girl_mom_hugging“Is this one of those things you don’t have to tell my mom?” I’m sitting in my office with a six-year-old girl. It’s only her second visit, and she’s still looking to clarify confidentiality. This is often the process with young children in therapy. They want to open up, but they need to build trust before they can share their stories.

As it turns out, she wants to talk about her relationship with her mom, but she’s not ready to discuss it with her mom. She’ll say, “If I tell my mom what’s wrong, she’ll say, ‘It’s not a big deal’ or ‘Don’t worry’ so I stopped telling her stuff.” I’ve had some version of this conversation more times than I can even count over the years. With best intentions, parents try to brush away worries for their kids. This too shall pass. As a result, kids shut down and withdraw … until they end up on my couch.

It’s not that simple, of course. There are always two sides to every story, and this story was no exception. It did, however, illustrate an important point: No matter the issues lurking beneath the surface, children need to live in an emotionally safe environment where all feelings are accepted and understood.

Barriers to Emotional Security

According to the Head Start Cares study, teaching children social and emotional skills not only improves their emotional health long term, but it also has a positive impact on learning. When kids learn to decode facial expressions and nonverbal cues and work through their own feelings, they experience better outcomes. And yet, many children feel dismissed by the adults in their lives when they attempt to convey emotion.

It’s no big secret that parenting young children can be a bit of roller coaster, and I find that parents dismiss feelings for a variety of reasons. Take for example, a child who falls and scrapes her knee on the pavement. The child grabs for her knee and cries out, but the parent responds with, “There’s no blood – you’re fine!” or “Walk it off!” While the parent in the scenario wants to teach resilience, the child feels dismissed or shut down. She wanted comfort and empathy but instead she ended up with a life lesson in being tough.

There are a few common barriers to emotional security that I find in my work with parents and families:

  • Increase resiliency or grit
  • Decrease whining or complaining
  • Build emotional strength
  • Build confidence

These attempts to toughen kids up so that they can deal with whatever life brings come from a good place but can have negative consequences. When kids seek emotional security but are met with little empathy, they do shut down.

On the flip side of this are the fixers. These parents run in for the save the moment they sense trouble to prevent their kids from experiencing negative emotions. These parents are happy makers by nature and go to great lengths to ensure positive experiences for their children. The problem, however, is that children of happy makers often feel as though they owe it to their parents to simply be happy. No one is happy every minute of every day. We all experience negative emotions at times, and it’s best to teach kids how to cope.

Creating an emotionally supportive home means giving your child a safe place to verbalize and process all of her emotions, not just the positive ones. It also means listening more than you speak and resisting the urge to fix. Kids can and do learn to work through stress independently, but when parents jump in every time life gets hard, they rob their children of the opportunity to work through their feelings and find solutions for their problems.

Creating a Supportive Space

What children need is a supportive space to share and a calming guide to listen and empathize. With those two pieces in place, they are able to open up and seek help. Follow these steps to build an emotionally safe home for your family:

Listen first; talk second. All too often parents interrupt children to tell them how they’re feeling or comment on how a certain experience must feel. Try to remember this mantra: We are all the best judges of our own feelings – even children.

Instead of telling the girl with the scraped knee that she’s fine, try listening and providing physical comfort until she calms down. Words aren’t always necessary. More often than not, your physical presence and attentive listening is enough.

Avoid squashing emotions. How many times have you shushed a child or attempted to distract a crying preschooler to end a meltdown? Young children are often shushed or reprimanded for expressing emotion, and older children are often dismissed (i.e., “This is no big deal”).

What seems small to you might feel really big to your child. When kids are given the opportunity to express and work through their emotions, they learn how to regulate and cope with those big feelings. When they are shushed or dismissed, they learn to stuff their emotions. Like hot lava, stuffed emotions will one day erupt. The more feelings stuffed below the surface, the bigger the explosion.

Don’t judge. Have you ever explained your late arrival to a party with an eye roll and a quick, “Sorry, but my daughter just had to find that perfect pair of shoes”? Kids don’t understand sarcasm, but they do pick up on voice tone and they know when they’re being criticized. When parents engage in this negative behavior, children develop negative core beliefs. What they hear is that they are the problem.

Don’t judge your kids and place blame on them to cope with a social blunder or some other issue. Give your child the gift of empathy by working through the problem together and moving on.

Express your own emotions. Parents have a tendency to hide their own emotions from their kids. While kids don’t need to be involved in the fine points of adult problems, it’s okay for them to see you sad, mad or overwhelmed. When you label and talk about your own emotions, you show them that we all have big feelings to cope with and that you trust them just as they can trust you.

Creating an emotionally supportive home environment benefits the whole family. When families work together to work through big feelings, they build trust and understanding. This strengthens relationships and shows kids that they have a safe place to seek help, no matter what.

Watch It on PBS KIDS

Family is one of the central themes for the PBS KIDS show Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. In many episodes, Daniel Tiger and his family model or learn how they can best communicate and support each other. Watching these videos with your young child may give your family some new ideas for being supportive and taking care of each other.


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