Emotional safety is VERY important for everyone, especially for anxious and sensitive people, and people with a history of trauma. Emotional safety is equally as important as physical safety and both are necessary to move through pain and intentionally create healthy patterns of coping and healthy habits.
Children need emotional and physical safety in order to learn effectively. Lengths of time without either of these needs met can lead to much more than poor grades and emotional outbursts. The result is often a prolonged stress response that can impact and turn on genes for physical ailments (otherwise known as epigenetics). Children don’t necessarily have the words to express what is going on. It is vital to educate the adults that are there to protect and support children on what behaviors and symptoms to look for. You can’t help if you don’t know. The impact of not having emotional safety can have a ripple effect that lasts a lifetime if left untreated and invalidated.
Many people who don’t have emotional safety act out, become depressed, or become pleasers who will do anything to meet the approval of those around them. Teens and adults carry these patterns into adulthood and blame themselves when they become stuck in a cycle of overextending themselves in an attempt to feel good enough or likable. Eventually, many reach their threshold and can become resentful of other people by feeling taken advantage of and unlovable. They can become trapped in an internal dialogue that they can never do enough. People try SO hard to be liked by giving too much of themselves and eventually snap. This can result in a pattern of losing friendships or creating barrier after barrier to avoid being vulnerable at all costs. This comes at a great cost.
Teaching about the concept of emotional safety in schools, businesses, and any organization is vital to our health and physical well-being. Children need to be taught and shown what emotional safety looks like.
Educate children on emotions – what they are and what they do! All emotions are there to give us information and help us decide what to do. All feelings are OK, even the ones we don’t like to feel. This is one reason we wrote The Invisible Riptide – to normalize that we all have and discover ways to help the emotional riptide flow smaller, just like a wave. Name the emotion and situation, using an observational statement, when you see your child having an emotion. You are so happy when you are playing with your friend. That was really frustrating when your sister knocked your tower down. You were disappointed we couldn’t go to the park. That makes you feel nervous when you don’t know the plan.
Give children a way to express emotions. Sometimes it’s hard for kids to identify and express emotions. We love a good feelings chart posted on the fridge or a feeling flipchart on the counter. Not only can kids point to their feelings, you can too!Use crayons and markers to help them draw out their feelings. We love the Make Your Own Riptide activity as it allows children to draw out feelings in colors and shapes. The smooth feeling of crayons or Kwik Stix also provides a calming physical activity. For older kids, consider having a shared notebook where your child can leave you a note and you can write back OR have your child text you.
Validate and Reflect emotion rather than dismiss or jump to problem-solving too quickly. We don’t want to inadvertently send messages that it’s not ok to feel mad, sad, or anxious, for example. Sometimes it’s best to create space for children to experience the emotion and allow it to lessen on its own. That sounds tough. Let’s sit for a minute and then we’ll figure it out. You can even suggest doing an activity (e.g., have a snack, color, take a walk, etc.) and then talk about the situation.
Cope Out Loud. Usually, when we cope well, it’s an entirely internal process. When we don’t cope well with our emotions, kids totally see us lose our cool. They never really get to see how we figure out what our feelings are trying to tell us and how we move through them. Narrate this process for them. I’m so frustrated I am going to be late. OK. Taking a few breaths. I really don’t like being late, but don’t have a choice about that anymore. Even though I don’t like being late, it’s not going to cause a big problem. Next time, I might need to start getting things ready sooner. OR Wow! That was unexpected. It’s stressing me out. OK. I’m taking a minute so I can figure out what’s happening and figure out what to do next. Here are my options. This one might be OK. Not what I wanted but this will work too.
With ongoing connection and a willingness to listen and understand, you and your child will be well on the way to creating relationships and spaces that are emotionally safe. It’s an ongoing process. Thanks to the neuroplasticity of our brain, that is, the ability to change the connections and pathways in our brain through experience, we’re continually growing and changing.