When our children are upset, who do we want them to talk to? We will want them to talk to us! Unfortunately, some kids do not feel their parents are a safe place to go when they are upset, need to confide in someone, are in need of help, or are in danger. How we respond to our children can dictate whether they find us a safe place, and we want to be that safe place for them.
There are many adults today who have trouble opening up. This is especially seen when married couples have trouble sharing and being vulnerable with one another. When asked who they had to talk to as children, many will say they didn’t feel they had anyone with whom they could share. When children don’t feel safe to open up to their parents, or their parents don’t make an effort to be a safe place, children learn to internalize their feelings instead of opening up in safe relationships.
Children depend on their parents for love and support, in order to feel safe. When parents are distant, or are dealing with mental illness, substance abuse, or other issues, they are not typically able to meet their child’s needs. When a child does not have his or her emotional needs met, developmental changes occur within the brain. Changes occur at the cellular level of the brain within the hippocampus and gray area, which can result in immune and relational problems later in life. Research has shown that when a child does not have someone to connect to or their emotional needs are not being met, they will disconnect. When a child is in need their instinct is to reach out. But when a parent is not there to respond, the child will disconnect as a means of coping. This can be dangerous in the brain’s formative years of childhood, and the pruning development of adolescence. This disconnecting is also associated with ADHD.
Your ability to just be present for your child decreases the likelihood they will develop problems later in life. Your presence can help prevent some types of childhood trauma. Adult problems like heart disease, cancer, and addiction have been linked to childhood trauma. This is a great YouTube video on this research.
Here are a few ideas on how to become a safe place for your child:
Respond with empathy, not anger. When we overreact to what our children say, we can create a sense of fear in them that we will always react that way. When we respond with love, compassion, and empathy we show them we care. When kids know they won’t be met with anger, but with love, they are more likely to open up. Avoiding power struggles and arguments is a great way to show a child they won’t have to battle in conversations with us. This is a great YouTube video on empathy.
Ask questions. “How was your day?” “Good.” We have all had that conversation. Asking specific and general questions is a great way to get conversations going. Open and fun conversations are a great way to show our kids they can talk to us and we will listen and engage. “Tell me a funny thing that happened today.” “Tell me your favorite part of school.” “Would you rather be able to fly or be invisible?” “What is your favorite color/game/place to go?”
Start young. Using these tips from a young age can help our kids grow to know we are a safe place for them. This will come in handy when they are teenagers. Laying the foundation at a young age is important.
Give control and choices. Allowing our children to make lots of choices gives them practice for adulthood and gives them the opportunity to learn the cause and effect of decision making. (Read more on The Power of Choices.) This also lets our kids know that we believe in them and their ability to make wise choices, or learn from the process of making sad choices. When we constantly make decisions for our children or tell them what to do, we don’t give them the opportunity to learn. Would you want to talk to someone who is always telling you what to do? When kids have a problem they need help solving, we can be there to walk them through the decision making process. We can consult them on options. But we shouldn’t tell them what to do every time. If they make a sad choice, we can meet them with empathy and love so they know we are safe. If they make a wise choice, we get to see them grow.
Know when to respond and when to listen. There are times when we want to engage conversations with our kids and try to get them to open up. But there are other times when we want to just listen. As parents we often want to “fix” everything. But there are times our kids come to us just to have us listen, not to fix or respond. Learning this and putting this into practice is hard. Often while listening, we are simply just waiting to respond. Sometimes we just need to listen to listen. We may not even need to do more than say, “Hmmm.” “Oh, man that sounds hard.” “And then what happened?” in order to get our child to share something they are needing to get off their chest. Sometimes a child just wants sympathy or understanding, not fixing.
Acknowledge feelings. Be careful not to push away a child’s feelings. Bad and sad feelings are part of life and we want our children to be able to put a name to those feelings and learn to cope with them in a healthy manner. We can’t ensure our kids are happy all the time. All feelings should be acknowledged and understood. Telling a child, “Oh, that shouldn’t bother you.” doesn’t set up a relationship of safety and love. Instead, give their feelings a name, be there as support while they work through the feelings and emotions, and model how to cope with stress or sadness in a healthy manner.
Be mindful of what “stuff” you “sweat”. We’ve all heard “don’t sweat the small stuff” meaning we don’t want to overreact to small things. When we overreact when our children tell us small things, why would they want to tell us big things?
Value openness in the family, not secrets. In our family, “secret” is almost thought to be a bad word. Our kids know they shouldn’t keep secrets from Mom and Dad. Much of this is for their protection. We don’t want someone to tell them to keep a secret from us in an attempt to hurt them (think sexual predators).
Be mindful of your time. We live in a fast paced, busy society. Many parents work full time and are away from their children for many hours each day. Even those who stay home with the kids are often busy with other activities or tasks. This shows the importance of being intentional with the time we have with our kids. What are you doing most of the time you are with your children? A recent study found that 90 percent of time with spend with our infants is loving, but as soon as the child reaches toddlerhood, the vast majority of our time with the child is spent correcting their behavior or telling them what to do. Be mindful of the time you spend and how you are interacting with your children.
Connect. When we give our children love and attention, we give them something to hold onto. We can connect with our kids verbally, emotionally, with physical smiles, hugs and cuddles, with eye contact, and with activities. Greeting our children first thing in the morning or after school with a smile, hug, and happiness sets us up for strong interactions.
Love unconditionally. We do not have to love our child’s choices to love the child. Kids need to know they can come to their parents with anything and everything and be met with love. Even if they expect or deserve consequences, we need to show love. The best thing we can do for our children is show them we delight in being with them, that we are captivated by the person they are, just as they are, unconditionally.
Focus on your relationship. Messy rooms will pass. Bad grades will pass. Your relationship with your child is eternal. Resist getting bogged down in consequences, punishment, stress, activities, and business. Focus on your relationship with your child. Be sincere. Express love verbally and physically. The biggest predictor of your child’s success is the relationship they have with you, not their grades, peer relationships, or number of hits in a baseball game.
What of these suggestions do you find the hardest/easiest?
What do you do to intentionally work on your relationship with your child?
What can do you to be a safe place for your child?
By: Emily Scott, PhD
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