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The Primacy of Safety
Feeling safe is necessary for relationships, for fun, for relaxation, for sleep, for concentration, for verbal learning, in fact for daily living. You may have heard of the experiment in which baby rats in a cage were playing, and the experimenters introduced three cat hairs for ten minutes. All play stopped. When the cat hairs were removed, it was weeks before the play started again and it never resumed its previous levels.
Nothing good can happen when the child does not feel safe. If a person is in danger mode, he cannot learn. She cannot trust enough to form the relationships that will be the vehicles for healing. He cannot sleep- and so life feels so much more difficult. She has trouble relaxing and having fun. He misses much of what is going on because of the necessity to constantly scan for danger. Fear manifests in aggression, self harm, running away, and retreat. Fear without any one to turn to is completely overwhelming and is more powerful than both rationality and reward.
Of course, safety is not an all-or-nothing state. The sense of danger rises and falls. Yet we must pay close attention to the signals of danger and safety in our programs and in our relationships with the children (and families) we serve. If we actively strive to create safety in every aspect of our environments and relationships, we will help the children be more available sooner. And if we look for fear under many problem behaviors, we will discover more powerful intervention options.
The kids we work with feel so unsafe. They are constantly on the lookout for the danger that has permeated every part of their lives. A central fact of their existence is that any small indication of danger sends them into full life-or-death alert mode. And the world is full of indications of danger.
So how do we recognize this, make sense of it and work with it? How do we help our kids to feel safer?
Examples of the Power of Safety
Allison talks often about feeling unsafe. And, in fact the other girls do pick on her and at times assault her. Allison comes out of her room and stands in the lounge swearing at the girls, calling them names and insulting their families. She is smart and knows exactly what to say to each individual girl to totally infuriate her, and she constantly does so.
Malcolm runs away two or three times a week. Anything at all that upsets him can trigger him to run away. Often it doesn’t seem that anything has upset him, and the run aways seem planned. He often persuades other boys to go with him. When he runs he puts himself in very unsafe situations. He also does self-destructive things, including jumping into the street and using his belt to threaten to hang himself in the middle of a town park.
Both Allison and Malcolm have had very unsafe lives, and now seem to be deliberately courting danger with every ability that they have. How do we understand this?
How Do We Understand?
Maybe it feels safer for Allison to bring the danger and abuse on herself; at least she has some control. It may feel to her like she has the upper hand over others for once, even when it results in her being hurt. Maybe when the unit is calm and quiet Allison feels foreboding, like something terrible is about to happen. So she precipitates it and no longer has to wait for it.
Maybe Malcolm is so used to a life of danger that it feels familiar to him. Maybe the danger of relationships, letting people down, failing, being disappointing others, is so acute that the danger on the streets pales in comparison. Maybe (using a reenactment approach) he relishes leading others into danger instead of being led.
What Can We Do?
So what can we do to help these children and all the others in our care?
We can look at the patterns, explore with the kids how they feel and what they think just before they do something, and gradually come to an understanding of the adaptive function of these behaviors for these particular kids.
First, of course, we should try to achieve as much actual safety as we possibly can. With staff supervision, schedules, routines, checks, the physical environment, and planning we should create as safe a world as we can.
Then let’s talk about safety in our community. In groups let’s discuss what kind of community we want to live in. It is important to acknowledge that everyone there has experienced an unsafe childhood, and has not been protected as they should have been. We can use a psycho-ed approach to teach the youth about how early exposure to danger changes the bio-chemistry of the brain and body, and hence every youth there reacts easily to any sign of danger. We can teach them to observe this in themselves and others, and hopefully over time to feel some compassion for themselves and each other. And we can collaboratively develop some plans for our community by which we will increase everyone’s safety.
And let’s actively address the issue of safety with each individual child. This could include (depending on what fits with the individual) looking at and mourning the ways the child was not kept safe when she was young. We could talk about what makes him feel safe and unsafe. How do you make others feel safe or unsafe? We could be clear that we are trying to be different than adults in their past: we are trying to keep them safe. We can use multi media: drawing, collages, music, movies, all exploring safety and lack of safety. We must surround this investigation with as many experiences as possible in which the youth is engaged in positive, active, physical fun interactions with caring adults. All members of the team should know that the treatment theme is safety, and inquire and comment regularly on their own feelings of safety in a given situation.
Our days in treatment programs are precarious. We are always trying to keep groups of deeply suffering children safe. The more we are aware of this, articulate it, and address it collaboratively with our kids, the better chance we have at succeeding.
If you would like a sample survey to use with youth to discover their sense of safety in your program, click here:
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