5 Tips For Creating Emotional Safety

Listening-goes-a-long-way

Emotional safety helps children feel connected to us and feel safe to tell us how they’re feeling. This helps prevent their emotions coming out in ‘off-track’ behaviour. 

Imagine the scene. Your child has just come home from Kindergarten. The Kindergarten teacher has told you that they were ‘as good as gold’ all morning. But now they’re home they’re having multiple tantrums, hitting their younger sibling, and throwing their toys around.

Or you leave the kids with your partner for an afternoon, and they’re perfectly happy and content. Then as soon as you come in the door they’re moaning, whining, and starting to cry. What on earth is going on? Does your Kindergarten teacher, or partner have superior parenting skills to you?

Absolutely not! And it’s probably quite the opposite. What’s likely the case is that you’ve created emotional safety for your children. They sense that you are there to listen to their feelings, and so they show them, sometimes directly through crying, and sometimes indirectly through their behaviour. They may keep those feelings hidden for as long as they can, and then let them out with the person who they trust the most.

Our children need a sense of connection, and emotional safety to thrive. Their limbic system, – the socio emotional part of the brain, is like a radar that constantly scans the environment to see ‘’am I safe here?’’ ‘’Who is taking care of me?’’

As long as a child’s limbic system feels well connected to others, they can think well, and their behaviour stays on track. But sometimes they may feel disconnected or experience emotional upset, that causes the feeling of disconnection.

When this happens the limbic system senses an emotional emergency, and then the pre-frontal cortex – the part of the brain responsible for rational, reasonable thinking can’t function well. Your child may start behaving in crazy ‘unworkable’ ways, in order to try and restore connection. So they whine or moan at us, and do things they know deep down are wrong like hitting, or they start crying. They usually behave in these ways towards their closest family members, the ones that are most invested in loving, and listening to them.

One of the things most parents do at some point is to try and stop their child from crying or tantrumming. They distract, reason with, or trying to ‘fix’ the situation as quickly as possible. However crying is actually a healing process, and if we can simply be there and ride out the storm of their upsets, then children can release the feelings that are behind their challenging behaviour.

When we practise creating deep emotional safety for our children, they can move away from ‘acting’ out their upsets, towards simply expressing their feelings instead.

Here’s 5 tips for creating emotional safety

  1. Let Your Children Have Their Feelings – If your toddler throws a tantrum, don’t try to distract them, or fix things instantly. Instead be there and listen. As parenting educator Dr. Deborah Macnamara says, ‘crying is not the hurt, but the process of being unhurt.’ Most of us grew up with our emotions being ignored, or stopped, so it can be hard to have patience with our children’s upsets. I like to think of them as nature’s behaviour regulation system. If we can stay close, and try to be calm, then our child can get their upset out, feel better and then behave better.
  2. Have Special Time Doing What Your Child Loves – Set a timer for 15-20 minutes and then spend time doing whatever your child wants. Shower your child with your love and undivided attention. When you do this regularly it lets your child know that there is a safe place to go to have your full attention and listening.
  3. Play and laugh together – Children often use play to work through issues in their lives. So if your child wants to play schools with you, perhaps there’s something about school they need to figure out. Children often get hurt when they feel powerless. Perhaps they got frustrated about doing what the teacher said, or another kid was aggressive towards them. Turning the tables in play and letting your child be in the more powerful role can be very healing. So let your child boss you around or be the teacher, or make ‘mistakes’ to give your child the upper hand.
  4. Set limits on behaviour and listen to the feelings – When we set limits, we can say no with love, and listen to the feelings. This allows your child to release any upsets that were causing them to behave in ‘’off-track’’ ways. This way of setting limits actually builds closer connections rather than causing frustration and friction between parent and child.
  5. Get Emotional Support For Yourself –  This kind of peaceful parenting isn’t easy. We’re often nurturing our children on a much deeper level than we experienced as a child. Do things that help you relax and feel nurtured. Spend time with friends, who you can talk, laugh and cry with. The parenting approach I teach – Hand in Hand parenting, also has a free  listening partnership scheme where you can exchange time talking and listening with other parents. This provides us with the emotional safety we need so we can then be more fully present for our children.

You might also like, Why This Isn’t Another Article About How To Stop Tantrums, and 20 Playful Ways To Heal Aggression

The Pramshed

14 thoughts on “5 Tips For Creating Emotional Safety

  1. I found this really interesting and useful. I read about some of these techniques in Sarah Ockwell Smith’s gentle parenting book and it makes so much sense. When you think about it so much advice is to stamp out tantrums or ignore ‘acting out’ but it’s logical that there’s a cause to the behaviour and that toddlers and children need help solving the problem or dealing with their feelings. Great post! #fortheloveofBLOG

    1. thanks! Yes I was amazed when I learnt that when we allow children to have their tantrums, and big feelings, then they actually get out all the feelings that cause their misbehaviour. It’s a shame that so many people don’t know this and they think they have to control behaviour using time out of punishment and consequences. None of these methods work well to bring up happy, healthy children. All the brain science supports the idea that what children need is connection, and peaceful parenting to thrive.

