Building Safe and Supportive Parent-Child Relationships

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In this blog series Edmonton-based family counsellor Adam Sartore, will share ideas and strategies for how to build safe, resilient, and healthy families. In this blog post, Adam illustrates how safety and trust can be formed between the caregiver and child. He also discusses an evidence-based framework for building safe and trusting relationships between caregivers and children. Adam has training in Emotionally-Focused Family Therapy and Attachment-Based Family Therapy which are known to help families heal and repair ruptures in their relationships. Adam is passionate about helping family members utilize evidence-based tools like PACE to deepen their understanding and acceptance of themselves and one another. 

To begin this blog you will be presented with a hypothetical scenario between an infant and a parent. After you read through this scenario you will have the opportunity to reflect on some questions. The scenario and questions will help you get into a better mindset to understand the principles of P.A.C.E, what the acronym stands for, and how you can integrate each element into your parenting to strengthen your bond with your child. Each P.A.C.E element will be explored in detail after the hypothetical scenario.

How to build safe and trusting relationships with children

Take some time to read through the following imaginary situation explored through the perspective of both the infant and the caregiver. As you’re reading, I’ll invite you to be open, curious and accepting of whatever thoughts, feelings, sensations, and reactions come up for you and not to judge yourself for having them. Also notice what stands out to you from the experience of the infant and the caregiver.

Hypothetical Scenario: Luca wakes from a nap upset

Let’s explore this interaction from Luca’s perspective:

Luca is a seven-month-old infant, and he is woken up unexpectedly from a nap. He starts to open his eyes. He opens his eyes to take in the ray of sunshine peeking in through the blinds of the nursery. As Luca starts to wake up some more, he starts to feel warm. Something doesn’t feel quite right. He starts to notice that his bottom is feeling uncomfortable. Luca starts to cry since he doesn’t know how to cope with these feelings and sensations. He notices no one is coming, so he starts to cry a little louder and starts to feel more and more distressed. A few moments later he sees a reassuring face gazing down at him. She bends down and gently picks Luca up out of the crib and takes him into her arms. She starts to gently rock him back and forth. She sings to him and continues rocking him back and forth. Luca hears a light and melodic tone in her voice. She catches Luca’s gaze and starts to sound silly and playful. He sees her making funny faces and gestures too. Luca giggles and starts to feel content. She checks Luca’s diaper. After some more rocking and silly faces, she then gently places Luca on the mat and starts to change his diaper. Luca starts to whimper and gets upset. 

She looks at him with love and care and then starts to make some more silly faces and some more silly sounds. She makes eye contact with Luca and then blows a raspberry on his belly. Luca giggles. She blows another raspberry. She mimes the gesture of blowing a raspberry as she changes his diaper. Luca’s eyes notice the sparkle in her eyes and the warmth and care in her smile. Luca is giggling and smiling… he feels content and loved. He hardly notices her changing his diaper anymore. Then… it is all done. The diaper is changed, and Luca is feeling better. He is okay now. She slowly picks Luca up off the mat and sings to him as she holds him securely in her arms. Luca starts to feel sleepy. She gently places Luca back in his crib and smiles at him. She helps Luca get comfortable and all settled into his crib. As Luca starts to close his eyes, he catches the twinkle in her eyes and warmth of her smile one more time. He is feeling okay and secure again… Luca starts to drift to sleep. 

Let’s now consider the interaction from mom’s perspective:

Mom is tired and exhausted. She finally got Luca down for his nap and now she can get a little bit of shuteye. “Phew…”, she thinks to herself, “finally some me-time.” Mom dozes off for a few moments but is woken up by the sound of Luca crying through the baby monitor. “Ugh are you serious,” she groans out loud to herself. Mom is quick to judge herself and starts to feel guilty for even having such a thought. The crying continues… After a moment she musters up the strength to get off the couch and walk down the hall to the nursery. A wave of exhaustion hits mom as she enters the nursery. “Okay we can do this” mom reassures herself. She exhales… Mom bends down and makes eye contact with Luca. She says to Luca in a light and soothing tone: “Hi sweetie, mama sees that you’re upset and crying… It’s okay… I’m here now… It must have been scary being all alone and upset…What’s going on my love?”. She gently picks Luca up out of the crib and starts rocking him back and forth . “I bet you were wondering where I was, weren't you? That must have been scary… It’s okay sweetie… Mama’s here now Luca… I got you…” Mom rocks Luca back and forth some more. Mom starts singing “The itsy-bitsy spider climbed up the waterspout. Down came the rain…” Mom notices Luca’s crying starts to slow down. She sings some more and continues rocking him back and forth. Luca’s crying stops and he starts babbling and taking in more of the room around him. Mom catches his gaze. She keeps singing “Down came the rain…” and starts smiling at him. Luca starts to smile back. “Oh there’s my smiley Luca! Look at that big, beautiful smile. Momma loves you!” Mom remembers that Luca usually giggles and loves when she uses her silly voice and makes funny faces during bedtime stories. “Luca my my what big TOES you have… Luca my my… what big EYES you have.” Luca giggles. 

Mom checks Luca’s diaper. “Oof, Luca that is a stinker,” mom says. Mom notices Luca is still engaged and making eye contact with her. She chooses to share this observation with him a bit louder and in a playful tone: “Peeyouu.. Luca that is.. A.. BIG STINKER…” Mom scrunches her face and shares a goofy expression with Luca: “PEE..YUW… LUCA…That was a big STINKER”. Luca giggles. Mom places Luca on the mat and gets ready to change his diaper. She notices him getting upset, starting to cry, and squirming a bit. “Oh I know Luca. Diaper time is hard. What could we do to make this go by nice and quick? Some more silly faces?”. Mom tries making a silly face. Luca still appears upset. “How about a raspberry on your belly… Oh I see a round tummy…” Mom catches Luca’s eyes and then blows a raspberry on his belly. Luca giggles. Mom does it one more time. Luca giggles again. “SO SILLY. That’s funny, isn’t it?”. Mom takes off the diaper and mimics the sound of blowing a raspberry as she changes the diaper. Luca giggles. “That was silly wasn’t it”. Mom mimes blowing a raspberry again and makes a funny sound. Luca giggles some more. Mom puts on a new diaper. “There we go. Nice and clean. All done… You did it. You are such a brave boy Luca.” 

Mom picks Luca up off the mat and starts to sing to him some more. Mom feels a warm sensation in her chest as she rocks Luca back and forth. She feels a profound love and care for this tiny human she is rocking back and forth in her arms. Mom notices that Luca is starting to yawn. “Oh! Somebody is looking sleepy. Should we try to nap some more?”. Mom places Luca back in his crib. Mom helps Luca get comfortable in his crib. Mom locks eyes with Luca and smiles at him. “Sweet dreams mister. Momma loves you.” Mom turns on the bedtime lullaby on the iPad and makes sure the baby monitor is turned on. Mom sits beside the crib until Luca is fast asleep. 

Mom tiptoes out of the room. She walks to the kitchen and pours herself a cup of her favourite tea. Mom sits back down on the couch. Baby monitor is on. All good so far. Mom exhales and takes a sip of tea. Mom starts to get sleepy too. As she starts nodding off she pictures Luca smiling up at her and thinks of him giggling as she blew a raspberry on his stomach. Mom smiles to herself and drifts to sleep. 

Reflection Questions

  1. What came up for you as you were reading Luca’s experience? 
  2. What came up for you as you were reading Mom’s experience? 
  3. What did you appreciate the most about the way the mom connected and was present with Luca? 


Here are some things that stood out to me from Mom and Luca’s interaction: 

  • Mom used moments of silliness and playfulness to help diffuse Luca’s emotional distress. She also drew inspiration from past moments of playfulness and silliness in her relationship with Luca.
  • Mom’s reassuring words to Luca, her presence, her smile, her tone of voice seemed to convey a stance of acceptance and unconditional love towards Luca. She did not try to judge or minimize Luca’s feelings or experience but instead accepted each feeling and response as it came.
  • I also found mom was curious about what was going on for Luca by carefully observing his non-verbal cues including his facial expressions and his emotional responses. She did her best to not make assumptions about his experience. When he responded to her actions with giggles or smiles she repeated the action.
  • Lastly, mom conveyed a deep sense of empathy and understanding by validating his emotional distress, by rocking him back and forth, and by offering words of reassurance, love, and support. 

