Trauma & Felt Safety

By: - March 16, 2021

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“Because trauma – including that caused by neglect, whether deliberate or inadvertent – causes an overload of the stress response systems, which is marked by a loss of control, treatment for traumatized children must start by creating an atmosphere of safety. This is done most easily and effectively in the context of a predictable, respectful relationship.”

Dr. Bruce D. Perry, The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog

Any child who has experienced separation from their first family, abuse, or neglect has experienced trauma. Because of the ways our brains are wired, trauma can cause children to get stuck in the part of their brain, called the “downstairs brain” in The Whole-Brain Child, that deals with survival functions and emotional responses such as fear and anger. Children who are stuck in the downstairs brain struggle to learn and grow because they cannot access their “upstairs brain,” which allows them to use logic, reason, and other higher-level functions. This impacts a child’s ability to learn in school, to understand their emotions, and to communicate their needs.

In survival mode, or “the downstairs brain”, children will rely on fear responses, even when there is no apparent fearful situation.

A fight response may look like…

  • A physical fight, such as hitting, biting, or other aggressive behavior.
  • A verbal fight, such as responding with “You can’t make me!” or “You’re not my mom/dad/boss!” or “You can’t tell me what to do!”

A flight response may look like…

  • Physically running away
  • Hiding
  • Fleeing emotionally by laughing, telling jokes, or changing the subject

A freeze response may look like…

  • Shutting down
  • Not answering instructions or questions
  • Becoming frozen in place
  • Appearing defiant

Even after years of being in our homes, children may still not feel safe, even though we know that they are safe. We as parents know that we will protect our children at all costs, making sure they have food, shelter, and safety. However, children who have experienced trauma come from a place where their needs were not met. They still may not feel safe. When we know this, we need to, as Dr. Bruce Perry says, “create an atmosphere of safety” in the context of a healthy relationship with us. This will help our children feel safe and begin to gain access to their “upstairs brain.”

Here are some simple ways you can create an atmosphere of safety:

1. Modify their environment to help them feel safe.

  • For kids with food insecurities: Allow them to carry food with them or keep it in a safe place in their rooms. Make a meal plan and hang it in a place where your child can see it, so they know what to expect for mealtime. You may want to also communicate this with other caregivers or teachers so they are also aware of this need.
  • For a child with a fear of abandonment: It is vital to limit separation with the caregiver as much as possible until more felt-safety is achieved. When separation is necessary, you can do the following so that your child feels more safe:
    • Allow the child to carry an item that is special to you until you return.
    • Give your child a lot of advanced warning about leaving and as much information you can about your return. For older children, you could even write out the plan.
    • If possible, give your child access to a way that they can contact you, whether by phone or a texting app. (It may be hard for them to communicate to an adult that they would like to call you, but with more direct access, they will feel more safe.)

2. Be proactive instead of reactive: It’s so important that, as parents, we start to recognize what our children need before the need arises. This shows our children that we see them, their needs, and that we are going to meet those needs. You can do this by…

  • Hanging a calendar with important/special dates, including dates of connection or dates when there will be separation
  • Building consistent routines so they know what to expect.
  • Thinking through situations that might be scary for your child. Outside of the moment, practice what those situations will look like and talk about how to get help when they are scared
  • Showing the child where the food is kept and how to get food if they want it. Many parents have created “yes” baskets, with healthy foods that children can always have.
  • Reading The Invisible String to your children to teach and talk about separation outside of the moment.

3. Name it to tame it. This idea comes from The Whole Brain Child and is crucial for helping our kids cope with fear. Don’t dismiss their fears and explain to them why they don’t need to be afraid. Instead, acknowledge the fear that they have and empathize with them. Say things like “Yeah, that sounds really scary,” “It sounds like you were scared” or “Sometimes I get scared too.” After your child has regulated, allow them to tell you the story of what led to their fear response.

For example, a child may come out of their room after going to bed and say they can’t sleep because they are scared. Instead of saying, “Go back to bed. You’re just fine.” Try approaching it like this, “I’m so sorry you are scared. I get scared sometimes too. What do you think is making you afraid?” If they can tell you, then offer a solution like a night light, music, an object of mom/dads, sitting with him/her for a few minutes, etc. If they can’t tell you, then offer some suggestions to try to make them feel safe again.

As parents, we can contribute to our child’s healing process by going above and beyond to create an “atmosphere of safety.” It is then that we will start to see our child make progress towards their “upstairs brain,” where they can grow, learn, and use logic and empathy.

Also Found In: Connected Parenting, Tapestry Blog, Trauma

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