  2. I really enjoy reading your posts Kate. I completely understand and support the need to let big feelings out, I have the same need and often find myself throwing a tantrum (in my own way), picking a fight over the silliest thing just to let the steam off… But I also find important to differentiate between tantrums. My older one, when she realises she has the attention all to herself, while throwing a tantrum or having a meltdown, she tends to prolong it and push it a bit. We have a small baby too so I understand it is to get more attention. These are the instances I get impatient and put a stop to it (her whining ) and rather find a way how to talk or play together to get over it. Does it make sense?

    1. I know I do the same sometimes! It’s often the little things that are the breaking point. Is it like a ‘fake’ tantrum, or a real one? Sometimes when our children ‘fake’ cry it could be that they have some feelings, that they can’t really get out in that moment, and they actually need more emotional safety to build before they get to them, so some play together sounds like a great idea.
      It could also be real crying, in which case just listening is helpful. Often children will cry when they see they have our full attention, it’s like their emotional brain thinks, ”oh I’ve got your attention now, I better let go of this backlog of feelings that have been bothering me for a while.”

  3. I like the role play idea in order to work through things that bother the kid.

    When my son just started Kindergarten we had exactly the situation you describe. Super well behaved during class, a mess at home. The carrot sticks were too angular, he wanted “wheels”, I put in too little or too much water in his cup, everything irritated him.

    1. yes Tamara, children do it quite naturally, kind of like telling stories to come to terms with what’s happening in their lives. There is a saying called ‘The Broken Cookie Phenomenon,’ about how when children have tiny upsets about things like a broken cookie, there’s usually a bigger reason that they may not be able to put into words. It can be trying for us!

  4. I remember the frustration I felt when my parents weren’t interested in my emotions. I also know that I would go on and on and on and my mom, who seemed to have patience to the moon, would be completely warn down by my whining. Even as a teen I felt like I couldn’t stop the angry outbursts while my mom was trying to “have a talk” until my mom finally said, ok, I give up and would walk away, finally I would cry and tell her that I was sorry and those tears allowed me to get past my own ego and desires and see the bigger picture. At what point do you put your foot down and move on? My oldest today had a heck of a meltdown over something she couldn’t have. I went through our normal routine of listening and hugs but it didn’t stop. I had to drive. She didn’t stop. I had to deal with her sister who had fallen asleep in the car. My oldest just kept ramping up, calming down for a few seconds, but she could not move on from the desire. I was quiet, I acknowledged her feelings, I told her I loved her, was listening. When she asked questions I explained. The only thing that stopped her escalation was when she broke something in her anger, caused a huge mess so I sat her down against a wall away from toys while I cleaned up (the purple nail polish! arg!) Couldn’t believe I stayed calm through that one! But once she had sat there for a handful of minutes watching me clean, she finally calmed down. I wonder if kids always have the capacity to get themselves past a troubling situation rather than getting caught in the broken record of frustration (something I can also do as an adult) Is there ever a time with this approach to tantrums when you would advocate that it’s time to draw a line? I can’t always sit with them for 20 – 30 minutes and ignore the other child, or make a massive scene in a mall until she calms down, or pull over to the side of the road, for example.

  5. It’s an interesting point about the situation with your mom. If gentle setting a limit, and moving away helped you get to your tears, then maybe that was the most helpful thing to do at the time. It’s always difficult with individual situations, and so we always want to trust our instincts about what feels right in any one moment.

    That’s so great that you were able to remain calm amidst the spilt nail polish! I think that every time you listen for as long as you can, it’s always good because if those feelings get released then you are not going to see them coming up later through behaviour. I think the time to draw a line is when you don’t have the patience to listen anymore, because then it’s kind of like you are faking the empathy, and warmth, and that’s not actually helpful to your child. So when it gets too much, or difficult juggling the needs of two children at the same time then you can try and distract and stop.

    Children can naturally get to the end of their emotions, and when we listen regularly it doesn’t always take so long. So I do try and let my daughter get to the end of her cries almost always, because then I know it reduces the chance of random tantrums in the supermarket for example!

    I hope this makes sense!

  6. What an interesting post. This really makes me think. Sometimes it is so easy to get caught up in the day to day of physically caring for our kids as well as all the stuff we have going on in our lives that I think it’s too easy to forget to really slow down and listen to what our kids are saying and feeling. Also, as you point out it’s so important that we as adults have someone to talk to about our feelings. Thanks for sharing this thought-provoking post with us on #fortheloveofBLOG X

  7. thanks for your lovely comment! Yes, we have so much going on and life is so busy, it’s hard to always remember this. But I do try to listen as much as I can, in a way I gain time by doing so, because then things tend to go much more smoothly.

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