This blog post is a continuation of “Are we a safe place for our children? (Part one)
Our ten-year-old son, Charles, comes running down the stairs screaming, “Mom! Dad! Janis and Meagan are trying to kill me!” Coming right after him are his older sister and her friend Meagan. Charles ends up behind us, hanging on for dear life. Janice and Meagan are looking for revenge. There is fire in their eyes. We have never seen them this angry. They definitely want to hurt Charles, and they are significantly bigger than he is.
Sometimes being a safe place requires jumping into the middle of an active and heated situation. Charles needs our immediate protection. We make it clear with the positioning of our body that nobody is going to hit Charles.
“That nasty little brother sent horrifying texts from our phones to boys we like! You need to punish him! NOW! You need to ruin his life just like he ruined ours.”
“OK. Everybody stand right where you are, don’t say another word, and take a few deep breaths. We will get to the bottom of this.” We model calming ourselves down while giving each child strong eye contact. We look determined and ready to be the parent we are needed to be right now.
We find out Charles snuck into Janice’s room and sent these messages when the girls were in the bathroom perfecting their eye shadow technique for the upcoming school dance. But now they know they can never go back to school ever again. They are convinced their social lives have been completely destroyed by a ten-year-old brat.
Now everybody needs us to be a safe place, not just Charles. Our daughter is on the verge of tears. She is overcome with fear, panic, and humiliation. That makes it quite challenging to give her the love, protection, and help she needs right now. If we try to tell her her life is not ruined, she will probably scream, “You don’t understand anything!” Instead, we try to give the girls as much empathy as they can receive in their distress. If we think they are being wildly over dramatic, we keep that to ourselves. We also keep whatever emotions we have to ourselves. This is not about our feelings. This is about being a safe place for them. How can we help while protecting and loving? How can we calm the girls down and get some control over the situation? Maybe we can pull them back into the thinking part of their brains and move the situation forward.
“Charles, sit there and don’t say a word. (He is still dependent on our protection.) Janice, sit there. Meagan, go get your phones, please.” Meagan returns with the phones.
“Would it help if I used your phones to text those boys and explain what happened?”
“MOM! NO! You can’t do that. How humiliating.”
“OK, what if you did that?”
“Mom, they will never believe us. They will think we made the whole thing up. Nothing’s gonna work. I am going to be humiliated! I am never going back to school again! And it’s all your fault!” She glares at Charles.
“What about doing something funny with your brother?”
All three of them respond, “What?” The girls are intrigued. Charles is concerned.
“You know. Maybe text a picture of you and Meagan sitting on him and pretending to beat him up with a quick explanation. I don’t know. What do you think might work? How about Charles texts them all back explaining what he did and the consequences he has to work through? You have to do something. You can’t just let those texts go unexplained. I give you my permission to use your brother. He definitely owes you, but I will supervise closely because I still love him. I just can’t help myself. I love you two girls too. So let’s figure this out so your lives don’t have to be ruined. That would be so sad.”
We keep things moving forward until we have as good a solution as the situation allows while still protecting and reassuring our children and Meagan. We stay in control of ourselves and keep things safe. We might even coach the girls how to act if anyone teases them, “Hey, he’s my clueless brother. What can I say? Mom says I have to love him anyway,” or “He my best friend’s annoying little brother. What can I do?” We advise them not to say anything more than that. Especially if anyone keeps trying to embarrass them.
As in the example before, this is not the time or place to get into how we should be developing & disciplining our children, but, once again, know that nobody is going to get away with anything. Yes, we will love, protect, and help, but we will also hold accountable. The girls did not react to Charles appropriately. Someone could have been injured. Charles was totally out of line. It would not surprise me if Charles had to write out a long and well thought out apology to both girls that showed some real understanding about what he had done. It would also not surprise me if Charles had to do all of Janice’s chores for a month. He needs to make things right with Meagan as well. Whatever happens, he is going to have some serious regrets, but he is also going to end up with a clean slate and closure.
Hopefully, you have been noticing what is not included in being a safe place. We did not mess things up by bringing our own baggage or emotions into it, “Why do you always do this to me; what is wrong with you; why can’t you ever behave, etc.” There was no nagging, lecturing, judging, shaming, yelling, screaming, scolding, humiliating, threatening, taunting, hitting, or slapping of any kind. None of those things have anything to do with loving, protecting, or helping. None of those things belong in a safe place.
