How To Raise A Kid Who Feels Truly, Completely Safe
Kids who feel like there’s no safety net spend their mental energy being hypervigilant instead of learning and growing.
Do you make your kids feel safe? It seems like a simple question answered resolutely by the fact that your kid holds you close or cuddles tightly in new or stressful situations. But feeling safe is a much wider concept than that — and the minor anxieties that kids deal with constantly can easily upend that feeling, especially when their safety is put to question by their parent. So how do parents make their kids feel safe? Yelling without an apology would obviously throw them into confusion. There’s no coming back from spanking (just don’t do it). And taking the young one on a roller coaster they aren’t begging for would probably be unwise. But felt safety is more than just protecting kids from scary situations. It’s about making them feel seen.
That’s what psychotherapist and bestselling co-author of The Whole-Brain Child, Tina Payne Bryson, Ph.D. ,would like parents to explore. Children’s perception of how safe their parents are is deeply connected to whether they feel seen by their parents as their true selves. No, helicopter parents, this does not require hypervigilance. It requires paying attention to emotional states, asking questions, and, yes, putting down your phone.
A lot of parents will think, “I’m not violent with my kids, so I’m safe.” But what’s a more robust understanding of how it looks for kids to feel their parents are safe?
Dr. Bryson: When kids feel safe, they feel like you as a parent are in charge and are going to protect them from harm, but also that you are going to work really hard to not be the source of their fear.
Parents aren’t perfect. So when I yell at my child — which creates a rupture in our relationship — I'm going to repair with them and make amends. That communicates to kids that we will keep showing up for them.
Kids don't feel safe when a parent is not paying attention or not protecting them.
What makes kids feel as though their parents are unsafe?
Kids don't feel safe when a parent is not paying attention or not protecting them. Then the child has to give tons of mental energy toward being hypervigilant to make sure they're safe in the world.
If you imagine a kid at the playground, and they're doing something kind of risky and their parent is completely not paying attention, the kid has to be really cautious. But if they see that their parent is watching them and non-verbally communicating, “You got this, I'm watching you,” by nodding their head or smiling, then they can use their mental energy and their attention to explore and play. What that requires is seeing what your child is capable of and knowing when to protect and when to back off to let them take risks on their own.
How fine is the line between protecting our kids from danger and letting them learn by exploring?
Every kid has different thresholds of risk tolerance. My firstborn was very tentative. He would get overwhelmed by things easily. We needed to be one of the first families to show up at soccer practice, because it was hard for him to walk into a crowd of people. So I had to know that about him and see and understand who he was, and pay attention to how he responded in different environments.
I knew how to keep him safe, how to help him feel safe enough to take the risks that were important for his development. It’s important that we pay attention to our kids’ temperaments so that we know in which ways they need to feel safe or protected, and then provide them the right amount of scaffolding towards autonomy.
Seeing requires a pause and a slowing down and tuning into what's happening below the surface.
How do you feel parents are doing these days in understanding their kid’s need to feel seen, then actually doing the work to see them well?
We're definitely more aware of the importance of it, but we have two massive distractions that keep us from actually seeing our kids well. One is obviously screens. We are constantly being pecked at by our chimes and texts and phone calls. We often have our devices with us during everyday parenting moments like when we are driving our kids places, when they are at the park playing, and even when we are putting them into bed. So we get interrupted from being present a lot more frequently than previous generations.
The other distraction is the trend of hyper-parenting, where we are trying so hard to enrich our children and give them the best opportunities that they become overscheduled and we become overscheduled. When we're rushing, and we're hurrying, and we're cramming things into our day, we don't have the mental space to notice if we're being emotionally present.
What are the first steps in the process of seeing our kids better?
It's about tuning into the mind behind the behavior. But we're still outdated in terms of how we see children's behaviors and how we respond to it. We're still in very outdated modes of thinking where kids do something wrong, so we throw consequences at them without taking a look at the entire situation.
The whole point and purpose of discipline is to raise children who are self-disciplined, and the way we get there is by giving them reps over and over and over, and through teaching and skill-building. Because discipline truly is all about teaching and building skills. The problem is that most of the time when kids have challenging behaviors, or annoying behaviors, we immediately try to address the behavior right then and there or we react to it. But typically, those are the moments kids are the least receptive and least able to learn.
What the science tells us is that we can't learn when we're in dysregulated, reactive states. We learn when we're in receptive, regulated states. So I think where “seeing” comes into this is when your kid has a behavior, what we want to practice is looking at what’s behind the behavior, in the child’s mind, what's happening in their internal landscape.
What we want to practice is looking at what’s behind the behavior in the child’s mind.
That sounds both simple in theory and difficult in practice.
Yeah, so in the moment that your kid screams at you and pinches you when you're trying to get them out of the bathtub, a parent will immediately be like, “You can't do that!” or, “No pinching!” We should have limits and address behaviors, but seeing our kids requires saying, “I can tell you're so angry, and you're so frustrated, and you didn't want to get out of the bathtub.” Seeing requires a pause and a slowing down and tuning into what's happening below the surface. It’s about turning our attention to our child — the nonverbal signals they're giving, what they're saying, what they're doing — and responding in a way that connects with what they’re feeling on the inside.
Ultimately, those moments over time as development unfolds lead to a child who can say, “My parents got me, they knew me, they understood me, and they loved me for who I am, not who they wanted me to be.”
What’s a realistic way for parents to change their screen use to better see their kids?
It's like everything else: The more we practice, the easier and more automatic it becomes. One of the best ways we can practice the discipline of moving away from distraction and turning our attention toward our child is any time you're coming off of or going into a separation, like picking them up or dropping them off from school, they have your full attention. You're listening, you're connecting, you're being present there.
My kids are teenagers now, and when they come into the room, I turn my device upside down, I close my computer, I turn my face toward them, I make eye contact. I'm available.
Managing technology seems less daunting when you focus it on specific moments throughout the day. We can't do that all day long, but these micro-moments, we can hit throughout the day.
How much of the issue of parents not seeing their kids is like a lack of introspection, and not being able to see inside themselves?
The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that allows us to have both insight and empathy. It’s the structure of the brain that gives rise to our ability to be conscious of our own experiences, our feelings, our thoughts, and what we're paying attention to in terms of our own internal world. It’s the same part of the brain that allows us to tune into our children's lives. Being able to see ourselves and know and understand ourselves is a different side of the same coin of doing that for our children.
As we work to pay attention to our own internal worlds, we automatically become better at being able to see our children. And the same thing the other way around. As we learn to tune into and see our children and attend and be present to their internal worlds, we're better able to do that for ourselves as well.