02/25/2014 11:23 am ET Updated Apr 27, 2014

Allow Your Children to Create a Secure World

In two previous posts on the topic of raising secure children, I discussed the importance of your children developing a secure attachment with you and a sense of security within themselves.

The third message of security gains increasing importance as your children achieve full mobility, move beyond the prescribed limits of their immediate family and enter the physical and social world of nature, neighborhoods, playgrounds, child care, pre-school and elementary school. A significant part of your children's development involves steadily increasing the range of their physical and social worlds. The perceptions that children develop about those worlds, whether they view them as safe or dangerous, will dictate the degree to which they are comfortable exploring and expanding those worlds.

Early experiences in which your children feel safe to discover the world beyond you enables them to develop the sense of a secure world and gain comfort and confidence in being "out there" on their own. This belief in a secure world is comprised of three distinct perceptions.

  • First, children know that, however far they may roam, their parents (and others such as extended family, caregivers, and teachers) will provide them with a safe haven to which they can return when they reach the outer limits of their comfort zone.
  • Second, as they explore the world around them, children who live in what they believe is a secure world know that, should they experience some threat, whether real or imagined, they have the capabilities to navigate through the choppy waters.
  • Third, children come to believe, through the messages they receive from their parents and direct engagement, that the world is a fundamentally safe place (while also recognizing that risks and dangers are always present and that reasonable precautions need to be taken).

Children who develop the belief in an insecure world have vastly different experiences and perceptions. They may have been conveyed messages of a dangerous world from worried or fearful parents. These children may have had early experiences that caused or reinforced the perception of a dangerous world. Or they may have felt overwhelmed by the world and believed themselves to be incapable of responding to its inherent dangers. Regardless of its causes, children who have an insecure view of the world feel unsafe and scared which can lead to lasting clinginess and an aversion to exploration and risk.

Protection is an Instinct

You naturally are concerned for your children's safety. You may have no more powerful an instinct than to protect your children. Just as mama bears protect their cubs, so do you protect your little brood. Unfortunately, this essential inborn concern can sometimes morph into irrational apprehension and extreme fear caused by several issues. You may communicate your own insecurities and fears about yourself and the world to your children through role modeling and out-of-proportion reactions to situations your children encounter. Objectively small risks by your children, for example, climbing high on a ladder at the playground, can be viewed as a threat to their life by you have a fear of heights or don't perceive yourself to be capable enough to successfully navigate the climb. With these reactions, you may communicate a message based on your own experiences and perceptions rather than one that is appropriate for your children and the present situation.

You may also be vulnerable to the "if it bleeds, it leads" mentality of the 24/7 news cycle. If we are to believe the news these days, our children live in a truly dangerous world in which they are being lost, abducted, molested, assaulted, and killed at alarmingly high frequency. But the reality is that, based on the objective statistics, the world in which your children live has never been safer. Even with threats of considerably less severity, for example, injuries and illnesses, improvements in product safety, hygiene, child proofing, and increased vigilance on the part of parents have created a world that is a far cry from the dangerous environs in which children of previous generations lived.

Your children have sensitive radar that is tuned directly to your emotions and underlying perceptions about them and the world; they will pick up your anxiety on their emotional radar screen as soon as it emanates from you. They will sense your nervousness about their exploring beyond your comfort zone, and they will feel scared themselves because you are sending the message that there is reason to be scared of the world. This message will cause them to learn to not only not trust the world, but also not trust themselves.

Let Your Children Find Their Limits

Your goal in instilling in your children a sense of a secure world is to allow them to find their own comfort zone and to encourage them to expand it steadily. Children seem to have a pre-wired comfort zone, based on their inborn temperament, that will initially dictate how far they are willing to roam; some are risk averse, some seem fearless, and others lie somewhere in between depending on the nature of the "risk," for example, intellectual, physical, or social.

Of course, for your children's safety, before you allow them to explore their world, you need to judge their impulsivity and the degree to which you trust them to be safe when they venture forth. If they tend to rush off and aren't responsive to your calls to stop, you'll want to keep a tighter rein on them for their own safety.

The key is to allow your children to set the pace of exploration. If you have timid children, you may feel compelled to push them to go farther than they are comfortable to help them overcome their apprehension. This tactic will likely fail because it will send the wrong messages. First, you send the message that you don't respect their comfort and limits. Second, you convey the message that you think there is something wrong with them. Third, your disappointment and frustration may convey unhealthy emotional messages that your children receive. Your strategy may backfire because when you push children who are not ready to move beyond their comfort zone, they may feel more discomfort and fear which may cause them to be even more reluctant to venture forth in the future.

