What Is Emotional Safety?
About the Guest
What is the emotional temperature of your home? Family advocate Joshua Straub recalls the day when he learned of his parents' separation. He recounts the confusion he felt as a 10-year-old trying to choose which parent to live with. Realizing he carried the emotional patterns of his childhood with him into adulthood, Joshua tells how he learned to break those negative patterns so that he could provide a safe environment for his own family.
Joshua StraubJoshua Straub, Ph.D., author and speaker, serves as the Marriage and Family Strategist for LifeWay Christian Resources and is the President and Cofounder of The Connextion Group, a company designed to empower parents, spouses and families. Josh speaks and writes on emotionally safe parents and spouses and the influence of technology on today's family. He is the author of ...more
Joshua Straub recalls the day when he learned of his parents’ separation, and tells how he learned to break those negative patterns in his own family.
What Is Emotional Safety?
Bob: When your child has been disrespectful or disobedient, do they know they still live in an emotionally safe place? Here’s author and speaker, Joshua Straub.
Joshua: How I describe the posture of emotional safety is—it’s the ability to understand the underlying motivation of what’s really going on within our children when they’re emotionally distraught because everybody looks normal when things are going well. It’s not until we hit stress or we’re scared that we really see our true relationship styles come out. Our ability to be present with our kids in those moments matters.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Monday, July 18th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I’m Bob Lepine. We’re going to talk today with Joshua Straub about what an emotionally safe home looks like and what we can do, as parents, to make sure our kids feel safe at home. Stay with us.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I remember when we were raising our kids—there were days that I would drive home; and I would be thinking to myself, “I wonder what the temperature in our house is going to be when I get there?”—whether it’s going to be comfortable or chilly because those were the two options—it was either going to be comfortable or chilly.
Dennis: And of course, you weren’t talking about the—
Bob: —the physical temperature.
Dennis: —70 degrees.
Bob: I was talking about the emotional temperature. Then, I thought, “And I wonder who is going to have his or her hand on the thermostat, adjusting that temperature?” because, typically, if it was chilly, there was one person in the house who had driven the temperature down; and everybody else was just shivering.
Dennis: You know, it’s interesting that you would use that illustration. I just reflect back on my childhood, growing up. I don’t ever recall every wondering what the temperature would be / it just was a good, safe, secure home—which is what we’re going to talk about.
Bob: It was comfortable.
Dennis: Yes; it was an emotionally stable—not that there weren’t disagreements from time to time. My mom was a bit fiery, but my dad was a shock absorber. How my dad and mom made it—I don’t know—but they were great people. They weren’t perfect, but it was a safe house. That is the name of a brand-new book by our guest today. The book is Safe House by Dr. Joshua Straub. Josh, welcome to the broadcast.
Joshua: Thank you so much for having me. It’s an honor to be here.
Dennis: Josh is from Nash-Vegas. [Laughter]
Bob: Not everybody likes that designation.
Dennis: I don’t think they do—married to Christi since 2010 / has two children—a boy and a girl—and you’re about Liberty University. You’ve got your PhD from Liberty University. Did you ever hear Dr. Falwell speak?
Joshua: Oh, yes.
Dennis: You’re about to hear him again.
Bob: [Impersonating Dr. Falwell] “Because he was training champions for Christ on Liberty Mountain.”
“You remember the days; don’t you?”
Joshua: I do remember.
Bob: “Thank you very much.”
Joshua: He was such a personality—he was amazing. I can remember being in a restaurant—he was out with his wife one time / they were having dinner. We were there. He would just lovingly come over—I remember him putting me in a head lock, and started rubbing my head, and just giving me a noogie, right there on the head. That’s who he was—he just loved people.
Dennis: I think I’ve eaten at his favorite restaurant over in Virginia where Liberty Mountain is located.
But you’ve written a book here—and I just want to cut to the chase and begin with your story because that’s really where your heart for helping parents create homes that are emotionally safe for their children. You didn’t grow up in an emotionally safe home either.
Joshua: Up until I was ten years old, everything was safe / everything was awesome. We had been on a vacation to Wild Wood, New Jersey—
—it was a hot summer July day. I can remember I had 22,000 vision in both eyes. So, I could barely even see my alarm clock right up next to me.
Joshua: Yes. Oh, I was bad.
Bob: At age ten?
