I was 5 and mad at my mom. I forget why. But I do remember I was packing my bags and hitting the road. In a rockstar parenting move, my unshakable mother began packing sandwiches for me to take on my run-away trip. 

“Whhattt?” you may scream. “How could she?? That’s so… mean… insensitive… emotionally unsafe!”

Emotionally Safe. What does that even mean, anyway?

For some, it means parenting so that their kids never think badly of them and try to run away. (Spoiler alert: That’s impossible.

For others, it means they try to never be angry — even when their kid draws dinosaurs on the white couch with permanent markers. (Honestly, if you have children — why have white furniture??) 

So let me offer you a working definition: 

Emotional safety means parenting in a way that your child feels safe enough to be themselves. 

That’s it. It’s not rocket science. Kids who are safe to be themselves may be, well, quirky. They’re encouraged to explore who they are, to formulate their world. They dress themselves (sometimes weirdly). They use their imagination (again, often weird). They’re on the road to discovering their personality, likes and dislikes, sense of humor, fashion, and overall mojo.

Now, emotional safety doesn’t mean parents don’t set boundaries for their child. And it doesn’t mean kids may not experience sadness, or disappointment, or anxiety. And it certainly doesn’t mean you’ll never be angry or hurt by them, or not pack sandwiches when they want to run away. That’s just real life. 

So how can you go about helping your kids feel emotionally safe? 

Research can give us a little insight into this. (Hang with me here — I promise it won’t be a term paper.) 

Psychologist Don Catherall says a person (like your child) needs two things to feel emotionally safe with someone (like you, the parent): 

One: To feel a healthy sense of connection to the person. 

And two: To develop a healthy sense of security in themselves. 

In other words, your child needs to feel close to you and (at least to be developing the skills) to feel good about themselves

This means developing an appropriately close relationship with your child while giving them opportunities to build self-confidence. Ironically, building self-confidence often involves doing things without you. Notice the balance? 

Here’s another way to look at it: 

Some researchers say the healthiest families strike a balance with a couple of tensions: 

1. Constant over-attachment versus total disconnection.

The need to feel overly-involved in every single aspect of their child’s life can quickly become what researchers call “enmeshment.” Parents can’t separate their child’s emotions from their own. Boundaries are unclear. It’s a false sense of emotional safety which, in reality, focuses on the parent’s unhealthy need to be connected or overprotective. Disconnection is the polar opposite, of course. Neither extreme fosters real emotional safety. 

2. A rigid, overly-structured family environment versus one that is absolutely chaotic without rules or boundaries. 

Too many parents buckle under the need for their kids to like them. As a result, they compromise rules and structure in an attempt to offer emotional safety. On the flip side, others go overboard with stringent rules, consequences, and schedules. Unfortunately, either extreme tends to have the opposite outcome. 

The main point: Emotionally safe kids thrive when there’s a balance. 

Want to be an emotionally safe parent? 

Be the parent, not the friend. Stay connected, but don’t smother. Build confidence in your child. Challenge them to go beyond what they think they’re able to do. Set boundaries. Own your emotions and let them experience theirs

Fortunately, my 5-year-old self didn’t make it past the mailbox with my bologna sandwiches. And my mom never faltered with her parenting techniques, even if I wasn’t happy about it. She was savvy enough to understand that it was okay for me to be upset. She didn’t need to overreact, and I would eventually make my way back, knowing a little more about my weird self, emotionally safe and all. 

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