You may have noticed a change in the focus of this blog to include “family”. This is in large part due to a need to acknowledge just how important the family is assisting children and teens to grow up happy and well-adjusted. A happy, healthy home and family does not come simply by chance or luck, however. Neither is a happy home a direct result of one’s occupation, family history, belief system, or even attitude about life itself. It is far more a result of two very specific principles that are common to any place that we find comforting and safe, and where we feel we can discard the stresses and expectations of the world around us and simply be ourselves. While no single formula provides a guarantee for happiness, you may be interested to know about these two principles, and consider their degree of presence in your home and family.
1) Physical Safety
No matter whom you are, what your age is, or your gender or ethnicity, chances are excellent that you share this common human desire: to be comfortable. This includes being comfortable in your surroundings, in your life, and in who you are. In essence, you probably wish to be free to enjoy your own life journey and feel confident that your needs are going to get met in healthy ways. This comfort can be categorized as “safety”. When safety is not present for a person, our ability to be our authentic selves and to discover who we truly are becomes almost impossible.
There are two kinds of safety. First is the more obvious kind, physical safety. Physical safety means to be confident that one’s physical surroundings are not going to bring harm, and that those same surroundings can be relied upon to bring comfort. This includes, for example, feeling satisfied that regardless of one’s words or actions, there is almost no chance that physical confrontation or harm will be a consequence. For a young person, this reality is especially critical. Children and teens alike are at one of the most impressionable and most vulnerable stages of their lives, and a lack of feeling physically safe in their surroundings impedes any efforts they make to find happiness, and to relate to parents and peers in positive ways. It can also make the family home a place that children and even parents wish to avoid.
2) Emotional Safety
There is perhaps no greater, more fulfilling feeling than the freedom to be oneself. When we feel supported to be the person we most want to be, and are able to give ourselves permission to relax into that role, better health is one of the unavoidable results. A necessary part of being truly ourselves includes feeling that our own voices are powerful, important, and that we are being listened to. When we receive this important validation from those around us, and especially within our own family, there is an enhanced likelihood of us sending ourselves positive and encouraging messages. Conversely, there will be a reduced sense that others are talking behind our backs, or that we will be spoken to in an unkind or threatening manner. This is the essence of emotional safety.
So many problems a child, teen or young adult can face can be traced back to one or both main types of safety. Where there is safety, there is usually comfort not far away. An interesting challenge can be in attempting to create a safe environment for someone who has become accustomed to living in unsafe conditions, particularly emotionally unsafe ones. Many foster parents and parents who adopt children have a degree of familiarity with this scenario. Typically, someone coming from an unhealthy emotional environment will have a more difficult time in quickly giving trust to others around him or her. When this occurs, perseverance and clarity are required to create safety; a willingness to “stay the course” in meeting every family member’s needs for safety, while being clear that everyone will need to do their part in supporting safety in the home, and that such efforts are motivated by love and caring, not by a need for control.
When a safe physical and emotional climate prevails within a home, and is supported by each family member, there is an inherent invitation to start filling our lives with people we trust, and whom we feel genuinely care about us. When we can do this, embrace our true selves (warts and all!) and treat others as we would like to be treated, each of us also chooses to be as healthy as we can possibly be in that moment. Interestingly, we also invite others around us to do the same, starting perhaps with those in our own family.
Have you experienced a powerful example of turning around a tough situation with a child or teen, where creating safety made a significant difference? I would love to hear about it, and maybe even share some of the best ones in a future column. Let’s have a conversation, especially if others may be able to benefit from your wisdom!