Joshua: At age ten; yes—
Joshua: —I was bad. So—but I remember this day like it was yesterday. I’m lying there in bed, and all I’m thinking about is going riding my bicycle down to the creek, and catching crawfish, and playing with snakes, and just doing things that ten-year-old boys do—
Joshua: —on that hot summer day.
Joshua: I remember my mom walking into the room, and my sister was crying behind her. My sister was about eight at the time. My mom sat down on the edge of my bed; and she said, “Josh, your dad and I are separating today.” This was on a Monday, right after we got back from vacation. She said, “Do you want to go with me, or do you want to stay here with your dad?”
Dennis: Just like that?
Joshua: Just like that. I had never heard them fight. I had never seen anything in the home. To me, I was raised in an emotionally safe home.
Dennis: No indication on the vacation that things were heading south?
Joshua: Not from my perspective, as a kid; no. No. I can remember looking at the clock dimly through my squinted eyes.
It was 6:04 a.m. that morning—way too early on a July morning for a ten year old. So, that’s when I say, “The cracks in our walls of our home were exposed.”
Bob: At age ten, you’re probably not even able to process what that means / what your mom is asking because all you’ve known is what you said—a safe, secure environment. Now, your mom is saying, “Do you want to stay here, or do you want to go with me?” And you had to be thinking, “This has got to be temporary; this isn’t permanent.” I mean, how do you process something like that at ten?
Joshua: I can remember thinking that: “Is this temporary, or is this permanent? What does this mean? What does this mean for my sister and me?”—that kind of thing.
Fortunately, my mom ended up moving only within a bicycle drive for myself down the road. So, we chose to go back and forth every other week between my mom and my dad. As we were growing up, we’d spend a week because I had a great relationship with both parents. There was nothing that was unsafe that I felt at the time.
So, we loved our mom / we loved our dad. So, we ended up going back and forth every other week.
I actually didn’t start seeing how that divorce took a toll on me until I was later on in my late teens—when I first started to see it.
Dennis: How did you get from one house to the other—on your bike? Did your parents—
Joshua: We’d just go back and forth with our parents dropping us off—that kind of thing. Because they lived in the same school district—so it didn’t affect our school.
Dennis: So, you just—for what?—the next eight years did the back and forth with your parents?
Joshua: Yes, until I left for college.
Bob: When did you start to put the pieces together and figure out what it was that caused Mom and Dad to split?
Joshua: I was in my graduate degree program / I was in my young 20’s. I was in Alliance Theological Seminary / Nyack, New York. I had a great professor—Dr. Ellison was teaching “Marriage and Family.” It was the second course I took for my graduate degree program.
One of the things he had us do—is he had us put together what’s called a genogram. Basically, a genogram is like a family tree, but what you do instead of just looking at your family tree is you look at patterns within the context of your family.
You look at, maybe: “Did you come from a line of doctors? Did you come from a line of lawyers?”—whatever that looked like. You looked at jobs / you look at, perhaps, even personality traits within it.
As I sat down and I did that genogram for the class, I looked at from my grandparents to my parents to my sister—I looked at three generations. At that point, every single person, from grandparents on down, had been divorced at least once—many of them twice. In some cases, I found out marriages that I didn’t even know existed—like my grandparents getting married, for instance, that didn’t affect the genealogy of the family.
What I found out deeper than that were personality traits that clashed and personality patterns within the context of the family. What I realized was—I was picking up in my own dating relations, and that’s when I started to see this and going: “Whoa! I could potentially carry patterns into my own family if I don’t see what’s happening here.”
Bob: This is what Scripture speaks of when it talks about the sins of the father visiting future generations.
We unconsciously pick up what we’ve seen modeled for us and carry that along without really spending a lot of time questioning it or thinking about it.
Dennis: And we’re talking about the negative side, at this point. What about the spiritual dimension? Was there a positive side of your mom and dad—as in the home they had raised you in?
Joshua: Yes; I was raised in the church. I think one of the positive sides is that my parents never put my sister and me in the middle. My parents were fairly emotionally stable through it all. I mean, obviously, I can remember some conflict here and there and that kind of thing; but I think of Joseph—what the enemy intended for evil / God turned to good.
