In my first post looking at how to raise secure children, I explored how you can help ensure that your children have a secure attachment with you. The second message of security involves children’s sense of security that they develop about themselves. For children to feel truly secure, they must believe that they have mastery over themselves.
A secure self emerges initially from the appropriate love you give your children. Your love provides them with the knowledge that there are people in their lives who can and will protect them when necessary. The secure self also evolves from the sense of competence they gain skills so that, even when you aren’t around, your children have the power to feel safe or make themselves safe when they encounter uncertain, risky, or dangerous situations.
A secure self acts as the starting point from which children can engage their internal world, that is, their thoughts, emotions, physical feelings, needs, and wants, with comfort and confidence. Children can also use their secure self as the “home base” from which they can explore their growing outer world, including their surroundings and relationships, with assurance and ease.
In contrast, children with a insecure self feel like they are in a constant state of danger and believe themselves to be incapable feeling safe on their own. These children often don’t feel loved and lack strong attachment to their parents. They also lack the skills and belief in those skills that would be especially necessary to feel secure about themselves. As a result, they have no safe harbor, either external or internal, in which to reside or return. They are caught in an uncompromising position; they don’t feel secure where they are, yet they are also afraid to venture outward because they don’t feel capable of feeling safe “out there.” The result is insecure children who engage their world with fear and reluctance.
An initial area in which help your children get this message of a secure self is in their physical well-being capabilities. If you consider the developmental trajectory that children’s lives take, you notice that control over their bodies is the first step (no pun intended) they take in gaining mastery over their lives. From their first finger grasp and head lift to sitting up, crawling, walking, and toilet training, gaining control of their body is their first source of competence and sense of mastery over their world.
This sense of security over their physical existence has broader implications for the creation of a secure self. The experiences that children garner from such a “primitive” aspect of their being as their physicality establishes early perceptions about their capabilities and their own sense of security that will then be applied to their ever-expanding internal and external worlds.
The messages that you send and that your children receive about how secure they feel about themselves are particularly important when they feel threatened physically. In times of urgency, when children are sharply attuned to their emotions and highly vigilant to your messages, your emotions and reactions set the tone for the degree of security they feel.
For example, my wife, Sarah, and I experienced the power of this message in an unsettling way when our eldest daughter, Catie, was about two and a half years old. One evening, while doing the dishes after dinner, I stupidly left an opened tin can on the floor to be put outside in the recycling bin. Catie picked it up and began playing with it. In doing so, she cut her finger severely enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room. Sarah got to her first and, despite a significant amount of bleeding (she doesn’t like blood), Sarah was incredibly composed and I did my best to follow suit. From that moment to waiting in the emergency room to my having to physically restrain Catie so that she could receive several shots of a local anesthetic to having her get four stitches from the physician, Catie didn’t shed a tear and was calm and attentive throughout. The ER physician said most kids in this situation are hysterical because their parents are hysterical. I don’t tell this story to pat ourselves on the back for being so calm; we were wrecks inside. I tell it to demonstrate the importance of the messages we send to our children. The message we sent to Catie after she cut her finger was that it was serious, but we had ourselves, the situation, and her welfare under control, so she could be confident that we would take care of her. With her trust in us, she was able to accept our message and use it to help her feel safe and remain under control as well. In a nutshell, Catie got the message that, if mommy and daddy thought she was okay, then she too could trust that she was okay. And that is the kind of message that builds a secure self.
This blog post is excerpted from my third parenting book, Your Children are Listening: Nine Messages They Need to Hear from You (The Experiment Publishing, 2011).