It’s not just kids that need to feel safe.
Back from a long family weekend, my husband and I needed to do some food shopping for the week. My energy was spent and I needed support so as we walked toward the grocery store, I held onto his arm and said, “Stay close to me in the store, I’m feeling vulnerable.”
As we shopped, there came a moment in the deli section where I could see him ordering our sliced turkey while I looked at the prepared foods to take home for an easy dinner. We were 20 paces away from each other and because he would look over and make eye contact, I felt him staying close even physically apart from him.
But then I looked up again and he was gone. On any other day, this would not have been an issue. But that day was different. I scanned around without seeing him. And it seemed to last forever. Though it was probably just 2 minutes of his absence. I instantly wanted to cry.
When my energy levels dip, my own inner-centering can be unstable. I can become anxious or nervous quickly. My husband’s physical presence is a stabilizing agent in those times. But he was suddenly gone.
These moments can happen so fast that our brain is suddenly in fear mode.
What I needed was my safety person nearby. The one who I instantly feel secure with.
This memory of panic in the grocery store came to my mind while riding a ferry in Sydney harbor with my granddaughter, her father and my husband recently.
All was going fine until a moment of fear and panic crossed over a young girl’s face, unmistakably echoed by her words, “Where’s my daddy?”
It was only a 2-minute absence – her daddy went to the concession to get a sandwich – but because she didn’t know, daddy didn’t say, “I’ll be right back,” her mind instantly went to a fear state. Naturally, if daddy had said, “I’ll be right back,” she would have protested and wanted to go with him. In his mind, she’s with her grandparents, she’s safe.
These simple and super quick moments — me at the grocery store and my granddaughter on the ferry — illuminate how the human brain is wired for safety and security between two people.
When we don’t feel a sense of safety, our fear kicks in and we experience a loss of security very quickly.
As I tell my clients, “We’re not turtles~!” Mom doesn’t dig a hole and leave us and we must fend for ourselves, hopefully navigating towards the ocean awaiting us successfully. No.
We are human beings who are dependent on our caregivers who provide a level of nurturing that helps us (and our brain) to feel safe and secure. The need to feel like someone has got your back and is there for you is wired into the brain.
No matter what age, wherever we are in our life, there is an inescapable desire to feel like we belong to someone. And no matter how much our parents try to keep us safe, there can never be enough of saying (and behaving in a way) that says to a child:
I’ve got you. You are safe. Everything is okay now. I’m here.
For as soon as her daddy arrived with that sandwich, her facial expression turned from fear to relief. Her daddy smiling and saying, “I’m right here. I’m back.” All was okay again and he was “Leading with Relief.”
Similarly, when my husband saw my face in the grocery store, he knew immediately that I was disoriented and upset. He moved toward me, made a little sad face and said, “I see you’re upset, I’m here now.” I was on the way to feeling safe again. He was leading with relief.
So the next time your child or partner is sad or angry, feeling disoriented, and you see a look of fear on their face, go for the language of safety and security first. Asking them WHY they feel it will never be the cure. It will only confuse and make the problem worse. Instead, Lead with Relief.
Try out, “I’m here. You’re upset. You’re sad. I’ve got you. I’m not going anywhere. Can I give you a hug?”
Any of those can work. Test them out. Ask each other what works best. And Lead with Relief.