My stepfather was one of the biggest influences in my Christian journey—and definitely for my mom as well. So, there would be times that my father, my stepfather, and I would hang out together. I mean it sounds odd / it sounds really crazy. I mean, there was a point at which I felt like my parents went through a civil divorce—until I realized how paradoxical that really is—
—until I really started to see how it impacted my own emotional and relational journey along the way.
Dennis: So, here you are—being raised in a “Christian home.” When did your faith become your own? When did you truly make Jesus Christ your Lord, your Master, your Savior?
Joshua: I always grew up in the church; but as I grew up into my teens, it was a nominal faith—I was the goody two-shoes / I was the one who always followed the rules. When I hit my late teens, I was being mentored by a pastor who really was helping me go deeper into the Scriptures and relating it more to my everyday life. And that’s when I really said: “Okay, Lord; I’m going to commit to serving You. I’m not just going to live my life believing in You / I’m going to live my life serving You.”
Dennis: Without a real faith / without a true commitment to Jesus Christ—just working through something emotionally is not ultimately going to result in character development, spiritual growth, and allow you to come out the other side with a genuine grace for your parents in the midst of what they went through and an ability to love them and honor them, going forward.
Joshua: One of the things I did was—I went to counseling, myself, to start resolving some of what I’ve experienced—some of these personality dynamics I was starting to see in my own life that I didn’t want to carry into my family. I was a strong believer, but I still had some emotional things I needed to work through. So, I took two years off of dating relationships. I took two years where I just went to counseling and really focused on who I was—I mean, that was the grace of God to have the opportunity to do that.
Bob: So, looking at this long history of broken relationships that is a part of your family, was that in the back of your mind as you were dating girls? Were you thinking: “I wonder if I can form a relationship / I wonder if I can have a marriage that goes all the way to the finish line”?
Joshua: No, I never wondered whether or not I could. I just wanted to make sure I did it right. I just wanted to make sure I was doing everything I could do to make sure that that was happening.
Bob: And what gave you the confidence that you were there when you proposed to your wife?
What made you think, “I know I can do this”?
Dennis: Yes; we’ve had guests, here on FamilyLife Today, who’ve said: “You know, I look back over my family tree, and there is so much divorce in it. I thought, ‘I’m destined to do the same thing.’” What made you think you were going to be different—back to Bob’s question?
Joshua: Again, you never say “never”—you know—but I knew that—if I stayed committed to Christ, and I stayed in my own faith relationship, and that if I led my family well in doing that, my chances were way better than not. Again, I grew up in a nominal Christian family—where we went to church on Sunday / you said your prayer before bedtime—but there wasn’t a lot more than that.
I said: “I’m going to implement prayer throughout my life. I’m going to implement prayer throughout my marriage. My wife and I are going to have a passion and a purpose in our marriage to lead others to Christ through our marriage / through our marital relationship; and we’re going to carry that legacy on to our kids.” And it was that intentionality—I knew / we knew we wanted to be intentional with that.
Truly, when I really realized that was when I met my wife, and I realized how amazing she was. She was above and beyond anything I could have asked or imagined in a wife. She truly embodies the Proverbs 31 wife. And part of that was me getting to know her, and getting to know her family, and the family she was raised in. She was raised in a very solid Christian home. She had that same commitment to Christ that I did, and we carried those same principles into our relationship.
Dennis: I just want our listeners to hear what you just described because we have listeners, Bob—you know—you read the emails and the letters we get from those who write us—who really come from some tough circumstances and who have been through a divorce, themselves, in a relationship. They are wondering if they can do it.
Hear what Josh is saying: “With a relationship and a commitment to Jesus Christ—to be surrendered to Him—that’s where it all starts / that’s where hope can begin. But if you haven’t learned the spiritual disciple of yielding your will to Almighty God, I don’t know how you’d ever do it to another imperfect person.”
Bob: Yes. We’re talking with Joshua Straub, who has written a book called Safe House. It’s just occurring to me, as I’m hearing you tell your story, that what you’ve described is a safe home. You grew up in a safe home. If it wasn’t for the divorce, it would have been a pretty good home.
Bob: That sounds so paradoxical. It’s kind of like—“If it wasn’t for the divorce…”—it’s kind of like: “If I hadn’t gotten food poisoning, it’d been a great meal”; you know? And I’m not trying to make light of it, but it’s like there was a bomb that went off in the middle of your childhood that made an otherwise safe childhood into something that left shrapnel.
