When it comes to feeling safe our body and our brain are involved.
Recently I opened a cupboard, something moved unexpectedly and for a moment I thought it was a mouse. I’m not ashamed to say I shrieked loudly before realising it was only a falling packet. In those few moments I went hot and cold, my heart sped up and I was ready to slam the door shut and run.
A helpful other, who is less scared of mice, found the crisps. Their calmness in the moment let me know it was safe again. When we don’t feel safe it happens in both our brain and body. Past experiences trigger stress responses in the moment and returning to a calm state is different for all of us.
Any parent who has felt judged for not telling their child to calm down in the moment instinctively knows this is going to make it worse. These heightened responses may be particularly familiar to some parents. Children who have experienced relational trauma are more likely to feel they are in danger and protect themselves from the risk of a past harm being repeated in their current situation.
This may present as them responding with such strong feelings that they cannot deal with the situation – a meltdown moment. Or, it may present as controlling behaviours that aim to deal with the situation so they don’t need to feel – the need for things to be just so taking any fun and enjoyment out of the interaction.
Children who are struggling with anxiety around school are also going to have these strong responses. This may be hard for well intentioned educators who have set up a beautiful learning environment that creates overwhelm for a child who can’t cope due to maybe sensory overwhelm in large groups.
How do we detect safety or danger?
Feeling safe relies on your nervous system processing signs that you are safe. When a child has felt very unsafe they start to look out signs of danger and get stuck in the struggling state. They are hypervigilant – ready to fight, flight or flee rather than picking up signs of safety.
Feeling safe matters, a lot, because it is the key ingredient in building trust. When we have been filled with stress and fear returning to a sense of safety is different for all of us and depends on past and present experiences. Being with someone who acknowledges our feelings and responses helps us to regulate our stress responses by providing connection.
The scan function in our app lumin&us can help with noticing the feelings, behaviours and physical responses a child (or a parent) is having to work out which state they are in. This can help parents and teachers understand a child’s need for safety better.
Being a safe base
Feeling safe matters because it helps you cope with the feelings by dealing with them proportionately. It is often through relationships with others; parents, teachers, therapists that this becomes possible.
In a family home, or a classroom, every child is going to be a little different. Emotional responses may be triggered for some and not others. We cannot just tell children they are safe. They have to feel it in their body.
There are lots of things we can do to build relationships with children that help them to feel safe. It is important to remember that this can be a slow process, especially for children who have experienced relational trauma and not been able to rely on adults in the past. Trusting adults can make them feel safe will be new and sometimes scary so requires a slow approach.
Tips for when you are stuck in the struggling state
The way we interact with others can help us to feel safe and be transformative.
- Increase consistency, predictability and structure and make sure that changes to the norm are prepared for. These day-to-day interactions slowly over time make a difference.
- Sometimes there are moments when you feel really close and celebrating moments of intense feeling can help build and strengthen the relationship.
- None of us are perfect so when things don’t go so well respond to repair what happened within the relationship with low shame. To do this think about your tone of voice and body language conveying safety through kindness and acceptance.
You can find more information about our Cards to Help You Connect resources here. Our resources are rooted in polyvagal theory and help children and adults identify whether they are SAFE, STRUGGLING or DROWNING. They also include play therapy-based resources to support children to feel SAFE. The resources are available to purchase from £18.99 + p&p and £2 of the sale of every resource is donated to Adoption UK to support their work.
Charlotte Jenkins is the founder and a director of Beacon Family Services. She is an experienced social worker supporting children and families therapeutically using Theraplay and Dyadic Developmental Psychotherapy. She is also trained in Sensory Attachment Intervention which focuses on helping children and parents coregulate their nervous systems to build their relationships.