Safe, Not Scared
The world can be a dangerous place. It can be wonderful, too. Both are true. The key to raising children who love being in the world despite the danger is training.
For a shining example, look up at night. The space station currently orbiting the globe is without doubt a dangerous place with countless hazards beyond human control. But the astronauts love being up there because they know how to stay safe, not scared. Their training works.
What kind of training can you provide for your children so they can do the same down here on Earth where so many things can and do happen that are beyond their (and your) control? You can give them age-appropriate information as needed, but that’s only part of it. To keep kids safe, not scared, “success training” builds self-trust; relationship-building increases trust in you.
Success Training Builds Self-Trust
Success Training can begin in early childhood. For example, when your toddler becomes curious about a hot oven or flame, you can explore it with them safely by holding them close to you, approaching the heat source slowly, holding their hand up to check for when they first feel the heat, and pointing out their built-in safety responses.
Using the three-step Language of Listening approach, it could sound like this:
SAY WHAT YOU SEE (SWYS): "You're curious about that candle. You see the flame. You're reaching for it."
CAN DO: "Here, we'll check it out together. Let me have your hand. Now we'll move our hands closer...and closer. Tell me when you feel the heat."
SWYS: "There. It feels warm on your fingers. Now a little bit closer. You feel it getting warmer. There! Oh! That felt a little hot, and you pulled your hand back!"
STRENGTH: "You know how to stay safe! Show me safe again. Yep! You stopped before it felt too hot — safe again! Show me where it's safe. Yep! Right up to there. Yep, you are keeping your hand back from that flame, right where it's safe..."
You do this again and again whenever the child shows interest, so they can experience their natural safety response as a success. Close supervision and refresher training will be required until you can count on the child checking for heat and stopping all on their own. This helps the child build self-trust.
At the same time, you find or create physical cues for the safe distance the child has "discovered," like a special place mat ("safe mat"?) where they can keep their hands when a lit candle is on the table, or a "safety line" of colored tape on the floor where they can stand and watch you when you open the oven door. Physical cues are very important since young children are very physical beings. Abstract concepts like "hot" or "safe" mean nothing unless they are attached to a physical experience.
As children move from toddler to preschooler, they sometimes develop fears about a number of uncontrollable things like storms, dogs, spiders, etc. Pointing out their heightened awareness as a hidden STRENGTH can empower them to stay safe, not scared.
One of my favorites is "danger-spotter." It flips perceived weaknesses to STRENGTHs and helps kids experience their natural safety response as a success — stopping, looking, listening, retreating to a safe place, finding a safe person to tell, etc.
For example, in the case of a child who runs to you when they hear thunder, instead of jumping in with reassurance like, "Oh, that's just thunder. That's nothing to be afraid of," which could discount the child's natural safety response, you can use Success Training to reinforce the child's self-trust.
It could sound like this:
SWYS: "You heard the thunder, and it sounded dangerous to you, so you ran to find me."
STRENGTH: "You're a danger spotter! You know how to stay safe!"
SWYS: "Thunder does sound dangerous, the way it crashes and rumbles around, and you never know when it's coming. Lets listen for it together.<BOOM> Whoa! We both jumped that time!
When the child begins to relax or maybe even giggles, you can point that out as another response they can trust.
SWYS: "That time you laughed when it surprised you. Looks like you are feeling more relaxed now. We're inside having fun together listening to the thunder. You can tell when you're safe!"
When children get a little older and start to venture out on their own, self-trust becomes even more important for them to stay safe, not scared. Take stranger-danger, for example. Success Training works to increase self-trust for that, too.
As you probably guessed, your job is to show your child how they can trust the natural safety responses they already have. To do that, watch what they do around strangers in different situations when you are with them, and point out their successes. When they seem comfortable in a familiar, public place with other people in it, point out the cues they picked up unconsciously — that everything is as expected and that not only are you there to keep them safe, but you and the other people are comfortable and relaxed — and that they noticed all that.
Then when they are uncomfortable in a new place or around a new person who looks scary to them or acts in unexpected ways, quietly notice the cues they are picking up there. Then later, when it’s socially appropriate to do so, you can point out why being on guard was important and would remain so until they gathered enough information from you or other trusted sources to feel comfortable again.
Point out the difference in their responses to those two situations, and tell them that shows they are inherently observant and that they can trust their instincts. Recognizing this difference will be a comfort to them and also to you.
And then reinforce their self-trust regularly by simply listening when they tell you about uncomfortable moments and by pointing out their STRENGTHs. Don't jump in to teach a safety lesson right away. Just hold back, SAY WHAT YOU SEE, and let them tell you more. Most of the time you will find that no lesson is needed, and you can point out what they know as a STRENGTH instead.
It could sound like this:
Child: “I was walking home today with a friend, and there was a person that seemed scary.”
SWYS: “Hmm. You must have noticed something about him/her that didn’t seem right.”
Child: “He/she just stared at us when we walked by, so we walked on the other side of the street.”
STRENGTH: “Staring didn’t feel right, so you stayed away. Sounds like you know to trust your instincts. And you were walking with a friend and then made sure to tell me about it. You know how to stay safe!”
