Family Emotional Safety Plan

Family Reflecting on Upset by Jennifer MillerDo not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry.

– Lyman Abbott

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. If you never knew you had a temper, your children will introduce it to you. And those moments of intensity are our true tests of character. How will we react when our brains are in fight or flight 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? We could have the chance to 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 cannot 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 with blanks to fill in to use with your family – My Emotional Safety Plan

Need a Spanish version? Here it is!

Mi Plan de Seguridad Emocional – Se que mis hijos aprenden a manejar las emociones de mi modelo cuando estoy enojado y ansioso. Yo se que mi hijo actuara de la misma manera que yo lo hago cuando estoy estresado. Tener un plan listo y ensayado me ayudara a modelar como quiero enseñarles a manejar sus emociones.

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
(202) 966-7300

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
(847) 434-4000

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
(212) 647-1890


Goleman, D. (1994). Emotional Intelligence; Why it can matter more than IQ. NY, NY: Bantham Books. 

© Copyright, 2021, Jennifer Smith Miller. All rights reserved.

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