What does it look like to become an emotionally safe parent?
Safe parenting can be hard. There are a few key ideas to being a safe parent that were summed up in a conversation with a dad I coached.
He reported: “I am so competent at work and with friends. I’m on my game almost all the time. I’m friendly and effective and my colleagues respect my authority. But when my kids act up, it’s like I lose the ‘real me!’ I become someone I don’t know or like.”
Many parents often make a similar confession. They tell us, “I often don’t like the ‘me’ that comes out when I discipline my kids.” This challenges us to consider who “the real me” truly is when we are parenting. How do we become “authentic” and “real” in ways that don’t push our kids away?
The hard truth about the “real me”
The hard truth is that whatever comes out of us IS part of the “real me.” I know this might be hard to hear but it’s important to acknowledge on the way to being a safe parent. Let’s face it…kids can provoke us. Kids know better than anyone how to push their parents’ buttons and get them to climb up crazy mountain with them. And when we’re provoked, the sin in us tends to be revealed – especially when the provocateurs are our very own children.
What’s revealed is often not a pretty picture. Stressed parents feel desperate, and often do what’s most expedient to regain a sense of control in the situation. If anger or threats is what it takes, it’s what we do. Although this may work temporarily to get kids to comply, it does so at the expense of the parent-child relationship.
When this happens, we unintentionally communicate to our children that we are not emotionally safe. They will self-protect by closing their hearts to us.
The heart’s overflow
In Matthew 12:34 Jesus said, “…out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” In other words, whatever “baggage” we have in our hearts overflows to our children. When what’s in our heart is anger, anxiety, or a need to control, we can’t help but spill out messages to our children they perceive to mean:
- “You are a pain.”
- “You are a problem.”
- “You make me angry” (which puts the child in control of the parent’s emotions).
- “You are unloved when you act up.”
When children perceive these messages, they will frequently resist our efforts to discipline them. Even if kids comply to avoid rejection or punishment, these types of messages won’t build values that motivate kids to do the right thing for good reasons.
Nearly all parents occasionally parent from a place of anxiety or need to control. But if it becomes the norm, kids will probably embrace those messages as their identity. And over time they will grow more resentful.
Like the dad I coached, when kids keep getting these messages they will “act up” more frequently and more explosively. This is a good indicator that it’s time to look inward before looking for another parenting tip to fix their behavior. It’s time to learn more about being emotionally safe.
The overflow of grace
If you’re feeling discouraged that being unsafe describes you, take heart. We have all been there. To err is human. If we don’t make mistakes we don’t learn and grow. And more importantly, we don’t experience the healing balm of God’s grace. As you receive God’s grace you get filled up to pass that grace on to your kids; to be an emotionally safe parent.
The essence of emotional safety is to believe the “no-strings-attached” affirmation about who you (and your kids) are in Christ! These are messages of identity that pour out of God’s heart for us. Messages like:
- “I am for you, not against you.”
- “You are safe with me. God gives me peace and wisdom.”
- “I love you no matter how you misbehave!”
- “You are capable of getting through this and resolving it.”
- “You are responsible and, even if your consequence is hard for you, I am here for you.”
These are messages of grace. They are the messages of love that God demonstrates to us in the sin of our “misbehavior” (see Romans 5:8). When we can discipline in ways that communicate these messages, we have a better chance of our children opening their hearts to our influence.
But more importantly, they become more open to seeing their own sin and better understanding the grace given to us through Christ. When kids of all ages receive these messages their identity is strengthened. The more kids hear these messages the more they can embrace them as their identity.
Learning to receive God’s grace for ourselves, and then dispensing that grace to our kids, is at the heart of becoming an emotionally safe parent. When we do this, we can focus more on caring for our children’s souls than on managing their misbehavior.
Practical steps to becoming a safer parent:
1) Remind yourself of grace-filled truth. Which of these do you need to repeat to yourself often?
- God is with me in spite of my mistakes.
- God loves my child and me in our messy state.
- The only person I can control is me.
- I don’t need to solve this immediately (…in most instances).
2) Take a few deep breaths and prayerfully ask, “What message do I want my child to get from this interaction?” Let the answer guide your response.
3) If you’re still stumped, say, “I’m not quite ready to talk about this. Let me think/pray about it and get back to you.”
These simple steps will slow down the whole discipline effort so you can respond in an emotionally safe way. When you do, kids are much more likely to thoughtfully consider their own behavior instead of defending themselves. They might even learn some valuable life lessons in the process as you model thoughtful self-control and respect!
Whatever small changes you make toward becoming an emotionally safe parent, celebrate! Even a small positive change in your parenting is a big deal to your child.