This is pretty much a straight excerpt from the book I am writing: The Loving AND Effective Parent. The following is the sixth question of the heart connection questions in the “Relationship” section of the book.
Does your child feel you are a safe place she can come to no matter how much she has messed up or what kind of trouble she is in?
When she messes up or is in trouble does she come to you or does she hide from you? Can she trust you, or does she need to hide parts of herself or her life from you?
To become a safe place for our children we have to dependably and consistently give them the love, protection, and help they need when they have messed up or are in trouble. That is what a safe place is. It is a place where you feel loved, protected, and helped until everything is OK again. It is not a place of safety and comfort only; it is also a place where troubles get resolved. Love and protection are the first half. Resolution and closure are the second half.
The foundation we build on to be a safe place – this is not about us; it is about our child. It is about our child and the situation he finds himself in. It is not about our feelings or disappointments or sense of betrayal. It is not about us worrying what other people will think. It is about being the parent our child needs us to be in that moment.
We need to be this safe place for our children even if the trouble they are in is with us. In those cases, the protection we offer is from our own anger and disappointment. That does not mean we won’t be angry or disappointed. We are human after all. But it does mean we will keep our children safe from that anger and disappointment. It is OK if our children know we are angry and disappointed as long as they also know we are mature and strong enough to control ourselves.
This does not mean we will ignore whatever the issue is. It does not mean there won’t be accountability. It does not mean there won’t be any consequences. What it does mean is that our love and protection will remain strong and intact. It means we will be a safe place for them where they will receive the love, protection, and help they need - no matter what.
Do our children know they are far more important to us than whatever the misbehavior, failure, or trouble is? What have our words and actions communicated in the past? What are they communicating now?
How do we behave when our children approach us with their failures and screw-ups? How do we behave when we uncover the screw-ups and misbehavior they are trying to hide from us? How do we behave when our children are in trouble? Do we respond or do we react?
Responding is a thoughtful and careful approach to a situation. Responding requires slowing down and thinking first. Responding attempts to get an accurate grasp of the situation and considers what is at stake and what is important.
Reacting is an unchecked emotional reflex to a situation. Our feelings take over. You are never quite sure what you are going to get with a reaction. Reactions tend to not be thought out at all. Reactions completely bypass the thinking part of the brain. Reactions do not attempt to evaluate the situation. Reacting rarely considers what is at stake or what is important.
What is always at stake and important is our relationship with our children. What always matters - are we being the parent our child needs us to be in that moment?
This helps me remember:
Responding to a medicine is good. That means the medicine is working and solving the problem.
Reacting to a medicine is bad. That means the medicine is not working the way it is supposed to and could be doing harm instead.
Unless something is on fire, take the time to respond – do not react. Remain calm and be in emotional control of yourself. Take your time.
If we are so emotionally affected we might react poorly, we excuse ourselves for a moment. “I am too upset and angry right now to deal with this. I need to calm down before I say something I will regret later. I love you too much for that. I want to help you and do this right, but I can’t right now.” Walk away.
Before we take a look at the actual process of being a safe place, let me address a related issue. Sometimes, our children couldn’t care less if we are a safe place or not. For whatever reason they are intent of disobeying, defying, or ignoring us, and they don’t really care what we think at all. In that moment, they simply want to do what they want to do even though they know we disapprove. These times require a straight forward development & discipline response. We simply take care of business in a loving and effective manner. Our development & discipline should always be a safe place. If our development & discipline has always been a safe place, our children will not be afraid to turn to us when they have truly messed up or are in real trouble.
The process of being a safe place:
Depending on the situation, not every step will apply and sometimes they unfold in a different order.
We thank her for coming to us and being honest. (If we uncovered the problem, or our child was trying to hide the problem because she is afraid of our reaction, we deal with that in the sorting through and addressing the issues part of the process. We skip this step and go straight to the next step – reassuring her of our love.)
We reassure her of our love. This is the foundation everything depends on.
