In order to help ensure that children develop, in both physical and psychological terms, as healthily as possible, Schoefield and Merrick (2013) published research emphasizing the importance of children growing up in an environment which is as safe, stable and nurturing as possible. Let’s look at each of these three components of an optimal environment in a little more detail :
- SAFETY :
It is vital that the child grows up in an environment in which s/he feels not just physically safe, but emotionally and psychologically safe as well. Indeed, Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970), famous for developing a hierarchy of human needs in his classic research paper (1943) identifies the need to feel safe and secure as absolutely fundamental.
Physical safety involves being kept from physical harm, having proper shelter, having the means to preserve personal hygiene, having suitable clothing, having good nutrition and having safe transport. And, most obviously, it involves not being physically abused or physically bullied.
Above : Abraham Maslow’s (1943) famous ‘hierarchy of needs’ pyramid, showing SAFETY AND SECURITY as a fundamental and prerequisite need to enable the person to go on to achieve the higher needs shown in the pyramid (social belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization).
Above : Abraham Maslow (1908-1970)
Emotional and psychological safety involve being free of emotional and psychological abuse; being treated with respect; receiving unconditional love from parents/primary carers; being allowed to act and behave as a child and free of being parentified, adultified or burdened with age inappropiate problems; being permitted to express a full range of emotions (rather than being made to suppress them, including sadness and anger); being listened to, receiving physical affection (e.g. hugs); spending sufficient ‘quality’ time with parents/primary carers and receiving sufficient attention/interest; being kept free from unnecessary fear; not being made to feel like an ‘intrinsically bad person‘ for doing a bad thing or made to carry feelings of enduring and abiding shame; and not having their parents’ dreams imposed upon them (whereby the child used to fulfil a parental need whereby the parent attempts to experience success vicariously through the child). These, of course, are just examples ; a complete and definitive list is impossible to produce and may vary slightly between individual children, families, cultures etc. Also, of course, not every possible need can be included on one, basic list.
2) STABILITY :
A major type of family instability occurs when parent/s with whom the child lives change over time. Changes in the structure of the family often affect financial resources; the time the child spends with the parent/s; changes in the way the household is run/ household rules /household discipline; changes to the geographical location in which the child lives; enforced change of the child’s friendship group; changes in the child’s relationship with extended family members; and changes in the child’s relationship with parent/s (particularly if one parent attempts to turn the child against the other parent, as can happen during hostile divorces/separations). These changes often combine to induce significant stress in the members of the household and research has shown that this increases the child’s risk of developing cognitive deficits, poor health and behavioural problems.
For optimum physical and psychological development, the physical, social and psychological environment in which the child grows up needs to be as consistent and predictable as possible.
3) NURTURING :
It is also crucial that the child grows up in an environment that is nurturing. This includes the child receiving appropriate attention, love and care; being treated with patience, sensitivity and empathy; being treated an individual with his/her own unique qualities and according to his/her own specific set of needs; being listened to; and being treated with respect. This nurturing, loving, care needs to be consistent, dependable and unconditional.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).