When parents of teens come to me in therapy, their most common request is: "Help my child is making really bad decisions -- tell me what I need to do to make them stop!" These decisions range from cutting, substance abuse, eating disorders or destructive relationships.
Parents typically come in for tools, resources, support and coaching. Underlying their distress is the unspoken plea "Tell me what I can do to keep my child in a bubble until he is 18 and his frontal lobes kick in? " Often the solutions they want are more consequences, more rules, more containment or damage control.
After we stabilize the crisis, moderated the collateral damage, processed the trauma and repair communication; after I break the "bad news" the frontal lobes don't typically come in till in their twenties, I pose them the question.
" If there was one thing you could have for your child so that you could finally sleep at night what would it be? "
Without missing a beat their answer is.
" I want them to learn to make better decisions."
At the end of the day, my parents recognize that more important than keeping their children safe is teaching them how to keep themselves safe. Failure to do so keeps them in danger not only to others but to themselves.
On an extreme level, I see this with domestic violence scenarios where I coach a client to a place of safety only for them to return to the dysfunctional relationship. With my addicts, this is called a returning place is called a "relapse"
On a more subtle level, emotional safety plays into the day to day decisions of friendships dynamics and office politics. How do we assess if a situation or a person is safe to be around? How do I raise a child with the ability to know that and take the measures to protect themselves?
This process is the crux of my entire practice. Whether adult or child, most of the work I do in session is about working with clients to do just that. As a trauma therapist, all I do all day is repair triggered amygdalae -- the fight/flight and freeze center of our brain so they can operate in the function of keeping us safe. Through EMDR, we process trauma so they can reconnect their amygdala with the otherwise high functioning left brain.
Because I work primarily in the part of the brain that assesses and manages danger - I see a lot of my work as getting my teens, couples and adults to a place of emotional safety and then teaching them how to keep themselves safe.
Start with Emotional Safety
When my teens come in with relationship issues on who they have crushes on and whether or not they are gay or bi or straight. I say "Hold it! Back up! Let's start with deciding how do you decide if someone is safe? "
Before they were making decisions about alcohol, sexuality and cutting, they were making decisions about emotional safety. They were giving their heart, their trust, their secrets and eventually their bodies to unsafe people. Many "dangerous decisions" come from being with unsafe people. The decision to cut, use, eat, or kill themselves are often by-products of the emotional wounds of being people who hurt them.
Our children's ability to assess and manage emotional safety is the most reliable way of keeping them safe for life.
This skill of learning to assess if someone is emotionally safe is a task you can start teaching from way before the teen years. It starts on the first day of school when they meet a bully, a unpredictable friend, a mean teacher or unsafe adult. Our job is teach them to identify them, draw boundaries, manage the hurt and get to a place of emotional and physical safety. We don't always have the luxury to leave unhealthy relationships ( ie. Bosses, or teachers ) but it's most important to know if we are in them and what emotional boundaries to draw to contain their hurt.
Our children know this. Way before social norms and our best advice gets to them, children intuitively know if people are trustworthy. Like animals they have an innate sense of knowing if a person or an environment is safe. Somewhere between toilet training and school, we've taught them to listen to us instead of themselves when assessing for emotional safety.
Our job as parents is to learn to leverage that intuition and build on their emotional safety skills just as surely as putting on a helmet and wearing a seatbelt.
That is what is going to keep your teen and adult children safe.
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