It’s perfectly okay if it was difficult for you to connect to this scenario. And it’s also perfectly okay if it brought up something uncomfortable or distressing from your own experiences as a child or caregiver. 

For some of us the interaction between Mom and Luca may seem foreign or very different from our own childhood experiences with our caregivers. Parenting behaviours and parenting styles are influenced by many factors including culture, caregiver beliefs, a caregiver’s age and gender, caregiver stress, a caregiver’s own developmental history, a child’s temperament, and the level of social support received by the caregiver. In general developmental psychology and neuroscience research shows that infants are very dependent on their caregivers to maintain their physical and emotional well-being. Developmental psychologist Erik Erikson identifies that the main developmental challenge for 0-1.5 year olds is learning whether or not we can trust caregivers to consistently meet our physical and emotional needs. When these needs are consistently met, trust and safety builds in the caregiver-child relationship and infants begin to develop a sense of hope that someone will be there to soothe and support them the next time they are in distress. When the infant’s emotional and physical needs are not consistently met, the infant can develop a sense of fear and they begin to carry a sense of mistrust into other relationships. As the infant grows this sense of mistrust and fear can evolve into anxiety, heightened insecurities, and create negative beliefs about themselves and the world around them. 

You may be thinking if consistent care, caregiver availability, and caregiver responsiveness were not part of my childhood experience how will I know how to show up for my own children? 

Fret not, in the remainder of the blog I will share a helpful and evidence-based framework for creating safe, loving and trusting relationships with children. Psychologist Dr. Dan Hughes, created the acronym “P.A.C.E.” to illustrate how caregivers can build safe and trusting bonds with their children. It’s based on how caregivers connect and relate to young infants but the principles of P.A.C.E. can benefit children throughout their development into adulthood. P.A.C.E. is an attitude and a way of being with children and youth that allows them to feel safe, understood and loved. The four principles of P.A.C.E. are playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy. The following quote from Dan Hughes, beautifully captures how an attitude of PACEfulness can benefit children: 


“When parents talk to their children with an attitude of playfulness, acceptance, curiousity, and empathy, children experience their parent’s deep interest and understanding of them. An attitude of PACE allows children to feel unconditionally loved and accepted, helping them dare to feel “good enough” after all.” -Dan Hughes, psychologist and founder of Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy and Attachment-Based Family Therapy 

PACE: A Framework for Building Strong and Safe Caregiver-Child Relationships:

A PACE-ful attitude allows caregivers to see the child as more than their behaviour and accept and appreciate the child fully.  Let’s breakdown what each element of PACE looks like: 

Playfulness

Playfulness is about creating a fun and playful atmosphere when interacting and communicating with a child. This involves having a light tone of voice instead of a harsh or lecturing tone. It also looks like finding moments of shared humour, joy, lightness, silliness, playfulness, and fun in your daily interactions with your child. It looks like getting down on their level, following their lead during play, making games or fun out of daily tasks or daily routines. Playfulness or humour is never meant to dismiss a child’s emotional experience such as making a joke when a child is sad and needing validation and support. Playfulness should always be applied through the filter of acceptance, curiosity, and empathy for the child’s experience.  

Playfulness can be used to diffuse moments of tension in the caregiver-child relationship. One example of this was how mom blew raspberries, started singing and used silly voices to support Luca through his feelings of upset and discomfort during the diaper change. 

For children who have experienced developmental trauma or children in foster care, physical and emotional affection may feel scary and unsafe. Having an adult join in their play and having a shared experience of humour, joy, laughter, silliness, or lightness may feel like a safer and a more gentle way for them to dip their toe into the water of relationship. Lastly, playfulness can provide a sense of hope for children or families that have experienced trauma or difficult life events. It creates a sense of possibility and belief that we can feel other feelings beyond anxiety, sadness, shame, guilt or grief including feelings of hope, wonder, joy, lightness and excitement. 

Acceptance

Unconditional acceptance of children by caregivers is at the heart of building a child’s sense of safety. When children know and sense that they will be loved and accepted unconditionally by caregivers, this provides them with the space to learn to self-regulate emotions, form their own opinions and perspectives, and develop a strong sense of self. Unconditional acceptance also provides a safe environment for children to learn and grow from mistakes and develop the confidence and resilience to try again when things are hard or challenging. 