We listen with empathy. What is she feeling – from her point of view? What is it like to be her right now? It could be incredibly scary or difficult. Let her tell her story.
We acknowledge her feelings and fears with sensitivity, patience, and empathy.
We remind her again of our love for her.
If appropriate, we step in and provide protection.
We start sorting through and addressing the issues. We only do this when everyone has settled down and is ready to move forward. Depending on the severity of the issue, this might be the next day or even later.
We keep the responsibility where it belongs while reminding her of our love.
We make sure there is satisfactory closure.
Our goal is always relationship, restoration, and resolution. Can we remember a time when we needed our parents to be a safe place? A time when we needed their love, protection, and help because we were in over our heads or our guilt wouldn’t leave us alone. We just wanted to get to the other side of the situation and back to normal. Whether our parents were a safe place for us or not, we can be a safe place for our children. We can walk them through the situation until all is dealt with appropriately and there is satisfactory closure. Our children will be grateful. They will be grateful even if they have consequences to work through. In some situations, they might even think we are their heroes.
Things unfold pretty smoothly in the following three examples. Please do not get distracted by what might or might not seem realistic to you. Instead, focus on what needs to happen and why. If we can actually do this in real life our children will know for sure we are their heroes.
Five-year-old Lindsey broke her bedside lamp. She was jumping on the bed, which she is not allowed to do. When she jumped off the bed, she accidentally knocked the lamp over. She is OK, but she knows we will ask her how it happened. She is panicked and afraid because we just reminded her this morning about jumping on the bed. She knows she cannot cover this up. She comes to us.
“My lamp broke.”
We have had a bad day at work, Lindsey is an extremely energetic child, and she tends to breaks things. This is the last thing we need at the moment. We can feel our face going flush and the adrenaline pumping, but we catch ourselves. We remind ourselves just how important this moment is. This moment is not about us or how we feel. This moment is about our daughter and how she feels. We take a few slow, deep breaths and force out a somewhat calm response.
“Thank you for coming to me and telling me. You know I love you more than any lamp don’t you?” Lindsey remains silent. She can tell we are upset.
“Tell me what happened.” We are almost calm now.
“It fell off the table.”
This is not the time to explain to our daughter that, “lamps do not fall off tables all by themselves!” This is our time to listen. We know she is trying hard not to implicate herself any more than she has to. We manage a smile. We are in control of ourselves now. Our voice is kind and steady.
“How did that happen?”
Lindsey looks down and says nothing.
“Lindsey, how did your lamp break?” (Not, “Did you break your lamp!?”) We need to listen patiently and calmly. This is not an interrogation. She needs to tell us what happened in her own unforced words.
Lindsey looks really unhappy as she stares at her feet. It looks like she might cry. We pull her into a hug and just hold her for a moment. She sniffles and tries to hold back her tears.
“Remember how much more I love you than any lamp? Just tell me what happened. I am sure we can work this out.”
Slowly Lindsey confesses the whole story, including the jumping on the bed part. We listen attentively with no interrupting, anger, or shaming. She shows us the broken lamp. Electric shock is still possible, so we unplug the lamp. Later, we will pick up the dangerously sharp pieces because our daughter is too young to do that safely.
“Thank you for being honest. I am proud of you for that. I’m glad you did not get hurt. I will get you a replacement lamp for tonight, but what do you think needs to happen now? How are you going to make this right? And what are we going to do about your jumping on the bed?”
We remain calm and in control of ourselves. This is too early in this book to go into our development & discipline approach, but know that Lindsey is not going to get away with anything. If we do this right, Lindsey will get a real life demonstration of our love for her. She will experience our kindness and empathy even when she did something wrong. She will see that even when we are upset, we are a safe place. She has learned she will be loved, protected, and helped if she comes to us. Responding to Lindsey this way greatly improves the chances she will come to us when something much more serious happens. This is exactly the kind of track record we want to establish with her.
This blog post is continued in “Are we a safe place for our children? (part 2)