Children are like seedlings. When raised in the right soil, with the right amount of water, sunshine and fertilizer and in a big enough pot, they will flourish into plants with deep roots and sturdy stocks. When it is time to transplant these seedlings out into the world, they will be not only hardy enough to survive, but vigorous enough to bloom and grow. This is part of a series on Cultivating an environment for Family to Bloom and Grow that focuses on soil (security).
Why a sense of security is important for children
“What every child needs is a loving, caring adult who is passionately, wildly committed to that child,” said Geoff Nagle, director of the Institute of Infant and Early Childhood Mental Health at Tulane University in New Orleans.
Emotional security is one of the most important things you can provide for your children for them to grow and soar. Children who experience a pattern of responsive and consistent care from their parents and caregivers are more likely to develop a positive sense of self, of others and the world around them. They are then more likely to have self-confidence, trust others and explore and learn new situations. According to Nagle, emotionally healthy and secure children tend to perform better in school, build lasting, mutually respectful relationships more easily, and have coping skills that can help them through difficult times.
On the other hand, children who experienced unresponsive treatment from parents and caregivers may develop behaviour problems, act out and have feelings of mistrust and low self-esteem.
Here are some ways you can help your children develop a positive feeling of emotional security:
- Create predictability and order. This requires setting rules, discipline and justice. To a child, justice and security are the same. An important part of justice is consistency. When the rules change from day to day, depending upon the mood of one or both parents, children can become insecure because there is no consistency and thus no sense of justice. Emotional security depends upon consistent, predictable consequences. You need to make clear to your children what you expect of them and what will happen if they do not do what is expected. You must then follow through consistently by doing what you say you will do.
- Provide fair discipline. Discipline need not and should not be punitive, humiliating or abusive. It simply needs to be firm, consistent and rational. Children learn very little from harsh punishment other than fear and mistrust of their parents. But by using discipline based on the logical, natural and predictable consequences of your child’s actions, you ensure justice without injuring your child’s self esteem or your relationship with them.
- Be responsive to their needs. Your children are sending you signals and cues all the time. Take time to observe their behaviour and find out what they want. Let your children know you see their cues for help and attention and then respond appropriately to what they need. Are they pointing to a toy to play with you? Are they hungry? Do they need a break from their homework? Not responding to your children sends a signal they cannot count on the adults and caregivers around them. On the other hand, children who feel understood and responded to learn to develop trusting relationships and good self-esteem.
- Help them process feelings. A child’s sense of control can be increased by helping the child to process unpleasant feelings. Often, as you listen to them express themselves, you and your child will be able to identify the cause of those feelings. Ask your child to reflect on why they feel a certain way. Wait patiently for their response, which may not come right away. At the same time, as you listen with empathy while your children discuss their concerns, they will feel loved and comforted.
- Show plenty of affection. Parents should be generous with hugging, kissing or cuddling their children, as studies show that affection may improve kids’ mood and confidence. Kenneth Rubin, a professor of human of development at the University of Maryland recommends that parents try to show affection consistently – even during the tougher parenting moments. As Rubin says, “It’s easy to be affectionate when your kid is being an angel, but it can be even more powerful to give him [or her] a big, loving squeeze after an argument.”
- Make time for quality interactions. Parents should try to devote time each day to their children, even though doing so may be difficult after a long workday. Kids thrive on one-to-one bonding, in which parents focus their energies on them – even if it is only for 15 minutes or so. Nagle advises parents to find a way to be present for their children, to find out what happened in their day, what worked, and what was hard for them. The Cornell University Cooperative Extension suggests that parents share a hobby, read a book, or exercise with their child.
- Focus on yourself. This may appear to be a self-centred approach but it is critical that parents consider the profound impact of their own issues on a child. Nagle encourages parents struggling with emotional issues, substance abuse or addiction to seek treatment immediately, because these problems inevitably become a child’s problem too. Nagle pointed out that in one study of 984 teens who had been adopted as babies, the kids whose parents suffered from depression were more likely to be depressed themselves.
Regina Pally, MD, co-founder and assistant director of the Center for Reflective Parenting notes that kids are not likely to feel emotionally secure when their parents are not acting that way. Pally explains that parents tend to transmit emotions to their children. For example, if you get hyper-anxious when your child is frustrated and disappointed, your child will get hyper-anxious as well, in the face of intense emotions. If you are calm, you will be more likely to help your child internalize calmness in the face of frustration and disappointment. As such, remember that investing in your own emotional well-being creates a positive ripple effect on the loved ones in your life.
This is part of a series on Cultivating an Environment for Family to Bloom and Grow focusing on fertilizer (values-learning) and a big enough pot (space to make mistakes).
- Budzienski, J. Parenting techniques to ensure a child’s emotional security. Every Life.
- Evans, S. (2011). Helping children feel safe. Our Homes, Our Families.
- Heidar, J. (2013). Developing young children’s emotional security. Early Years Parenting.
- The importance of providing emotional security for your child (2008). Yahoo Voices.
About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists, counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.