Joshua: I would say that, obviously—and you guys know this—that the divorce—there were issues leading up to that divorce. I was just too young to see them—
Joshua: —and my parents did a great job of shielding this. So, it wasn’t like everything was hunky dory and perfect.
So, when you talk about a safe house—I just always remember a good childhood / I really do. I was very fortunate in that regard until that divorce. That’s when I started to see the cracks, and that’s when I started to experience—and again, I’m entering into my preteen years. So, I’m entering into some pretty vulnerable years; and now, all of a sudden, I’m living in two different homes.
Dennis: We’re talking all around the issue of emotional safety. It hits me—we haven’t really defined it. What’s it look like? Now, obviously, emotional safety has to begin with a commitment to love—a husband and a wife who make a covenant to each other to say: “You know what? This marriage is going the distance.” But unpack the term, if you would, for us.
Joshua: When my wife and I first became parents, we realized there were so many parenting strategies, and techniques, and books, and all of this out there. I think that’s part of the marketing industry; right?—create anxiety around something, and that’s where you can sell products. I think the parenting industry is ripe with that because there is no greater role on earth that we have more shame and guilt around than being a parent.
Bob: You don’t have to create anxiety. All you have to do is get handed the baby, and anxiety is right there with it; right? [Laughter]
Joshua: That’s exactly right.
Joshua: So, I was just like, “Okay; there has got to be a way to do this.”
Having counseled juvenile delinquents and troubled families for 15 years and doing my doctoral research, I realized that—out of the counseling techniques I was using—that attachment or the context of developing a secure attachment was important. When I started looking at all the research, I started to realize that every outcome that we are looking for within the context of our kids leads back to emotional safety. We can talk a little bit more about that.
I just define it this way: “It’s the posture from which we parent, not the techniques, that matters most. There are billions of techniques out there—ways that we can do this—but at the end of the day, it’s the posture from which we parent, not the techniques, that matters most.”
Dennis: Unpack that term, though, because posture—are you talking about humility? / is it grace?—just unpack it a bit.
I’m going to unpack it with you with an illustration. I had a family I was working with—daughter was 14 years of age. The dad called me one day—he said, “Josh, my daughter just came in; and she said, ‘Dad, I hate you!’” I said: “Well, unpack that for me. Tell me what happened.” He said that she’d come in and she wanted to go to a Friday night football game—she’s 14 / she’s in eighth grade—she’s not quite, yet, in high school. She wanted to go to a Friday night football game with her friends. Her dad said, “No.”
The posture—how I describe this is—the posture of emotional safety does not look like this / it does not look like him holding his hands across his chest and just going, “Don’t be mad at me.” That would be dismissing the emotion that’s really going on within her. By the way, when our kids tell us they hate us, it’s not really about us; you know? We can’t take that personally because there is typically something going on underneath that—I’ll explain that here in a second—that’s really the issue. So, we don’t dismiss that emotion.
Another way is pointing your finger in her face and saying: “Go to your room. I’m taking your phone for a month; and no, you’re not going and hanging out with your friends,”—
—it’s punishing that negative emotion. Another posture that we could end up using is minimizing it and just going: “It’s just a Friday night football game. Who cares?”
How I describe the posture of emotional safety is the ability to get down on one knee—if you can imagine yourself getting down on one knee—arms stretched out, and saying, “Honey, what is it about that Friday night football game that matters to you so much?” I’m not saying we don’t deal with the disrespect and the way she treated him, but what I’m saying is—it is the ability to understand the underlying motivation of what’s really going on within our children when they’re emotionally distraught.
Everybody looks normal when things are going well. It’s not until we hit stress or duress or we’re scared that we really see our true relationship styles come out. Our ability to be present with our kids in those moments matters.
What he found out about his daughter in that situation was that she had been rejected by a group of friends she had hung out with in the previous school year—she’d been rejected by them this whole school year. She would see them hanging out together on Instagram® and Facebook®.
This was the first night they invited her to be a part of something; and her dad said, “No.” She was feeling rejected; and her dad said, “No, you can’t go be with your friends.”
