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10:19 AM

Parenting & Back-to-School: Emotional Safety Starts at Home

As a new school year gets underway, Child Life Specialist Ashley Pagenkopf encourages caregivers and parents to consider how you can promote resiliency among your children and allow them to express their emotions to you (tears and all).

Child Life Specialist Series: In the coming months, we will dive deeper into children’s expression of emotions, the validation of children’s emotions and experiences (including tears), and what it looks like to advocate for our children in all settings.

By Ashley Pagenkopf, MS, CCLS, Child Life Specialist at Cook Children's

I truly cannot believe that the summer is over. The summer months typically provide respite and regrouping for families. That is true for our family, but it is about this time that I start feeling ready to begin the new routine and move through the awkward first weeks of school.  One of my kiddos will have major surgery the second week of school and another kiddo starts middle school this year so my mom heart is extra anxious! Cheerful Parents Kissing Their Daughter

Summer months typically provide some respite at the hospital too. We see less illness and historically a fewer number of patients. I don’t think that any of us would say that this summer felt restful, though. While there is less illness in the summer, the number of traumas tends to increase, and we see a great deal of tragedy over the summer months.  This summer has been no exception. 

What is the well-known saying? We need a vacation from our vacation. I can’t imagine that I’m the only one feeling that at the close of this summer. Just like the beginning of a new year, we can all appreciate the reset that a new school year can bring. But we can’t ignore the intense emotions, anxiety and stress that a new school year inevitably brings to kids and families.

The weeks before and the first few weeks of school, the emergency room experiences an uptick in the number of kids coming in for behavioral health needs. There are so many stressors to starting something new, and post-pandemic we are needing more than ever to be aware of this and address it in every environment a child encounters – home, school and healthcare.

The Association of Child Life Professionals recently began an initiative nationwide addressing emotional safety within the healthcare environment. Emotional safety is defined by the ACLP as “an intentional, interdisciplinary practice to promote resiliency, healing and trust for pediatric patients and their families during medical experiences.”

This means that when a child walks through the doors of the hospital, we are all working together to be trustworthy adults that help a child recover more quickly from difficult experiences and help them work towards emotional, physical, and spiritual healing. While child life specialists promote and advocate for emotional safety, it is the job of the entire multidisciplinary team to provide this high level of care to patients and families.

When I look at this definition of emotional safety, I am reminded as a parent that this is what I want for my kids within my own home. I want my children to be able to recover quickly and withstand the storms of life. I want them to trust themselves, peers that are trustworthy, and adults that are trustworthy. I deeply desire for my girls to experience a balanced, healed life physically, emotionally and spiritually. family, children and happy people concept - happy little girl hugging and kissing her mother over gr

I don’t know about you, but as a mom, I am certain that I am not always promoting emotional safety within my home. I always desire it, but I know that I can often get in the way of my children feeling emotionally safe. In my exhaustion and selfishness, I can forget to really take the time to process the difficult emotions and validate my girls’ feelings. I often want them to just get over the hard without ever acknowledging how hard it may be. (And just in case you aren’t aware, things have been HARD over the last couple of years – especially for our kids.)

I have three girls that often cry in response to hard things. Even I cry often in response to hard things, but I can still find myself being annoyed at their tears. When in reality, the expression of our emotions often leads to healing and tears are needed.

I have also found that my kids need me at this time in their life to be their cheerleader and their advocate. My kids count on me to fight for them and to help them feel safe in all situations. Even my oldest, who is learning to advocate for herself, needs me to be there to help her when her school world or friend world is crumbling around her. 

As a child life specialist, emotional safety is extremely important to me in the healthcare environment. It is a right of every human to feel safe in every way while they are receiving healthcare services.

As a parent, it is also my responsibility to provide an emotionally safe home. This provides the framework for my girls to know what emotional safety is. When our children can understand what emotional safety is, they will be able to advocate for it not only in their healthcare experiences but also at school and at their jobs.

As we begin another new school year, I want to challenge you as parents and grandparents to consider this definition of emotional safety. Consider how you can promote resiliency among your kids and grandkids. Take some time to be with your kids in the next few days and weeks.  Allow them to really express their emotions to you (tears and all), validate their emotions and cheer them on towards the next right thing. Our kids need us to model in our homes what an emotionally safe environment should look like so that they can truly expect that level of safety in their all encounters.

Get to know Ashley Pagenkopf

Ashley PagenkopfAshley Pagenkopf is a Child Life Specialist in the Emergency Department at Cook Children's Medical Center. The Child Life program at Cook Children's offers a variety of services, all designed to make your experience at Cook Children's the best it can be. Our services include educating, preparing and supporting your child through tests and procedures, as well as coping with any life challenges you and your child may face. Child Life specialists work with kids and families to make their visit to the medical center easier and more comfortable. We offer your child and your family an opportunity to express and work through any fears and concerns you may have. We'll also provide an explanation about what's going to happen during your visit and work with parents, brothers and sisters and other family members who may be involved in your child's daily care.