Creating a Safe Emotional Environment for Kids (and Others)

Beliefs that can help make emotional safety possible

Kids have feelings. It’s a part of being human to experience the world and other people emotionally. Unfortunately, many adults have a hard time dealing with kids’ feelings. We may see them as inconvenient, feel uncomfortable around them (who wants to see a child in distress?), or even take them as evidence that we’re not doing a good job in our role with them. 

When our emotions are supported—certainly “allowed,” even encouraged—it’s easier to feel them, process them, learn from them, and let them pass. When being in distress brings on even more distress (“I’ll give you something to cry about!”), we can develop not-so-healthy ways to adapt, including stuffed feelings, addictions, acting out, passive aggressive behaviors, and self-harm. 

So let’s align our belief system so that we don’t end up compounding a very normal, very human experience for the people we care about. Here’s a good place to start! NOTE: These beliefs are important for a healthy, satisfying relationship with other adults, too!)

• It’s OK for children to have feelings without explaining or defending them. The better we can accept the reality of a child’s experience, the less “dug in” or attached they have to be.

• Feelings are not behaviors. Feelings are never right or wrong, but behaviors that hurt other people are not OK. Adults do not need to protect other people from a child’s feelings, but they may need to intervene in hurtful behaviors.

• It’s OK to express feelings as long as doing so does not hurt anyone or create problems for others.

• Most children (and many adults) do not have healthy, non-hurtful outlets for expressing their feelings, especially anger or frustration. In a non-conflict time, discuss and present options available to help kids externalize their feelings (get them out) without hurting themselves or others. Examples might include having a stuffed animal or picture they can talk to when you’re not available. Being able to draw a picture or write a letter about how they’re feeling—and then tearing it up! Going for a run, hitting or screaming into a pillow, tearing up paper, or (in school) going down the hall for a drink of water and a chance to catch their breath!

• Adults and children are distinct, separate individuals. It is not necessary to own someone’s feelings or problems, feel their feelings for them, or solve their problems to show that person love. Sometimes just being there, accepting and understanding, is more than enough. 

• Adults are not responsible for changing or controlling the child’s feelings. It’s more loving and supportive to communicate that a child’s feelings are heard, respected, and taken seriously—even when you don’t understand them. 

• Children learn to deal with feelings more effectively when they don’t have to stuff or hide them to protect a critical, guilt-ridden, or over-reacting adult. Holding a space for them to go through whatever is affecting them will help them get to the other side. 

• Validation helps! Children’s emotional experience are very real to them, even when we know that this won’t matter in 5 years (or 5 minutes), and even when their emotional reactions don’t make any rational sense from our point of view. This can require a great deal of patience—think of the child getting all wound up about something like the wrong-colored socks and then getting even more upset being given the “right” ones. Bite your tongue and try not to react. This is (somehow) very real to the child, and it will pass.

• Responses that interfere with children’s ability to own, feel, or process their feelings can block communications, teach children to mistrust their own feelings and perceptions, and interfere with the development of their problem-solving capabilities.

Adults who are especially sensitive or empathic, those who have been through their own traumas, may struggle when a child is going through something. (This is also true when dealing with an important adult in our lives. The same beliefs apply to adult relationships.) Keep in mind that much of what children’s emotional experiences trigger for an adult is more about us than about them.

Take a look at what’s being triggered for you. If you have some early trauma that hasn’t been cleaned up, consider how that is affecting you and your relationships today. Likewise, if your sense of adequacy starts feeling threatened or you know your child wouldn’t be upset if he or she had just listened, you’re going to slip into saying or doing something you probably swore you’d never do. Fortunately, there is a better way!

Excerpted and adapted from The Win-Win Classroom, by Dr. Jane Bluestein © 2008, Corwin Press, Thousand Oaks, CA, and The Parent’s Little Book of Lists: Do’s and Don’ts of Effective Parenting, by Dr. Jane Bluestein, © 2022, Father Sky Publishing, Albuquerque, NM.

© 1990, 1997, 2008, 2012, 2022, Dr. Jane Bluestein

Related resources:

Non-Supportive Responses to Avoid
Bearing Witness: Support for a Child in Crisis
Questions, not Answers
Reasons to Not Ask “Why”
Alternatives to Advice Giving: Questions to guide problem solving

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