The way that I define emotional safety is the Golden Rule: Treat others as you want to be treated / “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” I replace the word, “do,” with the word, “understand.” In order to be understood, we must first understand. I’ll say that again: “In order to be understood, as parents, we must first understand.” That’s really the core of what’s at the heart of being emotionally safe with our kids. Again, it’s not that we don’t address the disrespect; it’s that we lead out with that sense of understanding what’s really going on.
Bob: So, did that dad reverse his decision based on that information; or did he say, “Well, I understand that that’s something that you really care about; but here’s why—“You’re 14. I don’t feel you should be out there on your own.” Once she’s pled her case and become emotionally transparent, you almost feel like, as a parent, “Now, I have to give in because, if I don’t, now, I’m scarring her at a deeper level.”
Joshua: Yes. What he did in that particular case—and I walked him through it—was he allowed her to go to that Friday night football game; but it was with certain parameters—she had to be home at a certain time; she had to keep in touch with him / check in with him; then, she also had—and I don’t even remember what they were—but she had ramifications for treating him the way that she did and the disrespect.
Bob: Got it.
Dennis: What I want our listeners to hear is—this is not a formula—
Dennis: —but there are some commitments that have to be made that create a safe house.
Dennis: First of all, you—as a parent / both of you, ideally—need to have a commitment to Jesus Christ and surrender to Him and what He wants you to do according to the Bible. Secondly, as you begin to live that out, you offer a commitment to love your child—and that’s that understanding portion you are talking about, where you listen beyond the emotions of the moment.
It’s hard for me to get beyond this, sometimes; but anger is almost always a secondary emotion.
Joshua: That’s right.
Dennis: Something else has caused that anger to occur. If a parent can just not get into the mud puddle with their teenager—instead, stay objective, if possible, and not take it personally that the child is attacking you—and quiz and find out what’s going on with the child, they can begin to address the root issue, like you talked about, and perhaps, even help the child begin to grow, spiritually, through that experience as well.
Joshua: I was reading Proverbs 14 the other day. I’m reading through a Bible, where I pray for my son; and I just write prayers in the side of it. I came through Proverbs 14—in verse 29—it is this exact principle that you are talking about: “Whoever is slow to anger has great understanding.”
My ability to put my own story together, growing up, really has an impact on how present I am with my kids when they’re in emotional turmoil.
If I’m flipping out, and I’m getting angry, and I’m acting out of that anger, I can’t understand what’s really going on in the heart of my child—that’s really the core of emotional safety.
Dennis: You don’t have to be spiritually perfect /—
Dennis: —emotionally perfect. You just need to be in process, and you need to make sure you are growing in your relationship with Jesus Christ. A part of that is getting in the Book—the best-selling book in history—the Bible. Another part is community at a local church / is relating to other people of faith, and getting honest, and getting real about your struggles, and maybe, rubbing shoulders with some other parents who have some of the same struggles.
Bob: Yes; and I think if you grew up in a home that you’d look back on today and say: “It was not an emotionally safe place to grow up / there were issues swirling around,” it would do you good to get in a book like Safe House and get a picture of what emotional safety can look like in your home.
Of course, we’ve got copies of Joshua Straub’s book, Safe House, in our FamilyLife Today Resource Center. Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com, and you can order a copy from us. Again, the website is FamilyLifeToday.com; or call 1-800-FL-TODAY to order—1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800-“F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word, “TODAY.”
We have got a pretty good anniversary to celebrate today—47 years married together / got married back in 1969—I’m talking about Ed and Cindy DeArman, who live in Trussville, Alabama. They listen to FamilyLife Today on WJLR. They’ve been to the Weekend to Remember®. Forty-seven years—that’s pretty good. We just wanted to take a minute today and say, “Happy anniversary!” to the DeArmans, and just let you know how important we think anniversaries are, and how important we think it is to celebrate milestones like 47 years together.
We’re all about anniversaries, here at FamilyLife. We’re the Proud Sponsor of Anniversaries™; and we want to provide you, day in and day out, with the kind of practical biblical help and hope you need so that you can celebrate a whole lot more of them. That’s our mission, here at FamilyLife: “To effectively develop godly marriages and families—marriages and families who change the world, one home at a time.”
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Now, tomorrow, we want to talk about the need for kids to be able to explore their world, and yet, to have some appropriate boundaries around them. We’re going to talk about how you can tell what’s appropriate and what’s not, as parents. Hope you can be back for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, along with our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I’m Bob Lepine. We will see you back next time for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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