Without this foundation, all else falls away. A sense of safety is at the core of Parental Intelligence.
There are two ways to learn if our children feel safe: first, listen to them carefully, and, second, observe the nuances of their behavior.
Some children articulate their feelings about trust and safety directly. When they don’t feel trust in their parent, they'll voice their vulnerability to someone. Ideally it’s the parent who can address this insecurity.
However, many children who may not be as verbal reveal their lack of a sense of safety through their behavior.
For us as parents, addressing words of distrust can be difficult, but distressing behavior can be even more disarming for a parent. How we react is imperative to eventually solving the problems that lay behind the behavior. It is crucial to have the mindset that the problems that lay behind behavior will be uncovered eventually with time and patience.
Parental Intelligence means parents become “meaning makers” who help their children to feel safe. That is, they don’t react impulsively no matter how intimidating and threatening the child’s behavior may be. They slow down their reactions, take stock of the situation (including their immediate feelings), and make a conscious decision to understand the behavior as a signal of distress, not disobedience.
Even in the crucial moments of unwanted misbehavior, parents should step back and self-reflect. The parent calms down because they have a direction: find meaning. When the parent is calm, the child calms down.
Let’s take an example of behavior that is compelling, not because it is aggressive, as so many parents fear, but because it is so understated—a child who is almost mute. When this child talks to other children or adults, she (or he) whispers. She looks at her parent before she answers a question from someone. If the parent smiles and motions to go ahead, the child may say a few words. Looking at the parent for that reassurance suggests there is some trust in her. A sense of safety has begun.
This child is old enough to talk easily, but chooses not to do so. She stares at the parent with some expression in her eyes and maybe a tilt of the head but remains quiet. It is important for the parent to remain curious and not feel left out and dismayed because the child is communicating with the behavior of her face. Other body language may be evident such as squirming or the reverse: sitting still.
So, how can the parent begin to understand what is in this child’s distrustful mind? To gain meaning, the parent needs to become a good observer. If the child doesn’t feel safe enough to speak, the parent needs to do the reaching out. One way is through play.
A doll house is a great vehicle. By using doll figures the parent can begin to play following the child’s lead with how they use doll house furniture, toy food, bits of material, small cars and so forth. Together the child and parent make up a story with few words. The parent simply states what the child does and responds in her own way with the toys. The child comes to trust the parent when she accepts their pretend play. Then the child feels accepted, trusts more, and the sense of safety expands.
There could be any number of reasons a child feels unsafe with a parent such as too much yelling, punishing, marital problems, internal anxiety, or too much hurrying about, all of which can cause more sensory stimulation than this child can bear. In time, the parent will come to understand as the child plays more actively and begins to talk more easily.
The key is that the parent accepts the child where she is, watches for clues to what is in her mind, verbalizes the child’s play until she re-finds the tie that was ruptured.
Once the sense of safety and the trusted attachment resumes, more meaning will emerge as the child feels increasingly secure in the growing parent-child bond.