Putting emotional safety first


PARENTS tend to be acutely aware of the physical dangers that may threaten their children's wellbeing. They erect barriers at the top and bottom of stairways, ensure that the gateways at the front and back of their house are securely fastened, remove sharp objects, medications etc, from children's reach all in loving efforts to minimise threats to their children's physical welfare.

Later on, when children are at a school going age, they are taught the safety code for crossing roads, are warned not to talk to or take lifts from strangers, avoid certain areas of town and so on.

What often goes unrecognised by parents are the more threatening emotional perils that children encounter daily. Unless these dangers are removed or minimised or children are taught how to cope with such stressful events the door to their emotional development may be partially, or sometimes, firmly closed.

Examples of these risks to children's emotional wellbeing are:

. not measuring up to parents' expectations

. telling the truth

. taking on new challenges

. establishing a new friendship

. starting school

. encountering mistakes and failures.

In taking on these tasks and dealing with these experiences the child may worry:

. Will I still be loved?

. Will I be punished?

. Will I be successful?

. Will I be liked?

. Will I cope?

. Will I be criticised?

Unwittingly, parents' own expectations of and reactions to children pose the greatest threats to their children's emotional security.

When expectations are unrealistic, when children are pushed into challenges which spring from their parents own regrets about their childhoods and also from the dangerous assumption that their children are photocopies of themselves, the risk of `not being good enough' hangs like the sword of Damocles over the child's head.

It is wise for parents to realise that each child is unique and has a strong inner drive to establish his own individuality and distinct way of being in this world. To miss out on this fact is to doom children to living the lives of their parents, rather than living their own lives.

Emphasis on academic performance, comparisons with other siblings, making too much of success and belittling failure are further blocks to children's emotional development.

All of the above ways of relating to children result frequently in a tide of ridicule, scoldings, `put down' messages, cynicism, sarcasm, physical punishment, hostile silences, unfairness and injustice Children seldom emerge past the scars of these hurts and it takes considerable healing efforts for children as adults to change how they see and feel about themselves.

It is not that parents ever deliberately create emotional uncertainty and insecurity for their children, but parents' own vulnerability and dependence on others leads them to behave towards their children in the same punishing way they do to themselves.

These parents see their children as extensions of themselves and any falling short, failure (and, indeed success) on children's part are seen as reflections of the parents.

It is a case of parent heal yourself before you can effectively provide emotional safety for children. Clearly, insecurity runs on a continuum: the greater the vulnerability of parents, the greater the emotional risks to children and vice versa.

The creation of emotional safety in the home is paramount for children. In loving and accepting themselves, in becoming independent of the judgements of others and of success and failure, parents can provide an environment where their behaviour does not make their children feel bad about themselves. They can then ensure that their children develop a realistic sense of themselves.

It follows than that there needs to be an absence of criticism, ridicule, scoldings, comparisons, cynicism, sarcasm, hostile silences and the presence of unconditional love, warmth, comparison, understanding encouragement, humour, belief in, acceptance and support. All of us lose control at times with children but once you genuinely and sincerely apologise, the "unsafety" created can be quickly extinguished.

Not all the threats to children's emotional security reside in the home. However, when the home provides secure and safe relationships, the child is better equipped to deal with the uncertainties and threats that arise in the outsider world.

Parents can also teach their children, either before or after threatening eventualities, how to understand and cope. They can sit down with their child and go through the things that might happen when she takes on a new challenge, for instance, initiating a new friendship. The other child might say `no', tease her or be sarcastic. Help your child to hold onto her own good sense of self and to the realisation that the other child's behaviour is about him and not even remotely about her.

When a situation occurs after the fact and your child is feeling hurt, then listening and comforting her are the first responses to show and, later on, when the child is emotionally ready to listen, to help her regain her sense of self and to stay separate from the judgements of others.

Most of all, your child needs to know that no matter what happens outside (and inside) the home not bringing home the perfect school report, or not being selected for the school team, or not managing to initiate or maintain a friendship - that in your eyes she is always loved and wanted.

The child is vastly more important than a particular achievement that is here today and gone tomorrow.