Unconditional acceptance looks like accepting and validating that whatever thoughts, feelings, or perceptions the child has are perfectly okay. It’s fully accepting their inner experience of a situation even if we may disagree with it or have our own opinions. If you were to picture the image of an iceberg- what we see and hear is often just the tip of the iceberg of a child’s inner world. Behaviours, choices, words, outwardly expressed feelings and reactions are often just the surface of what’s truly going on for the child in any given situation. 

Unconditional acceptance does not mean condoning behaviour that is hurtful to someone or to the child themselves. Unconditional acceptance can still exist with boundaries and limits in the caregiver-child relationship. It is a challenging skill and mindset to adopt but at its core, it’s about clearly communicating to the child that you accept them and their inner experience while setting clear boundaries and consequences around hurtful and harmful behaviour. Unconditional acceptance with limits can sound like: “I see that you’re really frustrated that its bedtime and we have to turn off the TV. Your frustration must have felt so big that throwing the TV remote made sense in that moment. I accept how you feel and understand that you’re frustrated. Throwing the TV remote when you’re mad is not a safe choice because it could hit someone. Do you want to talk through your feelings together? We could figure out what could help you the next time you feel really mad.” Nonverbal cues like open posture and a gentle, non-judgmental tone can also convey a sense of acceptance and support to the child. 

When children start to feel like their feelings, thoughts, perceptions, and even the intentions behind their behaviours are fully accepted then they start to be more understanding and open to limits, boundaries and consequences for harmful behaviours or choices. Validating a child’s emotions and inner experience helps protect a child’s sense of self-worth. If we only communicate our frustration with the child or we label the child as “bad”, “lazy”, “selfish” then the child starts to perceive that they themselves are “bad”, “lazy”, “not good enough”, etc. Unconditional acceptance of the child helps a child separate their self-worth from their choices and behaviours and also to feel capable of behaving or reacting differently the next time. 

Curiosity

Curiosity is a valuable tool to help the child feel unconditionally loved and accepted. Curiosity is a way that we can start to know and better understand what’s underneath the surface of a child’s behaviour and see the child’s experience of a problem or a situation more fully. Curiosity can look like asking open-ended questions in a nonjudgmental and calm tone like “What do you think was happening?” or “I wonder what was making you mad back then?” 

These invitations and probes help a child feel like their perspectives and experiences are important and matter to the caregiver. When we take a curious and nonjudgmental stance with children we let them tell us the “why” behind their behaviours, actions and experiences. 

Curiosity can also help us reflect on our own reactions and responses as caregivers. Maybe there are past experiences or other life stressors which are making us feel dysregulated or reactive with children. This is a concept we will explore in a later blog post. 

Empathy

Empathy is a powerful way to soothe and comfort a child who is hurting or emotionally dysregulated. Empathy is about being with the child in their pain and hurt and letting them know and sense that this is not an experience they have to face alone. When a caregiver sits with a child, offers reassurance, listens and validates the child’s feelings it helps them regulate their nervous system and start to feel calm and safe again. It teaches a child that their feelings matter and are important to the caregiver and not something they have to avoid, minimize, or suppress. The more the child has this shared experience of co-regulating and working together through distress with their parents the more confident and hopeful the child will feel about their ability to move through challenging emotions and experiences on their own as they grow and develop. In the interactions between Mom and Luca there were several moments when mom displayed empathy and compassion through her words, her facial expressions, and her presence with Luca. Think of empathy as the ribbon that wraps around the gift that is PACEfulness in a caregiver and child’s relationship. As children grow they will start to problem-solve and emotionally regulate more independently… But there is security and comfort in knowing that caregivers are nearby to support, reassure and help them if they need. 

In the next blog posts, we will explore how the principles of playfulness, acceptance, curiosity, and empathy can be applied to relationships with older children and help caregivers develop a greater sense of self-compassion. 

Edmonton-based counsellor Adam Sartore, is trained in family counselling. If you would like to book family counselling, please reach out to Adam and start your family’s healing journey. 

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