Our teenage son lost his part-time job because he was caught stealing something from the store. That happened a week ago. The store owner is thinking about pressing charges. Our son has been pretending to go to work so we won’t find out. We have noticed he has been kind of anxious and jumpy around us lately.
“Hey. Good to see you, honey. Is something bothering you?”
“No, mom. Everything’s fine.”
“Well, I’m here if you need me.” We leave it at that. Later that evening we can tell he wants to unload his burden, but he just can’t summon the courage. The poor kid seems to be dying inside. Before bed he comes to us.
“Promise you won’t kill me.”
“This must be serious. I promise I won’t kill you, but I can’t promise I won’t be upset. I also promise to still love you no matter what. Thank you for coming to me. I can tell this is hard for you. I will try my best to honor that.”
“Mom, I don’t work at the store anymore.” He pauses and looks lost. We wait patiently. We do not let ourselves jump to conclusions or freak out. We stay calm. We keep reminding ourselves just how important the way we respond is at this moment.
“I got fired.” We keep our mouth shut and wait.
“Well? What do you think?” He is trying to gauge our reaction to the news.
“I think you are not finished with your story.” Then we shut our mouth and wait.
“I got fired because I stole something from the store.” We still keep our mouth shut! We might have to choke off the urge to interrupt and scream, “What the hell is wrong with you?” We need to remain a safe place no matter how upset we are. This is his story to tell. This is his story to own up to.
We let him work his way through the whole story. He can tell we are really upset, but he can also see we are determined to stay in control of ourselves. We do not yell; we do not condemn or shame. We wait until the entire story is told, and we remain a safe place.
“Wow! This is a lot for me to take in right now. It does not change my love for you one bit, but I am not going to lie to you. This is truly upsetting. This really hurts. There are so many things flying around in my head right now. I need some time to absorb them before I say something wrong or even horrible.
Look at me. (We wait until he is looking right at us.) I love you. This does not change that. Thank you for coming to me and being honest, but I cannot do this properly right now. I will get back to you tomorrow evening. I should be ready by then. We will begin to work our way through this. In the meantime, you start coming up with ideas on how you are going to make things right.”
We get back to him the next evening. We reassure him of our love, and we hold him accountable for his actions. Just like in the other examples, nobody is going to get away with anything, but they will be loved, protected, and actually helped. We keep going until there is satisfactory closure.
Thinking it through:
What do you think children feel when we offer a safe place even though they have really messed up?
How do you think the children will feel about about us and the whole experience when it is all over?
What is it like for children who know they have a safe place to go to no matter what?
Life can be hard and scary enough as it is for our children. They need a safe place they can go to when they are truly struggling or when they have really screwed up. That safe place needs to be a place where they will be loved, protected, and actually helped. If our children are human, it is only a matter of time before they will need such a place to work something out. That safe place should be us. (Sometimes professional help needs to be included in our safe place.)
There are children who will look elsewhere for a safe place if they cannot find one at home. Many teenagers have felt they had no choice but to seek help somewhere else because they felt their parents were not safe. Sometimes that works out OK: trusted school advisor, teacher, or counselor; trusted relative or other adult, etc. Sometimes it does not work out OK: well-meaning but clueless peers, boyfriends, girlfriends, etc. or people willing to take advantage of and exploit our children. We cannot leave this up to chance. We must not assume our children will come to us when they should. We need to keep building a solid track record of being that safe place for our children with any issues great or small. If we have proven ourselves faithful and safe with the little things, they will probably not be afraid to come to us with the big things.
If our children cannot find a safe place to go, they might end up trying to handle issues that are way beyond their ability to understand or to cope. We never want them thinking they have nowhere to go. That can lead to tragic results. The stories are beyond heartbreaking. We do not want to lose our children because they felt they could not come to us.
We want this deeply planted in our children’s hearts and minds, “No matter what kind of trouble I get into, if I go to my parents, they will love, protect, and help me. There might be consequences, but I will always be loved, protected, and helped. They are my safe place.”
If you are a normal human being like me, you will need some serious retraining to pull this off. Training myself to respond instead of react was the first real challenge. Not sure if I ever completely mastered that one. Thinking clearly in the heat of the moment is not easy either. For most of us, this will take some real effort, determination, and persistence, but the rewards are beyond belief. If we do it right, we can turn disaster into growth and learning and a much deeper relationship. We can be the parent our children need us to be.