In a crazy world, 6 essential ways to protect your child’s sense of safety

In a crazy world, 6 essential ways to protect your child’s sense of safety

It’s Mimi Thursday. I’m about to pick up Poppet 1 — granddaughter Belle — for our weekly g’venture (I’ve never corrected that and never will). Diane Rehm’s voice reaches through the radio, and the talk is about ISIS. Gut-wrenching — and I think to myself, of course, that I will turn the radio off before Belle tumbles into the car. There’s so much I don’t want her to hear! But my reasons go beyond that, and it occurred to me to articulate why it is so powerful to protect children’s sense of safety — in a world where safety is perhaps illusory. In doing so, I hope to offer you a glimpse into yourself from two vantage points — one, as a mom, and the other, as an adult who was once a child. 

We can intentionally raise our children so that they experience themselves as empowered — and we can also do the opposite. To a significant extent, this is within our control.  It’s true that circumstances can sometimes eclipse our efforts, but the effect is far more likely to be temporary if we’ve been able to lay a strong foundation. That is, when kids consistently experience safety in everyday moments with their parents, they are better able to cope with slams from the outside world.

(If you’re in a hurry, you can slide right on down to the “6 ways.”)

Safety is the absence of trauma, of being overwhelmed”, whether physically or psychologically.  Physical safety is an absence of physical harm or the threat of it; it is the confident expectation of being physically cared for and having one’s physical boundaries respected. Psychological safety is the promise of being treated with honesty and respect; being appreciated and accepted, and of having one’s thoughts and feelings accurately reflected rather than distorted. Small challenges to safety, by definition, are those that do not overwhelm a child’s capacity to cope. Children who are raised in an environment of physical and psychological safety grow up to feel empowered and capable. 

If you’re from the “toughen up” school of thought, that will sound counter-intuitive.  But intentionally exposing kids to more adversity than they can handle doesn’t toughen them up; it shuts them down — or turns them into bullies themselves.

That’s because being traumatized is the polar opposite of being empowered.  When a child experiences powerlessness at the hands of an angry parent or teacher or bully, or an unexpected loss or injury, she has an experience of being overwhelmed that we as parents deeply hope to prevent. But other than the obvious reason — preventing immediate distress — why is it so important to protect children from these experiences?

The answer is that what we might call “everyday trauma,” both physical and emotional, leaves children feeling helpless and inadequate, and that can permanently take away their belief in themselves and in their own ability.  They give up, while their lucky peers, who have been gently kept safe, step up to difficult challenges and persist through first tries and next tries in search of solutions.

What is traumatic is defined by your child’s capacity to cope, both physically and psychologically. If she is threatened, overpowered physically, manipulated emotionally, or degraded to a point that she is unable to maintain her sense of self-worth, resourcefulness and competence, that’s traumatic.  What is not traumatic for one child can be truly damaging for another. That is why it is essential to tune in to children’s feelings about something that has happened in their day rather than minimizing it and ordering them to “get over it.”  In fact, what hearing “get over it” means for your child is that there is one less person in the world with whom she can feel truly safe.  For some children, this brings the number of safe people down to zero.

When children are not faced with experiences of powerlessness, they grow up feeling capable and empowered.  Then, perhaps, they will be able to find within them some answers to the questions that plague us globally, the problems Diane Rehm was tackling on that Thursday. But the only way anyone can begin to think of a solution to even the simplest problem is if their starting point is a sense that solving the problem is within their power. And that comes from feeling power-ful, and not power-less.

As you read through the following strategies for raising powerful kids, think about your own childhood and how it affected the way you feel about yourself and the world today.  Also, notice that while keeping kids out of the hands of really vicious people is part of the answer, it is in the everyday interactions they have with you that they draw many of their conclusions about themselves and the world.

6 essential ways to protect your child’s sense of safety:

  1. Engineer successes. Show kids that they can successfully express their thoughts, feelings and beliefs in conversations with you. Provide them the experience of being fully heard, understood and accepted. Likewise, provide expectations that stretch – but do not overwhelm – their ability. 
  2. Support kids through a learning curve. Teach kids that their value is not tied to getting everything right the first time. Model for them that the process of solving tough problems almost always involves first tries and next tries.
  3. Provide challenges, but stay within the “zone of proximal development.”  Challenge is necessary to develop resourcefulness; the key is offering just the right challenge. When kids have only tasks that they can easily do; when they never have to resolve a conflict, they don’t grow.  On the other hand, if they’re faced with challenges that are beyond their ability, they give up and develop feelings of inadequacy.  But when they’re faced with something that falls between the toughest level of challenge they can handle on their own and the toughest level of challenge they can handle with outside guidance and help, they gain competence and confidence.
  4. Remove kids from situations that stand to overwhelm them. Keep them away from people who bully or overpower them.  Does that mean taking them off a sports team that’s coached by a bully?  Yes, if the child is left feeling inadequate, hopeless or powerless.  It also means keeping them out of the hands of adults who play mind games, manipulating them with guilt and veiled threats, whether that person is a neighbor, a teacher or Uncle John who will be “oh, so sad” if he doesn’t receive a kiss or a snuggle.  It means modeling for them how to respond effectively to such abusive behavior.
  5. If your own anger stands to overwhelm your kids, step back and get some help.  Parents have enormous power in setting the stage for children to feel safe and empowered — or threatened and inadequate. But we’re human beings, and our own fears and childhood experiences can get in the way.  Talk to someone about it! Dealing with your own demons can change the path of your child’s life. If your overwhelming anger is over something other than your children, make sure they know it’s nothing to do with them. If it is related to something they did, again, step back and work through it until you can confront your child constructively and without rage.
  6. And yes, turn off the news when the news is about threatening, frightening things little ones cannot possibly understand. Which is what I did, before Poppet 1 raced to the car for our g’venture.