How To Nurture Your Child’s Survival Instincts Teaching your child how to keep safe and survive is an important life skill

In today’s world, our kids need to know how to instinctively protect themselves. Whom to trust? How to remain safe? How to act in times of potential danger?

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Many a time instead of nurturing and helping our kids develop their innate sense of safety and protection we parents disrupt this instinct by our stupid parental interference. Societal norms, social niceties and our own tainted childhood influence our parenting. Due to which we end our imposing, suppressing and destroying our kid’s natural alarm system – their instinct.

Polyvagal Theory & Neuroception

Neuroscientist Stephen Porges introduced the Polyvagal Theory in 1994. The polyvagal theory emphasizes that our nervous system has more than one defense strategy – whether we use mobilized flight/flight or immobilization shutdown. All this happens involuntarily.  This rapid-fire information transmission operates on a sub-conscious level. Our reptilian brain is continuously evaluating risk in the environment, making judgments, and prioritizing behaviors.

According to this theory, the vagus nerve transfers visceral feelings or gut instincts from the gut (enteric nervous system) to the brain and back from the brain to the gut.   Neuroception is the term for this process of perception and evaluation. Porges defines this process as “how neural circuits distinguish whether situations or people are safe, dangerous or life-threatening”.

Inborn Instincts

Our brains are designed to evaluate risk, danger, and safety via neuroception. In any new situations, our sensory organs immediately begin observing and processing information to determine whether it is safe to engage or whether to get out.  This process is initiated by our sense organs, that communicates with lightning speed to our brain, central and peripheral nervous system which then informs the rest of our body through electrical signals and chemical messages towards the course of action required to keep us safe.

Unfortunately, these inborn instincts or gut feelings are repressed when from childhood we are forced or denied certain feelings during our vital stages of physical, and emotional growth. A child invariably has to accede to the wills of the adults in their life and subsequently they no longer have that inner compass of self-protection in place.

However, by following these steps one can ensure that we raise our kids who have strong instincts to navigate the challenges of life:

Give Them Enough Love

When a child is securely attached to his parent or primary caregivers he develops a strong sense of self. That feeling of confidence which sends the message, “Do not to mess with me”. The sexual predator usually knows whom to target. The lonely, neglected child, – the one with drooping shoulders and downcast eyes.

Further, lack of love and care could lead to your child seeking out affection indiscriminately from anyone. Kids crave love and kindness. If they don’t get it at home, they will seek it out from others.  And since they can’t identify who may be a safe person and who isn’t. They will gravitate towards anyone who fulfills their longing for affection and attention.

This over-friendly behavior of a child with unknown people known as disinhibited social engagement disorder (DSED) is highly dangerous. It makes him susceptible to predators who knowingly select and groom kids starving for affection and love.

Give Them Freedom To Choose

Our kids need to learn to trust their judgment.  In order to develop autonomy in thinking and behaving, we need to allow them the freedom to choose their toys, clothes, food, activities without hovering over them. Helicopter parenting ruins kids lives.  They may make mistakes but then how will they learn.

If we are forever bearing down on them, instructing and commanding them how to do things they will never master important life-skills. They will be always waiting for mom or dad or whoever to tell them how to do things. We make our kids emotional handicaps with blunted instincts totally clueless about how to navigate any crisis.

Let Them Decide What Feels Good

The gravest mistake parents make is forcing our kids to do something which they are not comfortable doing. Unfortunately, we feel it is our right to have obedient kids. We force our helpless child into submission even if they protest. We insist our child kiss someone whom he instinctively hates.

Instead of respecting our child’s decision we make him play nice. Which sets him up for future abuse and bullying. On a personal level, it was this being a good girl which let others abuse and mistreat me. Even though I did not feel good about it I was unable to protest because of my ‘Be Nice’ upbringing.

Keep Communication Channels Open

Talking and discussing issues openly with our kids is essential. How else will they decipher what is right or wrong?  Let them know they can seek clarification from the elders in their life whatever the issue. When they know they do not have to hide anything, their internal smoke detectors can freely function.

However, most parents brush aside or shut up their kids when questions are asked about sexual matters. They are not comfortable discussing or they mistakenly feel that it is not appropriate to discuss. But when questions are asked and answers not given, a child will seek clarifications through other channels. Many a time they could be misled into believing untruths. So, parents please be open and clarify any of your child’s doubts.

I wished I could have openly discussed with my mother about sex because when a cousin was touching me inappropriately My 6-year-old self, was confused and did not know what to make of it. Since this was what adults in the hiding and kids even seeing love scenes on TV was a taboo what would the adults call me if they know. All abuse happens in the secrecy and repression of kids.

Don’t Berate, Shout or Shame

One single misstep and a parent pounces on their kid berating it for making such a stupid faux pas. Will such a child ever get the courage to trust his instincts. Instead of just listening or consoling and encouraging a child for taking a chance parents will hold a single error like a sword over his head.

Due to this reaction, every independent step they take will be filled with trepidation and lack of confidence. Such a state of mind will only lead to further wrong choices. Fear of failure creates a sense of inadequacy which inhibits the brain from working optimally and lucidly.

Relaxed Mind-Body, Better Instincts

The mind body-mind connection gets scrambled, we are unable to read the sign and take appropriate action. Adults who lived high-stress childhoods have trouble reading environmental signals which affect not just their social functioning but also their higher mental cognition. Neuro-scientists discovered that their neural networks develop in ways that don’t process risks the same ways that kids who haven’t suffered trauma do. That is the reason why adult survivors usually make terrible relationships or professional decisions. Stress inflames the vagus nerve and effects the smooth transmission of nerve impulses to the brain and other parts of the body.

Allow your child to grow in a relaxed environment. Where they feel supported and nurtured. You need to encourage his forays into independence and help him develop his natural survival instincts.

Nurturing your child’s inborn instincts not just help protect him from danger. It also allows him to live an authentic, effortless and happy life.

Further Reading


The Gift of Fear and Other Survival Signals that Protect Us From Violence by Gavin de Becker

Protecting the Gift: Keeping Children and Teenagers Safe (and Parents Sane) by Gavin de Becker

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