(At that point, you can decide what steps, if any, need to be taken to keep your child and the neighborhood safe.)
Relationship-Building Increases Trust in You
In her heartwarming and practical book, Hands Free Life, and in her blog post,Words We Cannot Afford to Keep from Our Children, Rachel Macy Stafford provides another great way to keep children safe, not scared. She shares a letter she wrote to open an ongoing dialog with her daughter at age 9, and encourages readers to do the same for their children.
It contains a list of relationship-building reminders that you can use to provide your children with what she calls “internal protection” in this age of new and evolving technology, where kids can reach out to the world online, and it can reach back… sometimes in very scary ways:
A 21st Century Lifeline to my dear child:
Technology has become an integral part of your life now that you need it to complete your schoolwork. Eventually you will start communicating with others online. Before that day comes, it is very important for me to tell you a few things. You will hear these words a lot from me—you might even get sick of them. But these reminders are important. When the time comes, you will know how important they are. When the time comes, these words will make all the difference. Here are my reminders to you …
Tomorrow holds promise.
When you have been teased, hurt, or humiliated, that day will seem horrible and unbearable. Just know that when you make it through the day, tomorrow you will see a new light. Tomorrow holds possibilities that you cannot see today. I will help you see the promises in tomorrow when you can’t.
My love for you cannot be changed.
With me, you don’t have to be strong. You can cry, scream, and let out your true feelings. My love for you cannot be changed by revealing the feelings going on inside you—no matter how hard they are to say out loud.
You are worthy of love.
You are worthy of love and respect and kindness. If people mistreat you, together we’ll figure out a way to help you work through those problems, move on, or distance yourself from them if needed.
I encourage you to find that one loyal and kind friend with which you can go through the school year. Don’t let societal standards fool you into believing this friend must be popular, good looking, or cool; at the end of the day, kindness is the most important quality to have in a friend and be in a friend.
You possess courage and strength.
If you have been humiliated or teased, facing certain people may seem impossible. But you have the courage and strength within you to show others they cannot hold you back from living your life.
It is about them, not you.
No matter how personal the attack, it is about them—their insecurities and their issues—not about you.
No one can change the way I see you.
No matter how humiliated you are and no matter how embarrassing it is to tell me what happened, when I look at you, I see my beautiful and amazing child. No one can change the way I see you.
Nothing is too bad to tell me.
You can come to me with anything—even if you made a mistake, even if you used bad judgment. There is nothing that is “too bad” to tell me. Believe me, I have made plenty of mistakes and even though it was hard to let someone else in, I was so relieved not to carry the burden alone.
Let an adult know.
If your gut tells you what someone is doing to someone else is wrong, it probably is. Letting an adult know about someone who is being harmed or mistreated does not make you a coward—it makes you courageous and compassionate; it makes you a good friend who can look back on this later in life and proudly say, “I didn’t turn the other cheek. I tried to help.”
If you are the one being hurt, mistreated, or violated, tell an adult; do not suffer alone. Even if it is embarrassing … or unbelievable … or risky to tell someone; do not remain silent. Come to me or someone you trust immediately.
You are never alone.
I cannot make your problems and pain go away, but I can listen. And together we can come up with a solution. There is nothing we can’t get through together. You are never, never alone.
I love you forever and always.
— This is an excerpt from Hands Free Life: 9 Habits for Overcoming Distraction, Living Better, & Loving More by Rachel Macy Stafford. Copyright © 2015. Reprinted by permission.
Stafford used this list as a letter, but you can also use it as a list of relationship-building reminders to read together one a day. Taking time with each reminder can open conversations that increase the child’s trust in you.
For example, when you read the first reminder with your child, “Tomorrow holds promise,” and pause to see what thoughts or questions they have, they might tell you more about their thoughts and feelings about bullying, or ask you why someone might not see the promises in tomorrow. By listening to their point of view with interest, you might find out that an idea like that is surprising to them, or that they know someone who feels like giving up, or that at some point they have felt like giving up. Then you can talk about how it might feel to know that you (or if it doesn’t yet apply to your child, that someone) would be there to help them “see the promises in tomorrow” even if they were not able to, as the reminder says.
When you consider the impact of reading and discussing one reminder together each day or evening, you will see how your conversations could deepen as you go along. And if you do that again every 6 months or so, it could help you keep a pulse on their growing awareness of the world, their concerns, and what information or encouragement they need from you to stay safe and feel secure.
Be sure to notice the ways your child’s trust in self and trust in you start showing up. For example, if your child can talk to you about things they know might upset you, that’s a big one. Do they tell you about their mistakes or only share their successes? Do they ask about touchy subjects or avoid them? Those are things you can monitor as they get older, and things you can keep in check with additional self-trust and relationship building.
A strong sense of self-trust and trust in their relationship with you will help your child stay safe, not scared, and love being here in this wonderful world despite the dangers.
If you’d like to learn more about the three steps of Language of Listening® (SAY WHAT YOU SEE®, CAN DOs, STRENGTHs), you can read the online handbook free from a PC or MAC (not mobile) or buy a printed copy.