It's better to create opportunities in which they can still explore, but also ensure their perceived security and comfort in the process. For example, you can have them venture out initially with a sibling. Or have your children walk between you and another family member who is at a distance, thus distracting them from who they are leaving and focus them on who they are going to. You can also give them a specific goal to pursue, for example, climbing a boulder at the park, which takes their focus away from leaving you (thereby not triggering fear of separation) and directs it toward something positive that they want (thus producing positive emotions such as curiosity and excitement). Some children like to learn the lay of the land before they go off on their own, so you can go with them the first few times they embark on an adventure. You can also set an intermediary goal that is more manageable, for instance, having them climb only half way up a hill and touch a rock with you waiting at the bottom. As they become more comfortable with these "assisted" explorations and gain confidence in the security of their world, they will likely choose to expand their comfort zone on their own.

When you allow your children to become the first arbiters of their own sense of security for themselves and the world, you send them several messages and don't send several others. The first message is that they can trust you to be there when you are needed (secure of attachment). The second message you send is that you trust your children to take care of themselves in most situations and that they will tell you when they need you (secure self). The third message is that you will respond to them in a manner that is consistent and proportional to the situation (secure world). The messages you don't send your children are those grounded in your own baggage, a well-intentioned, though misguided desire to protect them, or fear and panic.

Push Your Own Limits

Awareness of your own perceptions about whether we live in a secure or insecure world is essential to ensuring that you send the right messages to your children. You know you have "baggage" related to security when you feel that twinge of anxiety or spike of fear consume you when your children go beyond your comfort zone (assuming that most people would agree that your limit isn't very far or putting your children in any danger). If you can recognize those feelings for what they are, namely, your issues, you will be better prepared to resist your protective urges and send your children messages that will encourage them to find their own limits.

The challenge for you involves determining your own natural comfort zone in allowing your children to explore. That zone is dictated by your inborn temperament and the perceptions about how secure the world is based on your own experiences growing up. Your comfort zone will be determined by where you lie on the continuum from risk taker to risk averse.

And, if you allow it to, you will send messages to your children about where that comfort zone is. If your children's inborn comfort zone is smaller than yours, then you will likely just reinforce those limits and possibility prevent them from extending those limits through experience.

If their limits are farther than your own, then your comfort zone may act as a leash, restraining them from broadening their already more expansive comfort zone.

In either case, you may inhibit your children from finding their own comfort zone, based on their own innate temperaments and experiences, and, instead, cause them to adopt yours because of the messages you sent them.

To bolster your children's confidence, comfort and willingness to take appropriate risks, I recommend that you first determine where your natural comfort zone lies. If yours is quite small and you typically react with anxiety and reluctance when you approach your boundaries of comfort, then it will be helpful for you to understand why you have such a reaction and see if you can keep those feelings in check. Then, for the benefit of your children, you should make an effort to extend your comfort zone just a little farther. But only do so if you can manage the anxiety you may feel for allowing your children to go beyond that limit (otherwise, you will likely communicate that angst and they will not explore beyond it anyway).

If you are unable to maintain such control, then perhaps you might just have to accept that there are some experiences that you should not be a part of with your children and leave those to your spouse or a caregiver who hopefully has a larger comfort zone.

Conversely, if you have an expansive comfort zone, in other words, you are a risk taker, you may need to rein in your propensity for risk with the recognition that your children lack the experience and wherewithal to manage the risk that your comfort zone allows. Of course, regardless of which way you shift the comfort zone you allow your children to have, you want to ensure that they are still generally safe.

Safe, Not Sorry

You want to strike a balance in building your children's sense of a secure world. You want them to roam as far and wide as they are comfortable and, in doing so, gain confidence that their world is, in fact, secure. At the same time, you of course don't want to expose them to inappropriate risks.

You can start this process by allowing your children to test their limits in settings that are generally considered safe (no situation is completely risk free), for example, a large fenced-in playground or a field. Your children won't know that they are totally safe, so they will explore as far as their comfort propels them. At the same time, because you know it is a safe environment, you won't be anxious knowing that their safety is certain no matter how far they roam and, as consequence, won't send any messages to the contrary.

The result is that your children will get the message that they are secure from the world itself and from you. As your children gain more experience, maturity, and confidence that the world is secure, you can let them explore and seek out their limits in less secured environments.

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).