Creating Emotionally Safe Spaces for Young Children
Posted by Beth Tracy on 12/29/2020
Creating Emotionally Safe Spaces for Young Children
Communication between parents and children requires availability, listening, understanding, mutual respect and emotions. Children will feel emotionally safe if they perceive a strong connection to their parents and if they believe that they are valued and loved. Bonding with a primary caregiver in the early years is critical for emotional safety and healthy development throughout life, so it is important to create an environment that is dependable, trustworthy, and loving. The "vibes" our children feel from us, play a large role in their state of emotional security. Once they feel safe, kids can express their emotions because they know they will not be judged or punished.
Ways to Create an Emotionally Safe Environment
- Let your children have their feelings: If your toddler throws a tantrum, don’t try to distract them, or immediately fix things. Instead, be there and listen. Crying is actually the process of being unhurt. Most of us grew up not being allowed to express our feelings, so it can be hard to have patience with our children’s strong emotions. If we can stay close, and remain calm, then children can get what they are upset about all out, feel better and then behave better.
- Play and laugh together: Children often use play to work through issues in their lives. If your child wants to play school with you, perhaps there’s something about school they need to figure out. Children often get hurt when they feel powerless. Perhaps another kid was aggressive towards them. Letting your child be in the more powerful role can be very healing. Allow your child to boss you around or be the teacher or make ‘mistakes’ to give your child the upper hand.
- Set limits on behavior and listen to the feelings : When we set limits, we can say no with love, and still listen to the feelings. This allows your child to release any upsetting emptions that were causing them to behave in ‘’off-track’’ ways. Setting limits in this way actually helps build closer connections rather than causing frustration and negative feelings between parent and child.
- Get emotional support for yourself: Creating emotional safety isn’t always easy. Do things that help you relax and feel nurtured. Spend time with friends, where you can exchange time talking and listening with other parents. This provides us with the emotional safety we need so we can then be more fully present for our children. 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 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.
- Address your own emotional needs: The best way to help our children learn about emotions and develop emotionally safe relationships is to deal with our own emotions first. Our past frustrations, shame and feelings of anger can stir up fears that may influence how we parent. Deal with your own emotions to avoid unknowingly projecting them to your child. For example, don't hide your anger from your child, but remember that they watch us to determine how to react to their emotions. Saying something like "I'm going to take 5 minutes to calm down before we talk" shows children that everyone experiences anger, but that this is an emotion that can be managed.
- Don’t dismiss feelings, hoping to make your child more resilient: If a parent doesn’t comfort their child and instead encourages them to tough it out and “deal with it,” the child will have no safe space or support, and will learn not to trust other people, causing anxiety and distrust in relationships. I truly believe the parent who dismisses feelings has good intentions, as it is 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 in doing so, it 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. Tantrums are another example. Most parents try and stop their child from crying. They do so by distracting, reasoning with, or trying to ‘fix’ the situation as quickly as possible. If we can simply be there and ride out the storm, then children can release the feelings that are behind their challenging behavior.
- Validate and empathize: Validation is an important part of any safe relationship. It says, “Your perspective is important to me and you make sense.” Validation is not agreement but rather acknowledgement, saying something like, “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 toy, you can validate her anger but also let her know that hitting someone else is not okay.Boundrtes and consequences can exist simultanously. Empathy is like 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
- Teach about emotions: Emotional safety comes from within. It begins byteaching your child to identify and be comfortable with different emotions. Make use of everyday opportunities to help your child connect with their emotional selves. Speak of emotions in a non-accusatory manner. When children know that their emotions are valid, they are more likely to react to them in appropriate ways. For example, when you tell your child you understand his disappointment for not getting the toy he wants, you not only help him put a name on his emotions, but you also enable him to understand those emotions better.
- Let them know it’s okay to fail: The word “fail” has such a negative and powerful connotation. We learn and grow from making mistakes and failing. We connect to others through our vulnerability, our honesty, and our imperfection. Not allowing children to fail can lead to helplesness, powerlesss,anxiety and lack of coping skills. It is important to send the message that we learn from mistakes. We don’t need to be good at everything and not everyone in life will like us.
- Offer protection: 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 thfeel threatened, unsafe, bullied, or vulnerable. Even if you don’t agree with a position or feeling, you can give unconditio nal love without giving unconditional approval.
- Listen before reacting: So much is communicated in what is left unspoken. Remember that much of kids' behavior is driven by emotions. Before you react, listen to the nonverbal and when you do respond, remember that voice is a powerful tool—your tone of voice speaks volumes. Active listening also means asking questions to help your child feel safe: "Do you want me to come with you?" "How can we make it better?" Simply telling them, "I'm here" can help create a safe environment.
We are all human, so it’s impossible to create a perfect environment for our children at all times, but our goal should be to foster emotional safety, by creating healthy boundaries and guidance while also allowing children to be who they are. Making time to connect with children is important because interaction fosters feelings of safety.
When we strive to create deep emotional safety for our children, they will not feel the need to express their frustrations by ‘acting’ out what is upsetting them, but rather, they will simply express their feelings instead.