Being emotionally available for our kids is the foundation of secure attachment, and the key to healthy, confident, and thriving kids.
When children feel vulnerable, sad, or distressed, they need us to comfort and soothe them so they learn to do so for themselves.
When we play with our child, we are also strengthening secure attachment because we are speaking our child’s language which helps them feel seen, heard, and accepted.
Giving children the message, “It’s ok, you can check it out, Love! I’m here if you need me” gives children space for healthy exploration which develops confidence.
Children need to hear the message: “It’s ok to make mistakes. We all do it, and it’s an essential part of learning.“
More often than not, children get the message that it’s not ok to make mistakes or experiment, and that their emotions are a burden.
Here’s how it happens:
Enthusiastic, barely 5 year old child explodes out in front of me as I walk. The boy trips, and goes flying.
His little body slams the concrete, hands and knees bracing like a slap.
“Oh!” I say, surprised and concerned.
The boys’s mom comes flying out from behind me.
“Nathan!” she yells at him in an angry voice, her stern eyes glaring.
In this split second she pauses and seems to assess the situation:
“Is he really hurt? In which case I need to take care of him.”
“Or can I let anger take over because he really shouldn’t be running around like that!”
“It’s your own fault for running off like that!” She chastizes him.
“You need to settle down!” she adds.
Sadness for this child is draining out my heart and onto the ground.
I feel helpless.
What can I do for him?
It is so common, this moment where I witness a well-meaning parent surrender to reactivity, and use anger to regain control, because deep down they feel out of control, and scared.
Fear makes us react because we don’t want our child to keep doing things that cause them pain.
In situations like this one we often do as our own parents did to us:
We use anger to frighten our child out of the behaviour which appears to have caused them pain.
We are trying to protect them but instead the message we give is, “It’s your fault you are hurt”.
Parents, I have done this.
To whatever degree I practice mindfulness, and am compassionate with my own pain, is the degree to which I do not repeat this reactivity-driven cycle.
We need to teach our children to soothe and not repress their own hurt feelings.
“Do you want me to carry you?” the boy’s mom says, then turns to me and says, “I’m sorry!” in an apologetic tone.
“It’s totally ok!” Empathic I say, “I fall on my feet all the time.”
Nathan is wailing now. The full assault of tears that he contained right after he went splat on the sidewalk, lets loose like an open dam.
Big sister stands beside them and says to Mom, “It’s the second time today. He just doesn’t listen.”
I can see the triangle formation: little Nathan doesn’t listen, he makes mistakes. Mom and sis judge him, and he swallows his pain because there is no one to comfort him.
You may say that I’m exaggerating.
That was probably that mom’s worst moment and I caught it, and am writing this family’s schema out of one flimsy incident.
You are right.
And yet, in that moment when Nathan is weeping and flailing while mom drags him to the car, I feel deep down to my bones that all I want to do is:
- Invite Nathan onto my lap
- Say, “I know, Lovey, that really hurt. I’m here. It’s ok. Uh huh.”.
- Just be there to fully love and accept this child in a really painful and vulnerable moment.
It sucks to get hurt, but it sucks more when our parents, family, and friends blame us for our pain when what we really need is their love and compassion.
Mindfulness is a way of being present with an accepting attitude. Mindfulness empowers us to be compassionate rather than reactive so we can be there for our kids. Secure attachment is built on our ability to soothe and comfort our children when they feel vulnerable and hurt. Engaging our children in play helps them feel seen, heard, and accepted. When we give our children space to explore, and are there for them when they make mistakes – which is a universal human phenonmenon! – they learn to trust themselves and be confident. Secure attachment grows when we can recognize when our reactivity gets in the way of being a supportive parent. This is not so that we carry shame, but so we can make better, more mindful and compassionate choices next time.