The basic foundation for all other growth is being physically, nutritionally and emotionally safe.
Physical Safety. All of us need to be physically secure in a safe environment to learn and to be our most productive. Children who are neglected or abused don’t feel safe and are continually in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode, which causes serious physical and emotional stress.
Much has been written about the trauma that both children and adults face in war zones or other unsafe areas of the world. Schools also have a role in this, but it is difficult for a school to make a child feel safe if they don’t feel safe at home. Parents are responsible for creating a safe place. If this does not happen children may become fearful, withdrawn and somewhat nonresponsive to positive influences.
Nutritional Safety. Being nutritionally safe means that we get enough to eat of the right types of foods for healthy growth. The term ‘food insecure’ means just that, for both children and adults. Children who come to school feeling stressed because they are hungry or have had too little sleep, cannot learn. They are too tired to listen, too irritable to behave, and too hungry to play. This is why schools stress having breakfast, and sometimes provide breakfast as well as lunch programs. But the ultimate responsibility for proper food and sleep lies with you, the parents.
Malnutrition is not just too little food, but can also result from eating the wrong kinds of foo’. It can cause physical problems of all types. You’ve undoubtedly heard the phrase ‘we are what we eat’, as quoted by many experts. David Kessler in his book The End of Overeating discusses the problems created in the brain when junk food essentially takes the place of high-quality food.
Sometimes the wrong kinds of food, too much sugar or fat, can make kids hyperactive and agitated to the point of being behaviorally disturbed. We know that it’s common for incarcerated youth to frequently ingest large amounts of sugar and fat, complicating their rehabilitation.
Parent responsibility is of the highest priority in making sure your children get a good night’s rest, have breakfast before school, and eat nutritious foods for lunch, dinner and snacks. The epidemic of obesity tells us that too many parents purchase fast foods, pizza and pasta for themselves as well as their children, a major disservice to you and your children’s future.
Neither schools nor any other agency can take the place of parents in assuring access to good nutrition and sufficient rest. If you’re not sure what good nutrition is, do a web search on ‘food groups’ and you’ll find a wealth of information. Many schools also have information on nutritional foods, what to buy, and how to make it as easy as possible.
Emotional Safety. Parents are responsible for positively nurturing their children by keeping them fed, clothed and protected. But while a child may not be physically harmed at home or elsewhere, they may be emotionally harmed if they believe they’re not loved, or if there is a lot of fighting and anger at home, even if it’s not directed at them.
I remember a 9-year-old boy whose home was not safe. He had dark circles under his eyes, was dirty and unkempt, clearly hungry, and a bully with both children and adults. His parents had been reported time and again, without resolution. His demeanor haunts me, because, at just 9 years old, he knew the world was not a safe place for him; and he had learned to fight everyone and everything as a futile way to survive. This is an extreme case, but there are still too many of them.
The Center on the Developing Child at Harvard calls it ‘toxic stress’. We know that a little stress can be motivating, as in studying to do well on a test or in a job interview. Serious stresses can be tolerated if they are short-term, as from a natural disaster, a medical injury, or perhaps divorcing parents. These can be tolerated if parents and other adults help the child to understand and adapt to the situation, providing personal support and encouragement.
But when the stress is very intense or frequent; chronic neglect, continued abuse, or prolonged economic hardship or other trauma, it becomes very disruptive to physical, emotional, and cognitive development. The cumulative effect of such toxic stress may result in a type of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder; which shows up when a child ‘shuts down’ emotionally, becoming violent, or mentally ill.
It’s common for children to exhibit some of these characteristics when custody disputes arise. Since different types of traumas happen in all families, it’s essential that parents and other caregivers be very aware of these issues, even when a child seems to be ‘OK’. If you’re feeling overwhelmed as well, seek help through your school or other means.