What is emotional safety and why does it matter? Although emotional safety is a term commonly used in couples’ therapy, it can also have a powerful impact on the social and psychological well-being of your child.
With regard to your child, emotional safety means that he or she feels safe enough to be vulnerable. According to the psychologist Don Catherall, individuals in emotionally safe relationships are more likely to be content compared to those in emotionally unsafe relationships.
The concept of emotional safety owes much to the research of Stephen Porges and Don Catherall. Porges’ studies have shown that we all have an innate need for safety that is wired into our beings and that when we feel emotionally unsafe, our nervous system goes into a state of defense.
In other words, an absence of emotional safety may lead to a neurological imbalance and to inappropriate social, emotional and communication behaviors. Catherall suggests that there needs to be ‘attachment’ and ‘esteem‘ before emotional-safety can develop. In other words, you child cannot feel emotionally safe if he feels unattached to you.
In the parent-child relationship, your child will feel emotionally safe if she perceives that you share a strong bond and if she believes that she is valued and held in high esteem. This means that your child’s state of emotional safety largely depends on the “vibes” you send her. A child who feels safe knows that she can express her emotions because she will not be judged for having those emotions.
Here are five things you can do to foster your child’s emotional safety:
- Let your child know he is perfect the way he is
Author William Martin once said, “You do not have to make your children into wonderful people. You just have to remind them that they are wonderful people. If you do this consistently from the day they are born, they will believe it easily.”
Loving your child as is means creating a sense of safety.
- Let your child know that he means the world to you, let him know that no one could ever take his place.
- Give him plenty of opportunities to feel good about himself.
- Let him know that he can count on you.
- Let him know that your world wouldn’t be the same if he weren’t in it.
- Validate her emotions
Emotional safety comes from within. It begins by teaching your child to identify and be comfortable with different emotions. This means taking advantage of life’s everyday situations to talk about emotions with your child: “Look how sad he looks”, “I know you’re upset because you’ve lost your doll”, “I would also be sad if I didn’t have any friends to play with”.
When you tell your child that you understand her disappointment for not getting the toy she wants, you not only help her put a name on her emotions, you also enable her to understand those emotions better. Remember that age-appropriate resources designed to give parents tools to communicate with their children about emotions can help you foster your child’s emotional intelligence skills.
Developing your child’s emotional intelligence skills also means talking about your own emotions and how you manage them: “I have butterflies in my stomach because I’m anxious about my interview”, “I’m feeling stressed about my presentation so I’m going to listen to my playlist to calm down”. Remember that your kid will learn more from watching you than from being told how to react.
When you show kids that their emotions are “not a big deal”, you prevent them from learning how to deal with their emotions in appropriate ways. Dismissing kids’ emotions makes it harder for them to deal with those emotions even in future. Worse, it may lead to the development of secondary emotions such as shame or fear.
Make use of everyday opportunities to help your kid connect with her emotional self. Speak of emotions in a non-accusatory manner. When she knows that her emotions are valid, she is more likely to react to them in appropriate ways.
- Begin by addressing your own emotional needs
If you are an emotionally distant parent, chances are that you will raise an emotionally distant kid. The easiest way to develop emotionally safe relationships and to foster your kid’s emotional intelligence is by learning about your own emotions and how you react to them. To raise your child’s EQ, you must learn to deal with your own emotions first.
Can you clearly identify your most frequent emotions? What sets them off? Are there recurring patterns in your emotion-driven behavior? How do you manage your emotional triggers?
Our past frustrations, shame and feelings of anger can stir up fears that may influence how we parent. Several studies have shown that being raised by anxious parents can affect kids’ behavior. They have shown that anxious parents are more likely to raise anxious kids because they model anxiety-driven behavior for their kids. By being aware of your emotions and how you express and manage them, you can avoid unknowingly projecting them to your child.
For example, don’t hide your anger from your kid but remember that he watches you to determine how to react to his emotions. Saying something like “I’m going to take 5 minutes to calm down before we talk” shows your kid that everyone experiences anger, but that this is an emotion that can be managed.
- Listen first, then react
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 unsaid. Empathy is a common characteristic of emotionally intelligent people. It is not about accepting inappropriate behavior but rather, understanding how you child may feel about a particular situation. Putting your place in your kid’s shoes can help guide your response to her behavior.
Be intentional about how you communicate. Remember that voice is a powerful tool—your tone of voice speaks volumes.
Being intentional also means asking questions to help your child feel safe: “Let’s do something together” “Do you want me to come with you?” “How can we make it better?” Simply letting your kid know you’re available can help create an environment in which she feels safe.
- Make more time to connect
Spending time with you kid strengthens your parent-child bond, but that doesn’t mean you have to spend ALL your time with him. The available research says quality trumps quantity every time! Below is a 30-day challenge to help you spend more quality time with your kid every day. The good news is that you can do all the activities proposed in less than 15 minutes!
Increasing occasions for bonding and playfulness can help foster your child’s emotional safety. The more you interact with your kid, the more you strengthen his feelings of safety.
Touch can also help strengthen your bond. Evidence suggests that touch heals. David Linden, the neuroscientist and author of the book “Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind”, suggests that there is no substitute for touch. According to him, most forms of appropriate touch deepen bonding by helping build trust and cooperation.
Emotionally safe relationships are built on trust and on the acceptance of the other. When you show your child that you accept and love them, you are doing them a world of good.
Sections of this post were initially published on motherly