While scrolling through TikTok the other day I ran across a series of short videos stitched together of people responding to the phrase, “The person you are right now is the person you would have felt safe with as a child.”
I watched as several individuals reacted emotionally, sometimes crying, smiling, or expressing feelings of relief, pain, or despair.
I put down my phone and looked at my eight year old son who was curled up on my lap, sleeping soundly.
It happens less and less as he gets older, but at least once a week, my son asks to snuggle. We curl up on the couch together and he promptly falls asleep while I mindlessly run my fingers through his hair or rub his back and scroll through my phone, watch tv, or read a book. When it’s my time for bed I’ll call my husband to carry the sleepy-head off to his room and I’ll begin my evening routine.
As I watched him sleep in my lap and I considered the phrase and its veracity.
Whether I’m the kind of person who I would have felt safe with as a child is only of interest to me insomuch that I am able to identify the needs I had in my childhood and ways in which I developed sound coping mechanisms as an adult to fill any deficiencies that may have occurred during my formative years.
As a parent, however, I am far more interested in what it means to be a safe person for my children and how one might be able to evaluate any true degree of success or failure to that end.
It would be easy to look at my own child, sleeping soundly in my lap and think, “Well, of course I am! Look at the evidence! I have a child who obviously feels safe enough to come to me for physical affection and love.”
But there are many different ways in which a child can feel safe or unsafe. My son feels safe coming to me for hugs, but does he feel safe coming to me with his fears? What about his ambitions? Does he feel safe coming to me with his anger? His disappointment? Does he feel safe expressing his desires, his dreams, or his mistakes? Does he feel safe disagreeing with me?
The hard truth is that no parent can use a child’s level of affection as a true barometer of how safe or unsafe that child feels. And the signs a child truly feels safe with his parents may not be the signs a parent interprets as “good.”
All children are desperate for their parents’ love and affection, and are prone to forgive their parents in favor of a relationship with them.
How I evaluate how safe my children feel with me is determined in part by science, and in part by my own memories as a child and what made me feel safe and what didn’t. How I evaluate my children’s level of safety depends largely on how I evaluate my own behavior as their mother and how they respond to me. These evaluations, in part, and in no particular order are as follows:
How do my children act when I leave?
When children are babies, it’s normal and healthy for them to want their caregivers and feel distress when they leave. As children age, however, their dependence and distress at their parents leaving should change. If my children seem unusually distressed that I’m leaving, perhaps they don’t feel safe with who I’m leaving them with or they feel unprepared to be left alone. If they express joy at my leaving, they may feel smothered by my presence.
How do my children act when I come home?
Children at any stage should be happy to see their caregivers after an absence. A young child who responds with ambivalence or fear at the return of a caregiver is one that is exhibiting signs of an insecure attachment to a caregiver. If my child is greeting me warmly, or even especially if they are waiting for me to get home so they can share special news or even distressing news, that is a sign to me that my child sees my return as something good. They might act annoyed when I’m home because that means it’s time for chores and homework, but a warning sign of a child who feels unsafe is a child who is afraid of mom or dad coming home.
In that same vein, how do I respond to my children when I’ve been away? Do I act happy to see them or do I seem annoyed? My reaction to them is going to influence how safe they feel.
In what areas are my children reluctant to answer questions?
All children have periods of reluctance when it comes to talking about their day, their activities, and their friends. As they develop they will start to experiment with privacy or experience shyness around certain topics, especially if they are uncomfortable. It’s important to me as a parent to assure them that they can talk to me about anything without demanding they share when they are not ready. That being said, they are still children, it is my job to protect them. If there is a particular area wherein they may be extra secretive, reluctant, or volatile, there might be something going on that needs my increased attention and intervention.
What emotions am I seeing from my child?
A healthy, developing child will experience and express a full range of emotions. They may have a temperament that is dominant, but that should not exclude the expressions of anger, frustration, fear, disgust, joy, excitement, sadness, and all of their variations. Behavior that is dominated by a small range of emotions (even if they are pleasant emotions) is a warning sign that a child may not feel safe expressing all of their emotions.
What emotions am I not seeing from my child?
When children are predominantly sullen or upset it’s easier for a parent to recognize that perhaps something is wrong. But just like a child who is never experiencing or expressing happiness, a child who is never experiencing and expressing negative emotions such as anger, fear, sadness, or pain is also a child who might not feel safe. That child might feel it is their responsibility to be “good” and never cause trouble. The “good” kids need just as much (and sometimes more) assurance that all of their emotions are worthy of expression as any other child. I might have to be on the lookout for moments where I can model healthy expressions of negative emotion to my child so they feel comfortable sharing their negative emotions with me.
Are those emotions coming out in any other relationship or activity?
If you’ve ever caught your child doing something “out of character” it might be tempting to say, “That’s not like you.” On the contrary, the behaviors that leak out when a child doesn’t think you’re watching or when they are in a different environment are their true selves they don’t feel safe showing you. The behavior may need to be corrected, but the emotions behind those behaviors need to be validated and given healthy avenues of expression.
When’s the last time my child was angry with me?
