Given the fast paced life we all lead, it is a tad too difficult to supervise our children the way our parents probably did. They need to be more independent and therefore need to be aware of all the do’s and don’ts of daily life, especially those pertaining to safety. While this is of paramount importance, it is equally important to provide a balanced perspective of safety to our children.
What I mean to say is we need to guard against communicating to the child that ‘the world is an unsafe place’ and that ‘people are all out to take advantage of you.’ If the child adopts any such belief, it may lead to emotional turmoil which could manifest in anxiety and apprehension, separation anxiety and clinginess or a refusal to be alone. Let us understand better how this happens:
“You never know who will take you for a ride. Be careful!”, “Nobody is out there to care about you so you take care of yourself.” Messages such as this unintentionally convey that “you can’t trust anybody”, “trust, and you will have to pay for it.” Children may not completely understand that such messages apply only to certain situations. They may relate your message to a mistake that someone unknowingly made. For eg., if Shamal’s classmate accidentally spills paint over her drawing, she may believe it was done on purpose and pick a fight; or if the bus driver inadvertently misses Shamal’s bus stop, she may believe he did it to ‘take her for a ride.’ Next thing, she may just refuse to travel to school by bus, leaving you flabbergasted and even annoyed.
Further, if children come to believe that ‘mistrust’ is better than ‘trust’, it may pose a block to their forming close interpersonal ties. They may then be aloof, withdrawn and quiet. An underlying reason for this could be lack of trust.
Feeling of Inferiority
The child may also consider himself weak and unable to control the events of his life. ‘I am weak.’ ‘Others can easily harm me.’ If such thoughts consolidate in the child’s mind, it may ultimately lead to low self esteem. The child may not like the state of powerlessness he thinks he is in. This in turn can then lead to several emotional and behavioral difficulties ranging from sadness, clinginess, withdrawal and learned helplessness (as an acceptance of powerlessness) to anger, aggression and oppositional behavior (as attempts to convey that one is powerful.) Each set of behaviors is rather difficult to deal with.
Anxiety and Apprehension
If the child internalizes that the world is unsafe, he/she may be more anxious and alert. Instead of adopting a healthy preventive stance, the child could be hyper alert, high strung and easily upset by any slight indication of potential harm. He may for example, be extremely fearful if new people approach him or could become highly anxious if he loses sight of his parent while playing. In a few extreme situations, this could lead to anxiety disorders, one of which is related to the hearing of traumatic events.
At the same time, it is important to communicate to children that safety is important. Hence, keep the following in mind:-
1. Maintain a Balance
If you are describing a mishap, for eg., an accident/plane crash, also remind the child that most people return home safely. Tell them that though one needs to be aware and careful, mishaps are still the outlier and not the norm. Also, one can elaborate upon first aid measures, discuss potential ways of getting help in case of a mishap etc. This will help establish a sense of control in the child, while also educating him/her about the importance of prevention.
2. Frame Affirmative Instructions
Emphasize on the positive consequences of being careful rather than the negative consequences of not taking care. The reason for this is, framing sentences positively helps avoid frightening descriptions of negative events. It could do a lot to allay anxiety in children.
For eg., ‘Ensure that you don’t talk to random strangers to remain safe’ is more effective than ‘Don’t talk to strangers or else you might just be kidnapped!!”.
3. Absolute versus Relative Statements
‘Run slowly or you will fall!’ ‘Don’t share your stuff with everybody in class. Nobody will share theirs with you.’ Refrain from framing absolute statements. Instead frame statements that talk of ‘likelihood’ or ‘probability.’ ‘While sharing notes remember that you may or may not be repaid the favor.’ ‘Don’t run too fast. You may have a fall.’ Let children know that their actions may or may not bring about negative consequences. While such instructions still warn the children, they will be more realistic and serve to prevent mistrust, inferiority and anxiety from setting in.
P.S.- This blog has been written in response to a discussion about communicating safety tips right that emerged while we were conducting a workshop for parents on behavior modification at Inner Space. Hope it has helped.
Post contributed by: Malini Krishnan (Psychologist, Inner Space, 2010-2015)