One day last year, my kids and I spent the afternoon playing cards in the bathroom while riding out numerous tornado warnings. Later that evening my daughter found it difficult to settle down for bedtime. Multiple bedtime stories and lights-out warnings later, I suggested we do a little mindfulness meditation together. She rolled her eyes at me but then snuggled into my arms and agreed to try. “Picture you are in a beautiful place, surrounded by tall trees…,” I began. “Mom, that makes me think of the forest and get scared,” she fussed. “Okay, picture a beautiful beach…,” I tried again. “Mom! That’s making me think of pirates!” she cried. More than a little desperate for this to work so that I could relax on my own, I took a deep breath and tried yet again. “Imagine you are in the safest possible place.” “You,” my girl responded immediately. My heart skipped a beat. Had she misunderstood the intentionally vague prompt? “What does this place sound like?” “You,” she said again, simply and quietly. “And what does it smell like?” She nestled closer to me, nuzzled into my neck, and murmured sleepily, “Definitely you.”
This cherished moment with my daughter (and her ticket to longer-than-planned cuddling!) is a beautiful illustration of the concept of safe haven, a facet of attachment theory. Attachment theory posits that the attachments or bonds an individual forms early in life will have a lifelong psychological and emotional impact. In other words, if your needs are met by a loving and attentive caregiver as a child, you develop an expectation that your needs as an adult can and will be met in relationships. If your childhood needs are not met, or are met inconsistently, then you may struggle to feel safe in relationships. Securely attached individuals are generally assessed as happier and more adaptive than insecurely attached individuals. As a parent, you are your child’s safe haven – the person to whom s/he returns to for comfort and safety in the face of fear or threat.
In the above example I could have read the subtext of my daughter’s refusal to sleep as, “I’m manipulating you into letting me stay up.” I could have heard, “I plan to live in your house until I’m 40 unless you teach-me-a-lesson-right-now.” Or I could have heard, “If you expect me to ever sleep on my own you better tell me I’m being silly and shut the door.” And indeed I have interpreted her motivations and needs as all of those things at one time or another. But that’s not what my little one was saying. After a difficult day of thunder and tornado warnings, she was expressing a need for her own personal safe harbor. That’s me. And in spite of the bubble bath calling my name, I listened. After all, I’m the one teaching her to expect the best. And hopefully in the future her choice of friends and partners will reveal her awareness of her absolute right to be comforted in the face of a storm.