Do You Have an Emotional Safety Plan?
Prepare Yourself and Your Family for Emotional Fires…
Hospitals have assembled incident command systems, or plans for teams to address the extensive health care needs from the COVID-19 pandemic. States are issuing orders for statewide shutdowns of restaurants, schools, events, and even, borders. And we, as families, are encouraged to stay home. While all this flurry of emergency activity is taking place around the world, we are likely to feel ongoing elevated stress even if we are safe and warm in our own homes. So what’s our plan? What’s our system? We plan for the uncertainty of a fire in our homes with smoke alarms and exit strategies. And it’s important since one in four homes will have a big enough fire to necessitate calling the fire department. But what about emotional fires?
Every single one of us will be overcome with anger, fear, or anxiety at some point. We’ll likely discover our fuses are shorter, our patience less, as we cope with a continuous level of stress and strain during this time. And those moments of intensity are our true tests of character. How will we react when our brains are in fight, flight, or freeze mode? Without thought or planning, we risk lashing out at our loved ones and not only disrupting our routine but also our foundation of trust. And we have to live with the guilt and regret that comes with it. But what if we simply planned for those moments and discussed how we were going to cool down with our families? Particularly during this time of daily and sustained stress because of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s worth giving some thought to how we can bring our best selves to most testing times in life.
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. There are chemicals that wash over the rest of your brain cutting off access so that your only functioning abilities are in your survival center. Effective problem solving requires access to the control centers for logic, language, and creativity though these are cut off by those chemicals and cannot be utilized when greatly upset. If, in the past, 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, freezing, or fleeing from the danger source. But in family life, fighting with words, freezing unable to think, 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. Identify what kinds of words or actions tend to trigger your heated upset. Ask your children, “in what circumstances do you get the most upset?” 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 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 with blanks to fill in to use with your family – My Emotional Safety Plan
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; or b.) they are worried siblings will hurt one another. In those cases, designate a place in the room you are in or in the case of the siblings, sit quietly in-between them in the middle of the floor.
When I get to my cool down spot, I will… (Take how many deep breaths? Then I will write? Draw? Think Plan?)________________________________________________________
Example: I take ten deep breaths. 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.
Wishing you and your family physical and emotional health and safety and may you discover that this time together can offer your family a chance to deepen your trusting relationships.
Goleman, D. (1994). Emotional Intelligence; Why it can matter more than IQ. NY, NY: Bantham Books.