A Family’s Emotional Safety Plan
Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry.
– Lyman Abbott
As the temperature gauge slightly rises outdoors allowing us to shed our winter layers, our emotional temperature gauge shoots even higher in anticipation of the much-craved heat to come. From elation to frustration, we are working and playing harder with the increased daylight. Kids are hearing teachers talk about last chapters and final projects. They are also experimenting with their limitations with bikes, scooters and skateboards. You likely have already hauled out the bandaids for the season.
Your family might take precautionary measures in the event of a fire or other natural disaster and have a safety plan in place. You might place smoke alarms in strategic positions and educate your children about them. You might discuss your exit strategy, where and how to get out. Similarly, you might want to have an emotional safety plan at the ready. And unlike a fire, there is a certainty that each family member will experience high anger, anxiety or upset at some point just by virtue of being human. Why not discuss the experience of intense emotion in advance and share your plan to handle it with other family members so that all can be supportive in those tense moments?
First, why have a plan?
It helps to have a general sense of how your brain functions under great stress to know why you should have a plan. Anytime you are emotionally shaken from fear, anxiety, anger or hurt, you are functioning from your primal brain, your amygdala alone. There is a chemical that washes over the rest of your brain that cuts off access so that your only
functioning abilities are in your survival center. Effective problem solving requires both logic (left brain) and creativity (right brain) though neither can be utilized when greatly upset. So that if your plan when your child makes a poor choice that angers you is to come up with a logical consequence on the spot, you will not be capable of that kind of higher level thinking. This “hyjacking” of your brain, as Daniel Goleman author of Emotional Intelligence refers to it, serves a critical role. In true survival circumstances, you are able to focus on fighting or fleeing from the danger source. But in family life, fighting with words or fleeing out of the door is often not constructive, safe or practical. Creating a plan for what each member can do when they are in this state of mind and practicing it can prepare all members to act with emotional intelligence during a crisis, big or small.
Creating a Family Plan
Discuss when not emotional. Find a moment when you don’t have time pressures to sit down and discuss a plan.
Share your knowledge. Talk about the above information and educate your children and your spouse about how the brain functions in a highly emotional state. Also, reflect on the symptoms you and your children might experience that clue you into understanding your emotions. For example, do you get red in the face or in the ears when you are upset? Does your child shake when she is fearful or anxiety-ridden? What physical experiences do you have when you are highly emotional?
Model. Children understand their emotions and how to handle them primarily from watching you! Have you ever noticed your child yelling or using words in anger in the same way you do? Modeling is a powerful teacher. So you go first! Take a quiet moment to respond to the following questions and/or fill in the blanks. Here is a pdf document of My Emotional Safety Plan in case you would like to print it to use.
When I am angry or have high anxiety, I will say… (Keep it short!!)______________________
Example: “Mommy needs five minutes.”
Then, I will go (Describe specific place.) __________________________________to cool down.
Example: I go to my favorite chair in my bedroom. I have heard from others that it’s not safe for them to leave the room because a.) They have little ones. b.) They are worried siblings will hurt one another. In those cases, I designate a place in the room I am in or in the case of the siblings, I sit quietly inbetween them in the middle of the floor.
When I get to my cool down spot, I will… (Take how many deep breathes? Then. Write? Draw? Think? Plan?)____________________________________________________
Example: I take ten deep breathes. This is an essential part of any plan since it removes the chemical from your logical brain so that you have access again. I keep my journal and pen beside my chair if I need it. Sometimes, in the case of a child’s misbehavior that I need to respond to upon my return, I think about logical consequences or constructive responses while there. I ask, “What does he need to learn? How can I best facilitate his learning in this situation?”
I will return to my family when…_________________________________________________
Example: For me, it’s when I have cooled down properly and know my next move when I return to the situation.
Now ask your family to write their own plans after they’ve heard yours. Make sure all know each other’s plans. An adult who leaves the room can scare a child and escalate the upset. But if you’ve already discussed it, then you merely need to remind him of your plan and implement it.
Having a plan can lend safety and security to your family life. It can create a more caring, supportive environment when all know that there is a clear response process for each person when they are at their most vulnerable. After living with and using your family emotional safety plan, you may wonder how you could have lived without it.
A word about sustained crisis…
If there are high emotions in your household most days, most of the time, then it may be time to consider outside intervention. Physical patterns begin to set in (as in depression) that require the help of a trained professional. Seeking psychological help is the same as going to your doctor for a physical ailment. There’s no shame in being examined for headaches but unfortunately there still is a stigma related to seeking mental health support. In fact, it is the emotionally intelligent person who seeks outside help when he or she recognizes it’s time. Though many will not seek it, it may be impossible to go through life without, at some point, needing some mental health intervention. The following are some U.S.-based resources to check out.
American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry (AACAP)
Has definitions, answers to frequently asked questions, resources, expert videos and an online search tool to find a local psychiatrist.
3615 Wisconsin Avenue, Washington, DC 20016
American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Healthy Children
Provides information for parents about emotional wellness, including helping children handle stress, psychiatric medications, grief and more.
141 Point Boulevard, Elk Grove Village, Illinois 60007
American Psychological Association (APA)
Offers information on managing stress, communicating with kids, making step families work, controlling anger, finding a psychologist and more.
750 First Street, Washington, DC 20002
(800) 374-2721 or (202) 336-6123 TTY
Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies (ABCT)
Provides free online information so that children and adolescents benefit from the most up-to-date information about mental health treatment and can learn about important differences in mental health supports. Parents can search online for local psychologists and psychiatrists for free.
305 Seventh Avenue, New York, New York 10001
Goleman, D. (1994). Emotional intelligence; Why it can matter more than IQ. NY, NY: Bantham Books.