Your child may be acting out because they feel unsafe

The world is a big and bewildering place for children. They are vulnerable and reliant upon adults to keep them safe. Your child will not be able to articulate how they’re feeling either. They may not realise that the stress or insecurity they are feeling is because they are outside their comfort zone. At this point they may act out, go really quiet and not interact, cry, cling to you or have a meltdown. It will help you to know that sometimes these behaviours from your child are down to feeling unsafe.

But what would make my child feel unsafe?

You might be surprised by the answer. Children view the world very differently to adults. They also react on an instinctive level so they may not be able to tell you what is wrong because they have not been able to think through and put into words what they are fearful about. They are also sponges, constantly taking in information. You know, from your own kids, that they pick up far more than you thought and you’ll have learned to watch what you say around them. Kids are continually scanning, so be aware of that and manage the situation accordingly.

What children scan for

What will make your kid feel unsafe and how they solve it:

Physical symptoms

Kids scan their own bodies to see if they’re safe, but their interpretation may differ from yours. You child may say - my tummy is hurting; therefore, I don’t want to go to school.
This may be an internal reflection of an external fear. I don’t feel safe at school, that makes me feel unwell. Mom will let me stay home if I am ill.
Kids figure out pretty quickly that internal unsafety (i.e. feeling unwell) is the best way to get mom to go along with you.

Environmental unsafety

Your kids are around media and people talking about it all day every day. They see the news and absorb the comments of adults around you, so be careful what you say. If you are genuinely concerned about something, you may not want to mention it in front of your children. Children process the level of danger as a far higher risk than an adult might, and therefore it will stress them more than it is stressing you.

Fear of the unknown

Whenever your kid is doing something new, it will throw up a whole host of questions in their minds that they may never ask you, or even be able to articulate. Questions like:
Are we doing something new?
Is it something I can predict?
Can I control it?
The best way to reduce stress is to explain everything that is planned. If it is something you know about in advance, tell your child what the activity is. Talk to them about what they will be doing, who they will be doing it with and where you, the adult, will be while they are doing the activity. If your child is particularly anxious, you might take them to visit the new place on their own and walk around it with them. Ask them what they think and let them express their feeling. Don’t contradict, dismiss or tell them that they are worrying about nothing, just listen and be understanding of how they feel.

Suspicious behaviour

Kids are really good at picking up underlying feelings. They are tuned to body language and work hard not to upset or annoy adults. If your behavior is sending out multiple messages, e.g., you are smiling, but, your hands are curled into fists, and your voice is sharp, kids pick that up. If you say you are okay, but you’re angry there is a mismatch between face and body. This creates distrust. Your child feels they can’t believe what you are saying.
It is better to be honest about how you are feeling. If you are angry or upset, it’s okay to let your child know that. They will also see how you self regulate so that your emotions don’t spiral out of control. They will learn from you and begin to self-regulate themselves. It is better to say, mom is feeling a little sad today, but I’ll be feeling better in a while, or after I’ve had this glass of water, than to smile at your child and pretend that everything is okay. They will know that it isn’t.

Contradictory instructions

Sometimes our good intentions can go horribly wrong. We can instruct our child to be good and behave nicely to somebody they don’t trust. Then being good can feel weird and like the wrong thing to do. For example, when mum says be nice to uncle, even if uncle is treating you weirdly (sexual abuse for, e.g.)
It is better to tell your child, I’m going to trust you to use your best judgement, than it is to give the instruction to be good. Don’t put your child into an impossible situation where behaving in what you think is an appropriate way will put them in danger.