The term “safe space” for children is getting a lot of buzz and attention in popular parenting forums but what does safe space mean and why is it even more important for children with mental health challenges to have a safe space? In this case, “space” is not limited to a physical location and can also mean safe emotional space such as in peer groups and one-to-one interactions. A safe space means being in an environment where people feel safe to engage, free to express themselves, and where support can be given appropriately. Safe spaces are important for all children and especially for children experiencing mental health challenges.
Creating psychologically safe spaces for your children means considering several elements. The first important step is understanding psychological safety. Mental health journals define psychological safety as the idea that a person feels safe to take risks with the people closest to them and where there is no fear of being criticized or labeled for expressing their thoughts and feelings. Supporting children with mental health challenges requires establishing an atmosphere of trust wherein they feel comfortable engaging.
Other key elements of establishing a psychologically safe space include:
Establishing and maintaining norms and expectations, such as creating space for sharing and communicating without interruption while learning self-awareness about the needs of others and learning empathy and understanding.
Ensuring that the foundation of the safe space is based upon mutual respect.
Fostering a positive emotional climate that focuses on positive and proactive ways to navigate challenges, manage emotions, and redirect negative or unproductive energy when necessary.
Physical safe spaces are places where children can go to be alone, recharge, calm down, rest, and talk with you or other people within the trusted circle. Establishing a physical safe space is a great way to help children return to a relaxed state that can help support social-emotional learning.
Some best practices for establishing a physical safe space include:
Avoid the use of the safe space as a punitive location or a place for time-outs. It should always be used and treated as a positive space even when children may use the space when feeling upset.
Design the space with your child(ren). Including your children in the designing and creating a physical safe space.
Include items that help them feel safe and calm such as headphones, journals/paper, markers, pens, soothing ambient music or sounds, and fidgets or other manipulatives children can use.
That all sounds great, but I’m not an expert and don’t know where to start. If this feels overwhelming and it can be, consider joining our bi-weekly parent support group where you will find a community of parents in similar situations and other useful resources to help you learn more about the use of “safe space” and what you can do to establish one in your household. For regular insights and useful information, consider signing up for our newsletter.