfection. So much of vulnerability is admitting that we don’t always succeed and that we aren’t perfect. Not allowing children to fail can lead to helplessness, powerlessness, anxiety and lack of coping skills. Send your children the message that we learn from mistakes. We don’t need to be good at everything and not everyone in life will like us.

Be available and open to talking about anything (even the stuff that makes you uncomfortable): When I think back to my childhood and how supported I felt by my parents, I most remember that I could talk to them about anything. My parents were my go-to for all the difficult questions I had. I remember being 7 and reading a profanity scrawled on a bathroom stall door. The first thing I did when I got home was ask my mother about it, and she took my question seriously and answered questions honestly. Because I felt my parents were a safe space for me to ask the difficult and uncomfortable things, I didn’t keep secrets from them and I didn’t feel shame. If children feel ashamed or scared to talk about certain topics, they will learn about them from someone else.

Have their back: Children feel that their parents are their ultimate protectors in life, so it can feel frightening when they don’t feel like their parents will protect them. Giving unconditional love means having your children’s back whenever they feel threatened, unsafe, bullied or vulnerable. Even if you don’t agree with a position or feeling, you can give unconditional love without giving unconditional approval.

Be aware of your own stuff: Perhaps one of the most difficult parts of being a parent is that we bring our own baggage with us. Being aware of our baggage, feelings and reactivity is an important part of any relationship. If we are being curious and mindful about what is being stirred up in us when we have a strong reaction to our child, we can be more open to creating an emotionally loving space that isn’t about us, but what is best for our child.

Lena Aburdene Derhally is a psychotherapist specializing in anxiety and Imago relationship theory at the Imago Center in Washington D.C. She has two children.

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