Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben
The last few days have been interesting, to say the least. On Thursday night, around midnight, my son knocked on my bedroom door feeling ill. The next four hours I spent looking after him when he threw up, had to run to the toilet several times, needed water and complained of the pain in his stomach, slightly to the right. We slept about two hours after that, and around 6:30 I phoned the doctor asking if we should wait for our general practitioner’s office to open or whether to go to the ER. The doctor advised the ER with a suspected appendicitis. We were there before sunrise, and he had to go through several tests (the picture above is just after the nurse drew blood). Luckily, it turned out to be a stomach flu instead and we got to go home for the day to catch up on sleep.
For my boy, feeling safe is already a tricky thing. I was with him throughout the whole ordeal, but still noticed that in the days after (and still now) he has been more anxious whenever I’m not around. Not around means not within his line of vision. If I’m upstairs, or downstairs, or have gone around a corner in the same room, he’ll ask within seconds where I am.
My stepson almost lost his favorite stuffed animal yesterday on a family hike, and again the issue of safety became only too apparent through the tears he shed over a toy he’d had his whole life. Having his little monkey there means that at least one thing in the world is certain.
Our children need to feel safe in order to grow, to learn and to flourish. The thing is, we just don’t always have the power to make them feel that way. Life is, inherently, pretty unsafe. We all end up dead at some point, and all children grow through a fase in which they all of a sudden realise that fact to the fullest. My daughter went through it, my son is going through it now. Apart from lying to them, there’s no answer we can give that can take away this ultimate fear of death (even if you believe there’s more to come after this life, as I do.) It’s just a fact of life.
There are some things we CAN do. There are ways in which we can help create a space to help children feel safe. With children who are highly sensitive, it can help to have a quiet space at home or in school to which they can withdraw when they feel overwhelmed. For my son, we are looking into taking him out of school for the duration of recess, at least a few times a week, because the playground feels so inherently unsafe to him. Every night, I spend time cuddling with my daughter and talking to her, because it helps her compensate for how much she misses me on the nights I’m not home. My son has a recording of me singing his favorite bedtime song (Raglan Road by the Dubliners) for those nights as well.
There are ways we can help, but we can’t do everything. We are not omnipotent or omniscient, we’re just mortal parents and caretakers dealing with our own stuff on top of everything else.
So if we can’t protect our children from everything, and if we can’t be with them all the time (much to my son’s disappointment), and if we can’t instantly create an environment in which every child feels safe, there’s no other solution than to help our kids build the skills to deal with their own fear and feeling of not being safe.
One of the key skills we can teach them is to learn to ask for help. In every situation the child finds itself, there is (or should be) an adult present. Teaching children to express what they feel and what they need to that nearby adult is a skill that can really help them feel more secure. Of course, it’s then also paramount that we don’t punish them when they do look for safety (Easier said than done. You know those kids who get out of bed ten times a night?) It’s a dance between meeting their needs and respecting your own boundaries. As my partner said yesterday: If you throw some love on it, you’ll always find yourself nicely balanced in the middle.
Another way for us, humans big and small, to feel safe is the company of other humans. From an evolutionary point of view, being alone is a life threatening condition. We are biologically wired to find the company of others.
Yet, it can also feel unsafe if you’re in a group of people and you find it difficult to interact with them. At those times, we can teach our children to find out what the expectations are by asking others around them, closely observing them or just taking a step back from interacting at all and keeping a safe distance.
Some fears are very specific, such as fear of failure, fear of abandonment or fear of cats. In those cases, we can teach our kids very specific tools to deal with those situations.
What works for one child won’t work for another. What feels unsafe for one, will be perferctly fine for another. I believe the key for us, as adults, is to investigate what makes our children feel safe or unsafe with an open mind, not projecting our own emotions and experiences on them. Maybe we would feel lonely if we’re sitting alone on a bench watching others play, but some children might actually enjoy that more than being in the middle of the action. Going to the bathroom is a trivial thing for most of us, but for some kids it’s the scariest part of the day. What if they can’t open the lock? What if someone walks in?
Paying attention to my children’s safety undoubtedly influences my understanding of my sense of safety as well. I can more easily recognize my anxiety as a product of not feeling 100% safe. I can find tools for myself to find safety in challenging situations, such as breathing techniques or self-coaching practices. Tools I can pass on to my kids.
I’m not the first parent or educator out there with children who have felt anxious, nervous or fearful at times.
Do you have any tips for how to help children deal with these? Or do you have tricks for how to help create a safer environment for children? I’d love to hear your input!