Sometimes we can see the facts of a situation and recognize what is true, but still not feel that it is true. For example, I often have dreams about a snake biting me. When this happens, I have to look through the sheets and covers to fully accept the truth that there is no snake. Feeling safe is subjective, not objective; we can be safe without feeling safe. This is referred to as “felt safety”.
Your brain is subconsciously assessing safety four times per second. The brain does this by investigating the inner experience (heart rate, hunger, etc), the environment, and the people around us. Sometimes, our subconscious brains misinterpret situations and draw inaccurate conclusions. The very different feelings of excitement and anxiety create the same internal experiences in the body (elevated heart rate, butterflies in the stomach, pupil dilation, and shallow breathing). We can be in a safe setting but assume that we are unsafe. We can be with very loving people but imagine that they are angry with us.
All parents will observe their children displaying fear in situations that are anything but scary. This occurs when the child does not have “felt safety”. How you respond to your child in these situations will help them respond more appropriately at the moment. Handling these moments well will also increase your child’s ability to handle challenging circumstances well in the future.
Here are several tips to help you increase your child’s felt safety:
1) Consistency is key. Keep your children on a schedule so they know what to expect.
2) Pay close attention to non-verbal signs so you can help your child stay emotionally regulated. Some children become silent, some talk incessantly, some become cuddly, and some do not want you to touch them. Be attuned to your child’s signs so you know when it is time to help them feel safe.
3) Let them talk. Even if you completely disagree, do not correct their feelings. You can point out the reality of a situation later but just listen to them vent.
4) Let your children have their feelings. It is not your responsibility to “fix” every negative emotion they experience. Allow your child to work through “bad feelings” rather than telling them to “suck it up”. They cannot learn how to manage difficult emotions until they are allowed to experience them.
5) When possible, give them some control. If you can, offer choices. If the situation allows it, compromise.
6) Emotions are contagious. Anxiety spreads like wildfire, but so does peace. Model an appropriate response to the situation.
7) Be as playful as possible. Parents often repeat themselves (please stop doing this). Instead, engage playfully. For example, if you told your child not to ride his bike near the road and he turns toward the street, runs in front of the bike, and pretends to be a policeman keeping the bike in the correct area.
8) Observe and ask questions. Avoid jumping to conclusions or making assumptions. Curiosity helps prevent us from placing blame and becoming defensive.
9) Be as concrete as possible. Children do not understand sarcasm or abstract concepts. They require experience to understand, not just words.
10) Limit clutter, chaos, and over-scheduling as much as possible. We all need downtime. Your job as a parent is to do more than keep your children safe, clothed, and fed. If you want your children to be healthy and well-adjusted, take the time to help them feel safe as well.