Is your home an emotionally safe place for your children? Is your house a shelter from the world outside your door? Emotionally safe homes show a balance of unconditional love and consistent discipline.
Emotionally safe parents allow children to express all of their feelings. Katy rushes in from school and shouts, “I hate my teacher!” Instead of telling Katy that it is wrong to hate anybody, her mother calmly replied, “You’re having a strong feeling. Tell me about it.” Emotions serve a purpose, and feelings are part of the human hardware.
Jesse, an adolescent male, screams at his stepfather, “I hate you! You’re not my dad. I want to go to the party!” Instead of yelling back, “Well then, I hate you, too!” his stepfather calmly says, “There were times I thought I hated my stepfather, too, and I was really angry at him. I can understand that feeling. After you calm down, we’ll talk some more.” Later, Jesse apologized. The stepfather avoided a power struggle and didn’t shame Jesse.
Cindy was cut from the school basketball team and she cried on the way home when her father picked her up. Instead of saying, “Don’t cry. You can try out next year,” the father stated, “I can see you are feeling sad. I’m sorry about it.” He allowed Cindy to cry and express her feelings through tears. He didn’t offer ice cream or a new outfit to try to fix her disappointment. Later, Cindy’s father gave her a pep talk about practicing and trying out again in the future.
When a child feels a relentless stream of being rejected, judged, invalidated, shamed, blamed, commanded, interrogated, humiliated, mocked, smothered, threatened or silenced, he/she may feel unsafe, unloved and unwanted. Kids internalize these reactions from their caregivers and develop the faulty belief that “I am a bad person” or “I don’t deserve to be loved.”
Conditional love that is based on a child’s achievement, appearance or expectations of perfectionism may produce a kid who underachieves or overachieves. Children want to be loved regardless of their intelligence, beauty or talents.
Excessive rules and punishment may instill feelings of anger, guilt, and resentment. Discipline is communicating, understanding, teaching, and setting clear boundaries with appropriate consequences. Discipline is not instilling fear in children.
Parents’ intense marital or partner problems played out in front of children may produce feelings of insecurity, anger or anxiety. Burdening children with adult problems negates emotional safety.
In a three-year study of 300 families, Dr. Gordon Harold, showed films of adults arguing in different ways to children. He interviewed the children about their parents’ fights. His research revealed that the way parents fight threatens their kid’s emotional stability, even if the argument is not about them. Parents that resolve conflict in respectful ways can teach children how to communicate, negotiate and disagree without screaming, calling names and shouting profanities.
Divorced parents who talk to each other through the children are producing an environment of apprehension and confusion, especially when the conversation focuses on child support. Kids need emotional safety in both homes.
Extreme sibling rivalry, jealousy or revenge may instill fear and anxiety in brothers and sisters. Allowing older siblings to hit and scream at younger siblings, call names and make rude comments, or take personal belongings may produce low self-worth. A study published in the journal Pediatrics found that sibling bullying is harmful to a child or teenager’s mental health. Sibling aggression was related to an increase in depression, anxiety and anger management issues.
Being an emotionally safe parent does not mean that you allow your child to scream or curse at you, disrespect you and break rules or steal from you with lying or manipulation. A safe parent stays calm and doesn’t shout, “You make me so mad! What’s wrong with you? You’re a spoiled brat!” A safe parent learns to manage his/her own emotions and reactions.
All families have problems and all parents make mistakes. However, please make an emotionally safe home a top family goal.
Melissa Martin, Ph.D., is an author, self-syndicated columnist, educator and therapist. She resides in Scioto County, Ohio. www.melissamartinchildrensauthor.com.