As Jenny* entered the room she stopped and looked around. Much of the room was still in disarray from our remodeling job. The stage was under construction, tables moved, and cables still exposed. She stood assessing the situation, hesitant to enter and begin playing with peers.
“It is a bit messy here isn’t it?” I said, hoping my recognition of the situation would ease her anxiety.
She quickly replied, “That’s ok-it’s a messy world out there too.”
She had heard of the universal problem of a messy world, but she perceived it simply as an untidiness.
A child from a hard place knows the mess of this world at an entirely different level. Children with a background of trauma comprehend deeply that the world is in disarray. Even when they are given a “tidier version” in the safety of your home, your child may often fight for control and react as if they let go of the control then they will not survive. Lies, manipulation, and scary behaviors manifest in times that feel to the parent that, “all is safe.” Felt safety isn’t just a belief that “I am safe” but also has to do with the internal world of your child.
To understand the idea of felt safety, take a moment to think of different reactions to riding roller coasters. If you love the thrill of the ride and the rush of adrenaline, thinking through the safety of the ride isn’t usually even a concern. The unexpected twists and turns are nothing more than thrilling. The downhill rush of adrenaline matches the anticipation of the upward climb. But, do you know that person who is terrified to ride a roller coaster? No amount of “You’re safe!” or “What are you worried about?” or “I will ride it with you,” will calm nerves or make the individual feel safe. Felt safety is not about whether or not you are safe on the roller coaster, but if your internal state says, “I am safe.” When your child grows to the place of feeling safe, he or she will better be able to regulate their internal state and behaviors will decrease.
So how do you get to create safety for your child and in turn, decrease negative behaviors?
Certainly external cues play a role for the child. Having a predictable schedule and reliable adults to meet your child’s needs may be a new experience for him or her. At first this may even be unsettling to your child. If they have fed themselves or gone without food, relying on others for these things is scary. Rarely do any of us relinquish control easily! Being the provider of basic needs is living and saying “I will give you what you need.” Slowly you will change the child’s belief that they must remain in control to survive and begin to trust you.
Another way to calm the internal state of a child is to incorporate play into the relationship. Dr. Karyn Purvis suggested children take as little as 12 times learning new behaviors through play and as many as 400 times through lecturing. Just imagine for yourself how much easier it is to explore new skills playfully rather than fearing failure or loss of control. Allowing for a redo for misbehaviors allows a child to learn muscle memory for a skill in a non-threatening way. When a child comes to believe you will playfully engage over misbehaviors, rather than punish every wrongdoing, they feel safe to try new skills.
Being mindful of our own internal state allows us to deal with the situation in a more playful way. Understanding “Why is it that a sassy response causes bigger feelings than expected in me?” Or, “Why is it that the 15th request for food before bed feels like it is a threat to my sanity?” or “What tempts me to lie and how is that like my child?” When I understand my own feelings in response to situations, I can better understand my child’s feelings which drive their behaviors. When I address the feelings and need behind the behavior, then I don’t just change behaviors, but change my child’s heart. I can react with more compassion and in turn, I can be fully present and allow words and actions to say, “I know that feeling. I am here; you are safe.”
When I go back to the room with little Jenny* cautiously entering, I also have to think, “It is a messy world inside of me too.” It is messy for our hurting kids, it is messy for me, and it is messy for others I love. Exploring new ways to address felt safety through play and understanding my own journey will allow you to not only give your child a “tidier version” of the world, but allow your child to grow trust in you and gain the believe that you will create safety in the “mess” .
*Jenny is not the child’s real name.
Ch 4 of the Connect Child by Dr. Karyn Purvis