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Our Blog: May 25, 2011

How to Create an Emotional Safety Net for Your Child

We were at the park, and my shy 3-year-old was having fun by himself in the sandbox. When a bunch of kids came over, I held my breath — because I knew Jacob would rather have the box to himself. He bravely offered to share his shovel with one of them, who proceeded to knock over Jake’s carefully constructed sand castle. “Oh, no! I want to go home!” Jake wailed, as he came running over to me.

I felt exasperated, wishing Jake wouldn’t be so tentative with new kids. “You’re OK, honey, you’re OK,” I said. “Let me help you build your castle again.” But he kept crying, so I took him home.

Later, I told the story to my husband. “Wait,” he said. “Jakey wasn’t OK — he told you so. The other kid knocked down his sand castle — I can understand why he was upset.”

Good thing ONE of us was thinking clearly that day. I had made a common parenting mistake — because I wanted to erase my son’s hurt feelings. Instead of simply trying to listen to Jake, and empathize with his feelings, I had rushed to reassure him, to try to get him to play with the other kids — which was MY agenda, not his. And in the process, I negated his feelings. I told him he was OK when he wasn’t. But if I had let him cry, and listened carefully to his feelings, he might have been able to get past them — and back into the sandbox.

We all need someone to listen to us, especially when we’re upset. It never feels good to have our feelings minimized, or for someone to try to convince us that we shouldn’t feel the way we do. But once we feel heard, we start to feel better, and move on to solutions. This is a process that starts in the earliest stages of childhood — and our kids take their cues from us.

So I’m turning National Safety Month into an opportunity for us to improve the EMOTIONAL safety of our young children. Kids need to feel a basic sense of emotional safety in order to develop to their full potential. In fact, emotional safety is the foundation of future social, emotional and academic success.

As parents, we can help our children to feel a sense of emotional safety by:

  • Working hard to understand what they need (even when their needs seem unreasonable)
  • Validating their feelings (even when we can’t give them what they want)
  • Consistently being there when they need our help (even when we can’t fix the problem)
  • Empowering them to solve their own problems (even when it would be easier for us to do it for them)
  • Setting appropriate limits (even when limits cause tears), and
  • Managing our own stress (even if we need help doing that)

Fighting my own tendencies helps me to be a better listener with my kids. Think of how you create emotional safety for your kids — then join us on Facebook and Twitter to share your tips!

About the Author

Dr. Heather Wittenberg

Dr. Wittenberg is a psychologist specializing in the development of babies, toddlers, preschoolers — and parents. She offers no-hype, practical parenting advice on her blog BabyShrink — rooted in science, and road tested in her own home as the mother of four young children. She has helped thousands of parents over the years and knows that the most common problems with young children — sleep, feeding, potty training and behavior — can be the most difficult ones to solve.