Children who are never angry with their parents are probably not being parented. I will have to set limits and expectations for my children that they won’t like and will make them angry. It is my job to validate, encourage, and respect that anger while being firm with my expectations regarding emotional expression and behavior.
When’s the last time my child showed me something they are excited about?
The third tenet of the five principles of secure attachment is, “Expressed Delight.” In other words, people express value in me and my contributions to the world. If my response to my child when they try to share something they are passionate about is to dismiss them, belittle them, criticize them, or ignore them, they are not going to feel safe sharing their passions with me. Worse still, they might begin to believe that their value and contributions don’t matter. If they haven’t shared anything they are excited about in a while, then I need to seek them out, give them my undivided attention and positive support.
Do my children ask me embarrassing questions?
My job as a parent is to help my child become independent and find their own resources and answers to their questions. As they get into their teens they will start to seek more answers from outside sources as well. Until that time comes, however, and even after I should be a safe and judgment-free place for them to ask questions about sensitive topics. Information about puberty, sex, words and terms they don’t understand, things they’ve seen or experienced that they are unsure about, are all things they should feel comfortable discussing with me. If they are hiding changes, expressing fear, or spending more time googling than talking to me, it may mean they don’t feel safe discussing embarrassing issues with me.
When was the last time my child expressed a dislike in something I liked or a differing opinion than me?
My children are their own individuals who should feel empowered to have thoughts and opinions that differ from my own. If my child agrees with everything I say, likes everything I like, and wants to do everything I want to do, it may mean they don’t feel safe expressing themselves or they fear rejection if they do. This idea may have come from watching how I talk about others I disagree with. I need to model critical thinking, and respectful disagreement. I can also make moments to ask, cater to, and celebrate each child’s unique personality, preferences, and opinions when it’s appropriate to do so. It’s also up to me to be secure in my own self enough that my child disagreeing with me does not threaten me. I should be able to respond respectfully to anyone who disagrees with me while still remaining secure in my own ideas and beliefs.
Does my child prefer the company of other adults to me?
To some degree, a child acting differently around other adults is normal and depends a lot on context, but as a parent I should be on the lookout for moments when my child seems to significantly prefer the company of another adult over time with me. Yes, it’s normal when kids want to spend more time with grandma because she takes them shopping and makes them cookies, and it might even be normal when a kid says they’d rather live with grandma or a friend’s parents when they think a parent is being particularly unfair or hard, but those feelings should pass and they should want to spend time with me. If my child wants to spend more time with another adult, it’s worth it to me to ask why and seriously consider the answers. It may mean that that adult is fulfilling a need for attention, discipline, or structure that I am missing, or it may mean that that adult is grooming my child for abuse. I should know which and respond accordingly.
That being said, it’s important to point out that I will not be able to provide for all of my child’s needs. The strong, healthy bonds formed between children and other loving adults such as teachers, other parents, coaches, and grandparents are what are necessary to bring a child to adulthood. Additionally, as my children age, they are going to spend more and more time with other people than with me. That is as it should be. I should never deny a healthy relationship to my child due to my own jealousy and insecurity if it is in my child’s best interest.
When’s the last time my child asked me for something (even if they suspect I’ll say no)?
Kids need to learn boundaries. And kids love to push boundaries. If your kids are anything like mine, they want all of the things, all of the time. I should be able to tell my children no in a way that is sensitive to their needs as well as respectful to their desires. My child should never feel afraid to tell me they want something, even if they know they won’t get it. I can delight in what my child wants while maintaining good boundaries around money and resources and without indulging. More importantly, however, my child should be taught how to differentiate between wants and needs and feel secure in asking for anything they need such as time, attention, affection, food, basic hygiene products, clothes, or school supplies. And they should have a reasonable expectation that any need will be provided for them.
What recurring behavior issues do we have with this child?
Sometimes recurring issues are occurring issues. But sometimes, recurring issues are signs that the parent is stubborn and prideful. Repressed and suppressed emotions find their way out in all manner of behaviors, and any negative behavior that continues to show itself is a sign that I might need to look for an unmet need that is hurting my child and causing him or her to act out. My child might need more structure, discipline, better boundaries or more attention and affection. He might need more independence, stimulation, or a better outlet. Whatever that need may be, it’s my job to keep trying and allow that child to feel safe in the knowledge that even if we don’t figure it out immediately, I’m willing to continue working toward a solution and not write him or her off as a lost cause.
When’s the last time my child came to be with a problem they were trying to solve?
When children are little, their parents are their refuge and it’s appropriate for parents to solve their problems of hunger and wet diapers. But as the child grows and is able to do for themselves, it becomes the sacred duty of the parent to provide a safe environment for the child to problem solve on his or her own. That means listening with a non-judgmental ear and asking understanding questions. Many times, just like with adults, a child only needs to vent and solutions present themselves. When a child who is able comes to a parent expecting that parent to solve the problem for him, that child does not feel safe and prepared to solve his own problems. If a child never comes to a parent for problem solving it may mean that the child doesn’t trust the parent to not try to solve it themselves or not judge them. My child should feel safe and confident that I am neither going to try to solve their problems for them nor try to control their lives, but that I am always available for listening and help to find resources on their road to independent problem solving.
