Vulnerability is a Necessary Part of Development

Three-year-old Betsy is playing with her toys in the middle of the living room.  The doorbell rings.   Bob from next door has come by to show off his new Chihuahua.   Betsy’s mom lets Bob in, and the little dog begins to run toward Betsy.  Betsy shrieks in fear.  Betsy’s mom immediately picks her up to protect her from the harmless but boisterous puppy.

Children are vulnerable beings.  When infants come into the world, they are entirely dependent upon their caregivers.   Their emotions are revealed in their every action, in each put, cry or expression of joy.   One of our most important responsibilities as caregivers is the need to challenge and spur children to new heights, while simultaneously being sensitive to their vulnerabilities.

What does it mean to be vulnerable?  It means that our physical and emotional needs are exposed to others.   Emotions and their expression exist for a reason.  One of the reasons that emotional expressions exist is that they alert other people to our needs.  When we are fearful, sad, anxious, embarrassed or the like, others become aware of our personal plights.

However, having our needs exposed is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, to be vulnerable implies risk.  When we are exposed, we can easily be hurt.   This is one reason why, over the course of development, we learn hide our vulnerabilities.  We put up shields to protect ourselves from people and experience that might hurt us.  On the other hand, being vulnerable implies that we are at our growing edge.   We are vulnerable because we are needy in some way, and often cannot move forward without the support of others.     Others who are sensitive to our vulnerabilities can then come to our aid and support us in our attempt to cope with difficult events in our lives.

Approaching Children’s Vulnerabilities

How we deal with children’s vulnerabilities plays an important role in their development.   In the situation described at the beginning of this article, three-year-old Betsy was frightened by neighbor’s Chihuahua.  Her shriek immediately alerted Betsy’s mother to her vulnerability.  Betsy’s mother picked her up in order to protect her child.

In picking her up, holding her close, and keeping her a safe distance from the dog, Betsy’s mother succeeding in reducing her child’s fear.   But now what?   What if anything, should Betsy’s mother do now?

In situations like these, it is possible to err in two opposite directions.  This is shown in the figure that accompanies this article.  On the one hand, sensing a child’s fear and vulnerability, a parent may see it as his job simply to make the child’s fear and other bad feelings go away.   This runs the risk of overprotecting a child.  If our singular goal is simply to protect the child from a threatening or emotionally difficult situation, over the long term, a child will not have the opportunity to learn to manage his or her emotions effectively during times of stress, challenge and vulnerability.   On the other hand, armed with this knowledge, a parent may see it as her goal to encourage the child to manage strong emotions by him or herself.   For example, a parent might, believing that Bob’s Chihuahua poses no real threat, encourage Betsy to approach the harmless dog on her own.  In the long run, this approach runs the risk of under-protecting the child.

What would Betsy learn in these two different situations?   If Betsy’s mother adopts the strategy of consistently removing events that cause strong emotion, Betsy will learn that her mother will be available to calm her when Betsy experiences challenging and strong emotions.  However, while this sounds like a good thing, Betsy is also likely to learn that challenging and difficult situations are something simply to be avoided.  Betsy may come to believe that other people are responsible for the task of managing her emotions.  She will be unable to manage the challenge of difficult situations herself.

In contrast, if Betsy’s mother has a tendency to simply let Betsy fend for herself in stressful situations, Betsy is likely to see her mother as unavailable and unhelpful.  Lacking her mother’s support, she may be more likely to try to manage challenging situations on her own.  If she does, however, she is unlikely to be successful; she is unlikely to develop either the practical or the emotional skills necessary to learn to manage peppy puppies or other threatening situations.

Teaching Children to Manage their Emotions

Hundreds of studies in child development have shown that children of parents who are sensitive to their vulnerabilities and emotional needs grow up to be emotionally secure children and adults who are able to muster the confidence and skill necessary to cope with life’s challenges.   Sensitive parents neither over-protect nor under-protect their children.  Instead, they act as a kind of secure base for their children.  When a child is in a state of stress or distress, sensitive parents are able identify those emotions in their children and reduce the child’s stress to a manageable level.   As a result, the child learns to trust the parent as someone who is available during times of stress.

It is important to see, however, that being sensitive to a child’s needs and vulnerabilities does not mean that a parent simply removes or eliminates situations that are challenging for a child.  A sensitive parent is one who is aware of his child’s emotional needs and vulnerabilities  so that he can better take the child’s emotional needs into account in order to teach children how best to manage stressful and difficult situations.

For example, in the case of Betsy and the Chihuahua, after removing Betsy from the situation and calming her, Betsy’s mother might choose to slowly approach to dog with her child, showing Betsy that she can approach the dog without fear.   Keeping the dog (and Betsy!) under control, Betsy’s mother might be able to slowly coax Betsy to pet the dog.   In so doing, Betsy not only learns how to approach the animated pup, but she also learns how to manage her emotions while approaching the dog.  This is not something that Betsy will ordinarily be able to do for herself.  She needs the help of a supportive and guiding parent.

Over time, Betsy will come to see use her mother a secure base – when she feels vulnerable, Betsy will voluntarily seek out her mother for assistance, emotional or otherwise.  When she is feeling strong, she will voluntarily venture forward into the world to see what it has to offer.   The sensitive parent’s job is to neither eliminate nor exploit a child’s vulnerabilities.  Instead, it is to nurture and support a child through her vulnerabilities.