By Joseph Sacks, LCSW
How to keep my child emotionally safe…
I can’t stress enough how careful we as parents need to be with our children’s physical safety! There are unfortunately many accidents that might have been prevented. Therefore, we should never take any unnecessary risks with children. Yet, while guarding our children’s physical safety, we need avoid turning an excess of caution into a danger to their emotional health and safety!
When we consider the question of how to keep my child emotionally safe,
we need to remember that excessive caution regarding safety can make a child feel restricted, miserable and rebellious, and this is dangerous for his emotional health. It can also put stress on the parent-child relationship, which is also dangerous. 25 percent of Americans suffer from a diagnosable emotional illness! I believe that a great many, if not the great majority of these are caused by stressful childhood experiences, and are very much preventable. So in guarding physical safety, you don’t want to cause anxiety or any other problem. You need to find a balance. How do we do this?
Provide safety and happiness
We must remember that happy and pleasant experiences in childhood are neither a privilege nor a right. They are a deep and fundamental need. A child who doesn’t regularly get the happiness he needs is at risk to develop behavioral problems and emotional disorders! So in keeping the child safe, we need to be careful not to make him miserable. Too many restrictions can make the child feel overly controlled, unhappy and frustrated, and may make him rebel. We need to balance safety concerns with a reasonable amount of permissible fun, which can be derived from adequately safe activities.
If the child is irresistibly attracted to an activity that you deem risky, such as climbing, you should consider taking measures to allow this within limits which are acceptable to your own needs to maintain the child’s safety. Climbing on rocks is an extremely pleasurable and irresistible activity for children of all ages. Forbidding it completely while visiting a park will make them feel frustrated, unhappy and deprived, which can generate tantrums and put stress on the parent-child relationship, which is emotionally dangerous! However since climbing can be potentially physically dangerous, the answer may be to allow a moderate amount of climbing, but either climb with the child, or stand by in a way to prevent danger or catch him in case he falls. What a parent permits in this regard is always subject to the parent’s best judgment and his or her peace of mind. This takes effort and energy on your part, both psychic and physical, but it is well worth the effort as we must remember that happiness and pleasure in childhood is the surest way to prevent emotional disorders!
Let’s take bike riding.
I know parents who completely forbid it for fear of danger. However if a child really wants a bike, and all his friends have one, not getting him one will make him feel miserably deprived, and that is dangerous for his emotional health.
We should remember that riding a bicycle is one of the chief ways a child experiences the pleasures of freedom, accomplishment, and an important landmark of his physical maturation. Thus, parents should use their very best judgment in providing, if at all possible, a safe context for this activity.
Being too strict on safety, such as insisting children hold hands while crossing the street until a later age than necessary, can cause a child to rebel and do something truly dangerous. Sometimes children may become so frustrated by this restriction, that they may break free and place themselves in a more dangerous situation. Therefore, a parent should take appropriate steps in teaching a child, at the proper time, how to cross the street without holding hands. This makes a child feel empowered, and is important in teaching them to judge safety for themselves. So, finding a way to safely allow as many fun activities as possible will keep them happy and then they won’t mind following the rules when true danger arises.
Fire safety is of course vital to protect children as well as families and neighbors. Since children playing with fire is a major cause of deadly house fires they must be severely restricted as to fire. Yet, fire is a fascinating and irresistible pleasure to children. In appropriate situations such as before a campfire or barbecue, allowing them to experiment with it in safety and under strict supervision may actually satisfy their curiosity and prevent them from doing so in a secret and dangerous way. Sometimes a desperately curious child will experiment with fire in some outrageously dangerous way, such as playing with fire while hidden in a home closet. The safest path is to allow children of an appropriate age to experiment with fire in a strictly controlled environment, and not otherwise totally forbid such activity.
Children need to think the world is a rosy place!
There’s an additional important point in keeping children safe, which is that they shouldn’t develop the belief that the world is an excessively dangerous place. If they become aware of each and every danger they might possibly face, this can generate unnecessary anxiety. Children need to feel that the world is a happy, safe, fun place, and not a cruel and place with danger lurking at every turn. This provides them with a much needed sense of security.
A therapist I was advising had a case of a 5 year old who developed severe anxiety whenever he went into the street or spoke to strangers. I inquired about the relationship with his parents, and was told that the mother is anxious and overprotective, and once when leaving the office the child ran out onto the sidewalk by himself. The mother ran after him screaming, “Don’t go into the street by yourself, there are people who kidnap children!” No wonder he developed an anxiety disorder! Don’t scare children by warning them about every detail of a dangerous world. It is our job as parents to keep them safe without their knowing about it.
Remember the name of the game with this issue is balance. Every parent possesses the wisdom to find the right balance between safety, fun and happiness under which his child will thrive.
Please be advised that the above represents a parenting ideal and a high level of parenting skill, and no one should expect to fulfill it perfectly or immediately. Rather have patience with yourself and try to implement new ideas gradually.
Feel free to peruse my interesting blog, or the specialties on my website, download one of my informative free reports or view my video. If you are facing challenges with the question of how to keep my child emotionally safe and would like guidance or treatment from a child therapist in lower Manhattan, you may call me at 646-681-1707 for a free 15-minute consultation. I look forward to speaking with you!