When’s the last time my child came to me for affection?
The only appropriate answer to, “Mom, can I have a hug?” is, “Yes!” A child should never be afraid or ashamed to ask for a hug. And if they haven’t asked in a while, it’s okay to remind them they’re never too old for hugs and cuddles.
Am I aware of anything my child is trying to hide from me?
People (children included) hide the things they don’t feel safe sharing. Hidden relationships, interests, desires, ideas, etc, are all missed opportunities for a parent to connect with a child and for a child to feel seen and accepted by someone they love. It’s a chance for two people to come together and learn about one another. The best response to a child caught hiding is open curiosity, not anger.
When’s the last time my child showed me any of their digital interactions?
How did I handle the last time my child was embarrassed around me?
When was the last time I apologized to my child?
If you want your child to be able to admit when he or she is wrong, they have to see it modeled in you. The act of genuinely apologizing to your child when you are wrong is one of the most precious gifts of love you may ever give.
When was the last time I asked for my child agency over their own life?
You wouldn’t like someone making decisions about you and your life without your input. Your kid doesn’t like it either (and shouldn’t). Yes, you’re the parent and there are non-negotiable things you are going to require of your child, but wherever you can, provide as much agency as possible. Let him choose between two healthy meal options, or whether he brushes his teeth before or after the bedtime story. Ask your daughter how she thinks her brother can make up for breaking her toy. Does my son want to go out for sports or play in the school band? Let them feel safe having a voice and a choice.
When’s the last time I changed my mind based upon my child’s feedback?
If my children are giving feedback, I should be open to it when it’s appropriate to do so. No relationship is all about one person, and everyone should feel like they have some influence. Even if it’s something as small as watching Finding Nemo instead of The Lion King for an evening movie, showing I’m willing to listen and change my mind based on my child’s preferences makes them feel safe expressing themselves.
When’s the last time I praised or thanked my child?
Appreciation is as important to a child as it is to an adult.
When’s the last time my child and I had a discussion about any topic where I listened to him or her and treated their opinions and point of view with respect?
If I want my child to be capable and feel safe in adult conversations I should practice treating them and their conversations with respect. Even if they get information wrong, instead of insulting them or their intelligence, it is my job to encourage them to challenge their own conclusions and point them to the resources they need to check their own facts.
When I correct my child, how do I delineate between the behavior that needs correcting and my child?
We all make mistakes and get things wrong. That does not make us a bad person. When my child messes up and needs correction, it’s important that I maintain belief and encouragement of them as capable of great good while correcting unwanted behavior.
When was the last time I defended my child?
Everyone needs someone they feel is in their corner. Before my child is able to defend himself in any given situation it is my job to protect him and enforce his boundaries for him. Even when he gets old enough to express himself, it remains my job to stand behind him and let him know that I will always be rooting for him to succeed and do great things. I may not always agree with his choices, but I can always support him in healthy ways and be there for him when he needs to feel supported and loved.
How do I model healthy emotional regulation and expression around my children?
Modeling healthy emotional reactions and expression is another powerful tool we can give our children. I can do that by taking responsibility for my own emotions and not projecting them on to others or offloading them onto my children. I can express myself plainly and honestly so as not to confuse my children and employ healthy coping mechanisms and self-care when I feel stressed, angry, or sad. Finally, I can ask for space and assure my children that no matter what I am going through they are not responsible for what I feel or for helping me.
What boundaries have I helped my children develop?
My child is entitled to their own body, their own ideas, control over their own possessions, what they do with their free time, and what and who they like or dislike. It’s my job to help them develop their understanding of those boundaries, healthy means of expressing them, and resources for how to deal with anyone who attempts to violate them–including me. A child feels safe when they feel like they have agency over what is theirs and not responsible for what is not theirs.
The best way I can help develop boundaries in my children is modeling healthy boundaries for myself.
When is the last time I have modeled forgiveness and grace for my children?
A child who sees a parent holding a grudge is a child who will one day fear that same lack of forgiveness and grace from the same.
How do I talk about myself and my problems in front of my children?
My child needs a parent they can trust to handle things. Even if I have doubts, fears, and concerns in my life, those fears are not my child’s responsibility. My inadequacies and troubles as a parent and a person are best discussed with another adult, my partner, or a qualified professional, not with my child. I can be honest about my feelings with my child while also maintaining that I am dealing with them productively and my child is not responsible for how I feel about myself. A child should never feel they are responsible for parenting a parent.
How do I handle my children’s bids for attention?
In children, as with adults, bids for attention are a cornerstone of relationship building. Bids for attention that are discouraged, belittled, or ignored will breed distance and fear. Not every bid for attention can be honored immediately, but a safe relationship is one in which a person (child or not) is assured that they are worthy of attention, care, and love.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways in which I attempt to evaluate how safe my children may or may not feel with me, but it is a start. I hope by keeping these questions in mind I can continue to work on truly being a safe person for my children instead of merely feeling like I am.