Parents don’t agree on everything and they certainly don’t need to. But one dream that we all share is that our children enjoy emotional safety. I’m a parent, a grandparent, and an author of a parenting book, yet I’ve never let these words roll off my tongue. Still if I describe emotional safety, I think we’ll all agree that this is exactly what we want for our children.
What is emotional safety? It’s when our children feel free to be themselves. They can comfortably express their feelings and concerns, thoughts and interests. And they do this with awareness and respect for others.
Our children gain emotional safety through their experiences with others. When they feel loved, accepted, heard, and trust that their needs will be met, they develop a deep internal experience of safety.
How Do We Create This Rich Inner Experience for Our Children?
After working with parents as a consultant and psychotherapist for almost four decades, I’m certain of one thing: Parents' attitudes—how we think about our children—is even more important than what we say to them. In my book, Bring Out the Best in Your Child and Your Self, I identify two key attitudes. The first:
Children have an innate drive to express their best selves—to develop their highest potential.
Like all living things, children have a natural yearning to grow and mature, to develop their full potential. It’s a part of being human. We all have that inner force that compels us to evolve, to grow not only physically, but also mentally, emotionally, socially, and spiritually.
Children and parents want to respect themselves, to be contributing members of the family and society. We all want to find and express our best selves—to become all that we can be.
The fact that we often fall short—that children and adults can easily slip into unproductive behavior—doesn’t mean we don’t have that innate drive! It isn’t easy to express our full potential; we need all the help we can get. And that leads us to the second attitude:
Children depend on us to help them.
They can’t do it alone. Children need us to recognize their yearning and to help them fulfill it. By definition, children are immature—works in progress—still learning how to handle their feelings, develop strength of will, and self-control. To support their natural unfolding, they need an environment based on mutual respect.
How can we create this environment? Let me count the ways:
- Water the flowers, not the weeds. Notice and acknowledge our children’s finest qualities and behaviors. Give attention to that which we want to grow.
- Hold high, age-appropriate expectations. Strengthen our children’s self-esteem by asking them to live up to their own capabilities.
- Follow through. Teach children that we mean what we say and help them to become more cooperative and responsible.
- Show respect. Help children develop empathy by demonstrating respect for their feelings and thoughts, bodies and belongings.
- Respect self, others, and life. Model sensitivity and care for yourself, others, and our planet and teach children to internalize these values as a normal part of life.
- Provide positive values. Expose children to those values you want them to adopt, emphasizing the best in human nature and minimizing the excesses in our culture.
- Teach skills that support emotional safety. Help our children to learn to work through frustration and disappointment, to assert themselves respectfully, to problem solve, and to develop qualities such as courage and persistence.
The bottom line is known to us all: the best formula for creating emotional safety is for our children to see love in our eyes, experience it through our touch, and hear it in our voice.