Personal competence and self-efficacy are the result of feeling safe, and the reverse is true as well. How can we expect children to tap into their sense of personal competence and feel like they are effective at “doing life” if they do not feel safe being themselves in their families? In their schools and communities?
Emotional safety is the overarching developmental goal of childhood. Period. Here are six ways we foster it in children.
1. We are infinitely patient and kind. We are firm when needed as children grow, but never not these two things. Patience and kindness show respect. When children feel respected by us, they will respect themselves and know their lovableness. This is emotional safety.
2. We carefully choose our words so they (our words) do not equate children’s behaviors to their identity – to the goodness they feel about themselves that defines them as a person in the world. We refrain from saying things like, “Be good.” “If you’re good/bad today, you’ll get/you won’t get to have or do ____.” because even though you may referring to his behavior, when a child hears this he is actually internalizing a negative message about who he is.
The message a child internalizes when he hears statements like this, and/or experiences negative attitudes from us because we believe this too, is that his value and essential acceptance as good enough, lovable enough, acceptable enough – depend on his behavior. So he thinks that when he has a meltdown, hits another child, withdraws, refuses to share, (fill in the behavior here) – that he himself “is not good”. This is not a message we want him to internalize about himself because it relays conditional acceptance by us based on his “not good enough-ness”, and this does not feel safe.
By relating with him with total acceptance of who he is and explaining to a child that no matter what they do, feel or express, they are always “good”, we teach them that good is who they are; it is their essence, and thus their core identity. See this article for more info on the psychological dynamics of identity development as it relates to self-regulation abilities.
3. We have reasonable expectations for children, and for our plans of the day/week. We explain them as best we can, and keep it flexible. Our flexible attitude and manner allow children to see that life is not a straight line, mistakes are made and forgiven, and the built-in bumps in life can be managed gracefully and in good humor. They learn we are not perfect, and that it is okay that they aren’t either. They know their true worth and feel safe.
4. We feed them real food. Feed a child simple sugars like bread, pasta, pretzels, fish crackers, pancakes, cereals, muffins, etc., and little to no green veggies, protein or good fats for a week. His behavior will likely be the outward sign of a lack of internal balance that is affecting how safe he feels in his body. Feed him nutrient dense foods like unprocessed oatmeal, fruit, veggies, fish, nuts, seeds, meats, etc., instead and watch his behavior. His body will begin to rebalance and his mood and behaviors will show improvement (sans sugar withdrawal symptoms), suggesting that he is feeling safe in his body. I recommend Dr. Bill Sears’ book to read the science behind this as well as for good meal and snack recipe ideas. Vegetarians and vegans can easily accommodate many recipes.
5. We show children that they can Trust us. We are right there when infants and young children cry, and understand that allowing children to cry for long periods of time negatively affects their understanding of being valued, and safe.” We say goodbye to them when the sitter arrives and we have to leave; we avoid sneaking out on them. If we say we’ll attend an event, we do that. When we are trust worthy, children feel safe.
6. We actively support our children to be entirely who they are, to express the entirety of what they feel and think without our shaming them or attempting to stifle or otherwise change their expression. We don’t tell boys it’s not okay to cry. We don’t push “pink trends” onto girls. We see children through the many lenses of holism, ensuring we are meeting all of their needs as the unique beings they are and we teach them to see themselves through these same lenses of wholeness. There are nine such lenses as I see it. They are Attachment/Relationships; Creative Self-Expression; Cognition/Intellectual Stimulation; Biology/Physical Expression; Sensory; Nature; Nutrition; Environment; and Spirituality/Consciousness(c). These lenses are research tools for how to accurately perceive and approach our children to best help them feel safe. They make up a Venn diagram called The Wheel of Holistic Perception (c) which is one of three components comprising The Holistic Child’s Self-Regulation Program about which I provide trainings and write.
The unconditional acceptedness children feel with us in our perceiving and relating to all aspects of their beingness supports them to be fully who they are and helps establish what I consider to be the overarching developmental goal of childhood – emotional safety.