“Did you learn your lesson?” my mother asked.
Those five words have been etched in my mind since I was a teenager. I was a good kid but, between boys and shenanigans with my friends, I was always pushing the boundaries. This time, I had received a speeding ticket for rushing to get home before my curfew. When I told her what had happened, my mother approached me with arms crossed, her tone one of serious concern, but not anger. I received no actual punishment, but I did have to take responsibility for my actions and pay the ticket with my own money.
Growing up, I always found my mother to be a safe space for me.
Now that I’m a mother, I’ve worked to create those spaces for my daughter. The communication that starts with parents and children is one of the most influential and persuasive ways children can learn to socialize throughout their lives, research shows.
Taylor Quick, a licensed child therapist for Zola Counseling, a private practice in Charlotte, N.C., defines safe spaces as the relationship that a child has to her parent or caregiver to feel understood and heard. In her work with children between the ages of 2 and 12, Quick said she has observed that children feel more empowered “after their feelings have been validated.”
How do we create safe spaces to allow our children to manage their emotions and talk openly?
Have a ‘feelings check-in’
Lenaya Smith-Crawford, a licensed marriage, family and play therapist at Kaleidoscope Family Therapy in Atlanta, said she starts every family session with a “feelings check-in.” “I want the children and the family to identify and be aware of the feelings that they’ve experienced throughout their week but also be able to connect that feeling with a certain circumstance or event.”
Smith-Crawford suggested parents try this with their children. “Ideally, feelings check-ins are done daily, at the end of the day. You can do this with your children until they are adults,” she said.
Self-awareness, or knowing what you feel and how you feel it, is an important component of emotional intelligence, said Daniel Goleman, Ph.D, the author of “Emotional Intelligence and Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.”
Teach children how to calm themselves down
Showing children how to calm down, stay focused on a goal and remain optimistic despite setbacks is another aspect of emotional intelligence, Dr. Goleman said.
When my daughter is frustrated and trying to explain herself, I make her take big breaths in and out before continuing. We stop everything, breathe, calm down, and then I allow her to speak.
Dr. Goleman has demonstrated how younger children have the power to manage their emotions in an exercise he calls Belly Buddies. “Children get their favorite stuffed animal, find a place on the carpet to lie down, put it on their belly, and watch it rise and fall on each breath. It’s focusing on mindfulness because the same neural circuitry that helps you concentrate and focus, also calms your physiology. This gives them a way to do it on their own. It empowers the child.”
Create a safety circle
My 7-year-old and I have a safety circle. In this circle, we sit face to face to create a feeling of equalness. She is allowed to share anything with me without the fear of consequence — unless it is against one of our “limits,” which include stealing, hurting someone else, intentional lying, and not taking responsibility for her actions, the last one a lesson I took from the speeding ticket.
“It is important to make sure you are setting firm, clear limits and you are staying consistent with those limits after you connect with the child,” said Quick. By staying in those boundaries, I am letting my daughter know that even though she can express herself freely, she still has a responsibility to be a good person.
Our safety circle is an imaginary place. A safe space can be a physical place, like a calming corner, but it’s more important that it be an emotional space between parent and child so that no matter where you are, you can connect. We begin with a hug and breathing to calm ourselves. Then, I allow her to speak openly.
Sloane Anderson, 7, of Atlanta, a friend of my daughter’s, showed me two safe spaces where she sits to talk with her parents: her top bunk, and a corner in her room that she calls her “school corner.” I asked her what she likes to talk about with her parents. “I like to talk to them about mistakes I’ve made and stuff like that,” she said. “My parents listen to me because they want to support me and they want to be there for me.”
Work with children on identifying emotions
“If your child is crying, instead of assuming they are sad, ask descriptive questions around what they feel, how it happened, and why they feel as they do,” Smith-Crawford said. “The child may discover that the emotion they feel is frustration instead of sadness. ”
Recently, I asked my daughter several times to put on her night clothes, and she became upset because she could hear the frustration in my voice after I asked her for the third time. She kept telling me she didn’t want to make me sad.
I sat down with her and explained the differences between anger, sadness and frustration. I gave her several scenarios and had her match each one with the correct emotion. For example, “If you lost your favorite stuffed animal and could not get it back, would it make you mad, sad or frustrated?” This quick exercise allowed her to identify exactly how she or others might feel versus describing one emotion to describe a plethora of feelings.
“Instead of giving them the feelings words, you are asking them to engage in the process of elimination and really connect with their exact emotions,” said Smith-Crawford,
Tuning in to other people with empathy and sensing what they’re feeling are also important parts of emotional intelligence, Dr. Goleman said.
Ask your child how you are doing as a parent
In his book “No Excuses! The Power of Self Discipline,” Brian Tracy challenges his readers to imagine what their lives would be like if they were their own parent. He asks parents to identify their own strengths and weaknesses. Or, he suggests, we can ask our children how we are doing as parents.
I often ask my daughter how I’m doing as a mom and if there is anything that she needs more of. Once, she told me I spent too much time on my phone when we were supposed to be watching a movie together. Now, I limit checking my phone when we watch movies — even if we are on our 18th viewing of Frozen — and she creates fewer distractions to get my attention.
Encourage children to write their feelings
When situations may be too challenging for children to verbalize what they are experiencing, consider talking to your child in writing. My daughter and I keep a journal where we share our day-to-day thoughts. It allows her to express freely without interruption and helps her to read my thoughts as well.
Letter writing also comes in handy for apologies. If your child misbehaves, have her write a letter of apology and read it aloud. Then acknowledge the apology with hugs and warmth. The letter becomes a safe space.
It is never too late to start opening new communication channels with your child, especially as we are spending so much more time together during the pandemic. By helping our children talk openly at home, we are preparing them to communicate and connect with others and to use their voice powerfully in the world.
Shanicia Boswell is the founder of Black Moms Blog, a collaborative blogging community that focuses on parenting, culture and lifestyle from a Black mom’s point of view. Her views on parenting have been featured in the Washington Post and on OWN network, HLN/CNN, Thrive, and Procter & Gamble.