Psychological Safety for Children

December 22, 2020

Dr Tony Humphreys explains why the feeling of psychological safety is of utmost importance for our society and the individuals within it

by Tony Humphreys, PhD


There is a notion that the future of society lies with children. This belief misses the reality that the future of children lies very much with adults, particularly, the significant adults in their lives – parents, child-minders, pre-school, primary and secondary school teachers. Relationships ask that adults bring to children the psychological safety to be who they most profoundly are, even as they ask the same for themselves.

The reality is that the quality of an adult’s relationship with a child – indeed, with whomever – can never be greater than the quality of his or her relationship with self. John Welwood (2006) captured this so well when he wrote the following:

‘Unfortunately, most parents cannot help their children recognise or honour their deeper potentials. They see children through a glass darkly because that is how they see themselves. Even loving parents often provide distorted mirroring, especially if they idealise or indulge their child. No matter how much our parents love us, they generally see their version of who we are, as reflected in the dark glass of their hopes, fears, expectations, and unmet needs.

This is not something to blame them for; they simply could not give their children a kind of recognition they never got or gave themselves. Nor could they allow their children to have feelings, needs or sensitivities they were never allowed to have themselves unless they become conscious. The child is like an open hand that gradually starts to contract and close’.


There is an irony in the fact that infants are born with an innate psychological safety, a fearlessness that allow them to give expression to all the following qualities of their true nature:


  • Natural curiosity
  • Eagerness to learn
  • Love of challenge
  • Ability to focus on the here and now
  • Not fazed by failure or elevated by success
  • Competitiveness with self, not with others
  • Co-operative response to reasonable requests
  • Tenderness


Of course, adults themselves started out with psychological safety and possession of all the foregoing qualities. What interrupted this fearlessness was the repression of psychological safety in the fact of threats to their wellbeing when they were children. The most common threats to children’s wellbeing are:


  • Lack of love
  • Non-listening
  • Impatience
  • Tone of voice – (accounts for most human misery)
  • Unrealistic expectations
  • Comparison with others
  • Pressure to perform
  • Criticism of failure
  • Physical aggression
  • Non-involvement
  • Poor learning opportunities
  • Poor nutrition
  • Little practice time (practice makes perfect!)
  • Lack of encouragement
  • Being labelled as ‘slow’, ‘weak’ or ‘stupid’, for example
  • Conflict in the family home


In the face of the above relationship experiences, children wisely and ingeniously suspend their fearlessness and create a fearfulness and watchfulness around all the possible threats to their wellbeing. Examples of the protective strategies infants and children create are:


  • Shyness
  • Loss of natural curiosity
  • Fear of failure and mistakes
  • Hypersenstivity to criticism
  • Parent-pleasing/teacher-pleasing or rebelliousness
  • Emotional withdrawal
  • Use of compensation strategies (perfectionism, academic intensity, long hours of study or boastful manner but with no academic effort)
  • Use of avoidance strategies (apathy, low motivation, poor or no application to studies, non-listening, playing truant, daydreaming)
  • Disruptive behaviour, loudness
  • Avoidance or dread of challenge or change
  • Competitiveness or ‘couldn’t care less’ attitude
  • Self-labelling, for example: ‘I’m no good at reading,’ or ‘I’m hopeless at mathematics’
  • Open hostility or silent resentment to correction or reasonable requests for more effort


Unless children encounter the psychological safety holding from parents and from teachers, like their parents and other adults have done, they will maintain the above listed protective strategies right into adulthood. It may be a revelation for the reader of this article to check which of the above protective strategies do they still currently employ. It would be important that the reader appreciate the creativity and ingenuity of these protectors and to realise that until they encounter psychological safety holding with another, they will wisely maintain their protective strategies.

What each child needs from adults to retain innate psychological safety are the following:


  • Emotional attunement
  • Early exposure to learning
  • Emphasis on attainments
  • Exceptional instruction
  • Constant practice
  • Recognition of one’s individuality
  • Nurturance of one’s natural eagerness to learn
  • Belief in one’s ever-present genius
  • Not tying affection to achievements (love is for person; praise is for behaviour)
  • Responses to failures as opportunities
  • Satisfaction with the small accomplishments along the way
  • No confusion with child’s Self with their achievements
  • Demonstration of endless faith in him/her
  • Support and encouragement


In viewing the above list, how many of the above indices of psychological safety can you say you experienced as a child and, currently, offer not only to children but, also, to significant adults where you live, work, learn, play, heal and pray?

The reality is that fearfulness governs so much of our lives and, as seen, leads to us unconsciously creating all kinds of protective strategies to eliminate or at least reduce the physical, emotional, social, intellectual and behavioural threats we encounter. Finding a person who has retained innate psychological safety or who has recovered it can be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.

Nevertheless, it is a search we all need to engage in. There is no doubt that when we no longer secretly try to win recognition through what we do, what we achieve, how we look and what status we have, we become more affective and effective professional wellbeing carers, business people, politicians, parents, teachers, leaders and managers. We now have the psychological safety – the fearlessness – to do what we do as a form of creative play rather than as a form of self-validation.


About the author:

Dr Tony Humphreys is a Consultant Clinical Psychologist, author, course designer and speaker. He began his career as a Clinical Psychologist in State Psychiatric and Psychological Services in England and Ireland and since 1990 has been working in private practice in Ireland. His practice involves working with individuals, couples, families, schools, local communities and the business community. He is the author of many books on practical psychology, including Creating Psychological Safety.


Posted by: Leah Russell