So, safety was already on my mind because I’ve been reading The Power of Showing Up, another gem by Tina Payne Bryson and Daniel J. Siegel, last night while waiting for folks to hop on the zoom call. This morning’s 4.2 earthquake in the Valley made the thoughts a tish more tangible…shudder.* I wasn’t sure I was going to write about safety, but with such a nudge from the universe, dare I resist?
Safety, according to TPB and DJS, is the first requirement for secure attachment between caregiver and child. Wait, you might think…isn’t it love? Isn’t that primary? Well, no…when we bolted upright in the dark, cats poofing and scrabbling off the bed, as the freight train that was now our house started rumbling, my first thoughts weren’t of my love for my husband…they were of safety (and a profound feeling of the lack thereof)! Providing safety and security, however, opens the door to let love and attachment in.
TPB and DJS explain that safety is the opposite of threat…a caregiver helps the child be safe and therefore feel safe (p. 78)…when a child feels threatened or unsafe, his brain is on high alert, hyper-vigilant, scanning the environment and people for signs or threats. It’s only when she feels safe that she can focus on more productive activities that build the brain’s connections (p. 80)…yes, like learning and exploring, but also connection and attachment.
When we talk about RIE, we talk about respecting children…but when we talk about how to respect infants, all of our discussion is, in fact, a discussion on safety. It’s why we tell children we’re going to pick them up before we do so: so they aren’t startled. It’s why we take such precious care with our hands as we lift and carry them: to protect them from any fear or worry of falling. It’s why we talk to them as we care for them: so they have the security of knowing what’s coming next. It’s why we emphasize creating an entirely safe place for children to explore and play in. Safety is built into some of the basic elements of RIE.
That said, we’re all humans and these have been some of the most trying months many of us have ever experienced, which may mean tensions are higher at home than you may like. And yes, your children can and do pick up on those tense conversations, arguments and flat-out fights you have with your partner…studies show that even sleeping babies’ brains are impacted (in the emotion, stress reactivity, and regulation parts of their brains) when they hear parents’ angry speech (p. 89). And certainly, their brains react when we respond angrily and harshly directly with them…which is apt to happen from time to time. It’s a fact of life that “moments of anger and frustration simply come with being a parent” (p. 99), and that’s okay, but it’s important to bring those feelings out in a way that’s not threatening…. which is incredibly hard to do because “our nervous system’s job is to protect us” and when we are triggered, our brains go right to fight, flight or freeze. This is the time the angry voice, face, and hands come out, which often simply escalates the situation for your child.
But like I said, these things happen…ruptures are part of relationships. As long as there is not persistent anger and prolonged and consistent angry and threatening responses, and as long as there is also repair to these ruptures, there is room for growth. Your child has the opportunity to learn to control themselves even when their parent isn’t, she gets to see you come back and apologize (either for things said to them or said between parents), and learn to tolerate that there are ruptures and repairs in relationships (p. 102). That last one is key…all relationships have their ups and downs; it is important to learn to expect that and to navigate them in a healthy way.
Let’s talk about how to respond in a non-threatening way even when your toddler just bit you.
As just mentioned, your nervous system is now triggered…your ‘downstairs brain’ is fully on and it’s angry and hurt, and your ‘upstairs brain’ with all of the lovely ideas about responding calmly is, well, it may be many flights up. I talk a lot about ‘name it to tame it’ and how just bringing some language in and help you calm down, which is why some people count to 10 or simply say to themselves “I’m really angry.” But here’s a subtle piece I missed before but is so important to spell out: when you are so deeply triggered, you’re experiencing ‘bottom-up’ emotions, so starting with these ‘top down’ strategies may not be effective. Instead, start with a bottom- (or body-) up response: take a long, deep breath…in and out, or maybe consciously relax your posture and unclench your jaw and hands, go still, maybe with your hand on your chest. By calming your physical response, you’re in a better position to pull back on those reactions and then you’ll be better able to get back up those stairs.
Circling back a bit to what we’ve been experiencing in these last ‘trying months,’ I recently read something that relates to children’s sense of safety. An educator who participated in the Play First Summit last week had a hopeful and uplifting message about the pandemic…she said that precisely because children are so new to this world, and their brains are already wide-open and prepared for changes and learning new things, they aren’t as apt as we (with all of our many years of knowing how things “should” be) are to be as upset and worried at the way life has shifted. Hopefully, we’ve been able to respond to children with some degree of peace, as well as honesty, without being overly frightening…I think we have…so many of the families I talk to now say that they (and their children) just see this as the new norm. For many, it is a gift and a joy…unlimited time to play and create, more time with parents to read, take walks, ride bikes, share meals, and play. “For the first time in their very short lives, they haven’t been ruled by a clock.”
As we move into the Fall, your child’s first school, or return to school, or experience of being kept home from school will not look like you dreamed, hoped or planned. (Keep in mind, it may not have done so anyway…), but that doesn’t mean that it will be a bad experience for your child. As this educator says… it is just another first in a life full of firsts. I’m not saying go full-on Pollyanna on them, no: again respond with honesty and peace, remembering always that we are the key to how the children will perceive life…in this time and always.
I’ll leave you with this morning’s poetry selection from the LA Times email newsletter. It doesn’t speak directly to safety, but to staying present and in this moment, which, for me, helps me feel safer:
It could happen any time, tornado,
earthquake, Armageddon. It could happen.
Or sunshine, love, salvation.
It could, you know. That’s why we wake
and look out – no guarantees
in this life.
But some bonuses, like morning,
like right now, like noon,
~ by William Stafford
*I have to laugh because as I reported that I felt the earthquake to the USGS, they asked for my reaction, but didn’t have a button for what I have now learned is my response to earthquakes…that is to say, there was no button for “Freeze in place, and repeat “earthquake, earthquake” until the ground stops shaking.” I’ll contact them to update the form…