Nothing is more basic to an infant, a child, and an adolescent than feeling and staying safe. This applies not only to physical safety but to emotional safety based on trust in attachment to at least one parent. Without this, all else of importance falls away. A sense of safety is at the core of Parental Intelligence.
How Do We Know If Our Children Feel Emotionally Safe?
There are two ways to learn if our children feel safe: to listen to them carefully and to observe the nuances of their behavior.
Some children articulate their feelings about trust and safety directly. When they don’t feel trust in their parent, they voice this worry. At best it’s the parent herself who can address this insecurity.
However, many children who are not very articulate reveal their lack of a sense of safety through their behavior that gets out of control.
For us as parents, addressing words of distrust can be difficult but behavior that comes across as distressing is even more disarming. How we react is imperative to eventually solving the problems that lay behind the behavior. And it is crucial to hold the mindset that problems lay behind behavior that will be uncovered eventually with time and patience.
Parents as “Meaning Makers”
Parental Intelligence means parents become “meaning makers” who help their children eventually feel safe. That is, they don’t react impulsively no matter how intimidating and threatening the child’s behavior may be. They slow down their reactions, take stock of the situation including their immediate feelings, and make a conscious decision to understand the behavior as a signal of distress not disobedience.
Even in the crucial moments of unwanted misbehavior, parents step back and self-reflect. The parent calms down because they have a direction: finding meaning. When the parent is calm, the child calms down.
Understanding Your Child’s Mind – An Example
Let’s take an example of behavior that is compelling, not because it is aggressive as so many parents fear, but because it is so understated—a child who is almost mute. When this child talks to other children or adults she whispers. She looks at her mother before she answers a question from someone. If the mother smiles and motions to go ahead, the child may say a few words. Looking at the mother for that reassurance suggests there is some trust in her. A sense of safety has begun.
This child is old enough to talk easily, but chooses not to do so. She stares at the parent with some expression in her eyes and maybe a tilt of the head but remains quiet. It is important for the parent to remain curious and not feel left out and dismayed because the child is communicating with the behavior of her face. Other body language may be evident such as squirming or the reverse, sitting still.
So, how can the parent begin to understand what is in this child’s distrustful mind? To gain meaning, the parent needs to become a good observer. If the child doesn’t feel safe enough to speak, the parent needs to do the reaching out. One way is play.
A doll house is a great vehicle. By using doll figures the parent can begin to play following the child’s lead with how they use doll house furniture, toy food, bits of material, small cars and so forth. Together the child and parent make up a story with few words. The parent simply states what the child does and responds in her own way with the toys. The child comes to trust the parent when she accepts their pretend play. Then the child feels accepted, trusts more, and the sense of safety expands.
There could be any number of reasons a child feels unsafe with a parent such as too much yelling, punishing, marital problems, internal anxiety, or too much hurrying about that causes more sensory stimulation than this child can bear. In time, the mother will come to understand as the child plays more actively and begins to talk more easily.
The key is that the parent accepts the child where she is, watches for clues to what is in her mind, verbalizes the child’s play until they re-find their tie that got ruptured.
Once the sense of safety and the trusted attachment resumes, more meaning will emerge as the child feels increasingly secure in the growing parent-child bond.