What is emotional safety?

As human beings, we’re familiar with the importance of physical safety for ourselves and our children. What about emotional safety? How many of us can say we feel emotionally safe in our relationships? How many of our children feel emotionally safe in our households? All relationships need emotional safety in order to be healthy. Emotional safety is necessary for good health. The ability to be vulnerable, to share our thoughts and feelings, especially sadness, fear and anger (the uncomfortable feelings) with a mother, father, wife, husband, sibling, is an instinctual need that can be easily quashed even when no physical violence is present. What is required for emotional safety? If a power and control situation exists in a relationship between two adults who are parenting children, (where there may or may not be physical violence) the following may occur:

Child withholds sharing thoughts or feelings for fear of “making parent mad,” for fear of being shamed, for fear of “making parent sad”, etc.

Child withholds thoughts or feelings for fear of parent sharing information with abusive partner to “help partner understand how his or her actions hurt the children.”

Child is made fun of or put down for speaking out against abuse of a parent.

Child is called names for showing “too much emotion or any emotion at all.”

Child believes he or she is responsible for the behaviors of the abusive parent or “the conflict within the home.”

Child withholds feelings, thoughts, or needs in order to take care of or protect siblings or abused parent.

Child withholds feelings, thoughts, or needs to attempt to appease abusive parent and minimize conflict.

Understanding that every person has a right to their own thoughts, opinions, and feelings (even children) is the foundation to experiencing emotional safety. Providing an emotionally safe environment for your child is foundational to a child’s success in life and their ability to have secure, stable relationships throughout life. It is a NEED for successful emotional and personal development and leads to self-worth, confidence, mental health, physical health, etc.

For example:

A child comes home from school, throws his stuff down by the door and stomps to his room. If you’re the child’s parent, how do you feel? For some parents, a flood of strong emotions may quickly rise making it difficult to see the child’s need over the parent’s feelings, expectations or rules. Creating an emotionally safe space for your child may be difficult at that moment, but necessary. Parents need to learn to override their own feelings to make a safe space for their child’s emotions. A parent can use supportive words to help identify the child’s feelings so the child can feel heard, understood, and become emotionally regulated. The parent can then ask the child to go back and put his stuff where it belongs. Within this relational dynamic, the child is provided an emotionally safe space to work out strong emotions, but the family rules and standards are still upheld. Eventually, the relationship will experience an increase in connection and emotional management and a decrease in unwanted behaviors.

Emotional safety is the cornerstone for all healthy relationships, including adult-to-adult relationships. It is important to know that ALL emotions are acceptable. Not all behaviors are acceptable, but ALL emotions are acceptable. Emotions must be heard and validated in order to learn to manage the behaviors associated with them. Children learn appropriate emotional management from their parents, stepparents, grandparents and any adult spending time in their lives. We are responsible for creating, nurturing and maintaining our children’s and our own emotional safety. Ask yourself, “Do I feel emotionally safe in my relationships? Are my children experiencing emotional safety?” If you aren’t feeling emotionally safe, odds are your children aren’t either.

By Stephenie Butterfield, LPC, MS, IMH-E® (III), Children’s Counselor and Sandi Fultz, MS, LPC-S, Clinical Director at Safenet Services.

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