Most foster parents have experienced situations where they are left scratching their heads trying to figure out why a child is acting a certain way. Maybe a child exploded into tears yelling, “I hate you! I hate you! You are so mean." because they did not let them have a snack right before
supper. The foster parent then is left feeling disappointed with no clue what had triggered the outburst.
Difficult behaviors – like tantrums, isolation, hyperactivity, or aggressiveness – are often triggered by a child’s past trauma. Children can be physically safe in their foster home, but past traumas leave them feeling like they are not safe. Hunger, abuse, or abandonment that occurred a long time ago can still trigger fear, which in turn leads to difficult behavior. Foster parents can easily confuse these fear-based outbursts with intentional disobedience. Past trauma that leads to deep fear can cause a child to explode into tears yelling, “I hate you! I hate you! You are so mean." because the foster parent did not let them have a snack right before supper. Maybe this child was left alone many nights at home hungry with no real caregiver to provide for their basic needs. For some reason the answer 'no' took that child back to those lonely and hungry nights, and this child's brain couldn't understand that supper was in a few minutes and went into survival mode. This child was lacking 'felt safety'.
What is Felt Safety?
Dr. Karyn Purvis develop and defined this concept of 'felt safety'. It can be described as when the child feels in a profound and basic way they are truly safe in the home and with you because of how the environment is arranged and how, we as caregivers, respond. 'Felt safety' is the notion of creating an environment and adjusting the foster parent's behavior in a way that the child can profoundly feel that they are genuinely safe in the home and with the family. What's important here is not necessarily what the family perceive as safe, but rather what the child perceives as necessary for their safety. When a child experiences fear, the primitive part of the brain, the amygdala, takes over, pushing them into survival mode and blocking all reasoning and higher-level thinking. Providing 'felt safety' aims to prevent the child from going into survival mode and having difficult behaviors. To achieve this, two key elements come into play: the environment and response.
Building a Safe Home: The Concept of 'Felt Safety'
So, what does 'felt safety' have to do with building a safe home? This concept of building a safe home is about finding ways in the home that children can feel and experience safety for themselves. The goal is to help provide a guide on how the home's environment and the foster parent's response and help improve the 'felt safety' of a child who has experienced trauma and live in deep fear and survival mode. This blog is going to explore a few rooms in the home and how this idea of environment and response and be related to 'felt safety'.
What comes to mind when you think of a family room? Perhaps you envision a space with couches, a recliner, a TV, and a spot where you can kick up your feet. It's a place where you can watch a football game, view movies, or perhaps play video games. The family room serves as a gathering place for everyone to come together and relax during the day. Compared to other rooms in the house, family rooms tend to have a more relaxed vibe and are often more kid-friendly. This room, often bustling with activity, can teach us a lot about 'felt safety'.
Environment: Make your home Kid-Friendly
I have encountered many families that are very parent-centered. In such settings, the child's wants and needs often take a backseat to the parents. These children are expected to adapt to their new environment quickly, leaving them feeling powerless and unsafe. But how can they feel safe in a home where everything feels off-limits? This doesn't mean the child should run the house. Instead, the caregiver should adjust certain aspects of their life to ensure the child feels safe. This may involve creating routines, rules, and schedules that cater to the child's comfort and security, without compromising on discipline.
Response: Offer Choices
Another powerful tool for fostering felt safety is offering choices. Many children, especially those who have faced traumatic situations, often feel unsafe due to a lack of control over their circumstances. By presenting them with two or three specific options, they are given a sense of control, which can significantly enhance their feeling of safety. For instance, if your child refuses to pick up her toys before bed, instead of forcing them, give them choices. You might say, "You can put away your toys first, then we can read books for five minutes, or vice versa. What do you choose?" This approach engages them in the process, boosts their self-esteem, and helps them develop decision-making skills. Regardless of the choice they make, they are also engaging in a shared activity with you, building your relationship and reinforcing their positive decisions.
The next time you find yourself in your family room, consider how you can adjust the environment and your responses to make it a sanctuary of felt safety for your child. I encourage you to ponder upon the question - "What are some areas you can focus on to give your child more choices?" The answers may surprise you and lead you towards creating a more harmonious and safe home environment.
It's the first place you visit when hunger strikes. It's where you find the fridge, oven, microwave, sink, and pantry. This room houses all the necessary tools to prepare food - the sustenance of life. The kitchen is a place that nurtures us, offering comfort when we're stressed and inviting us to indulge our culinary desires. It is a hub of family activity, where meals are prepared amid laughter, conversations, and learning. Indeed, food is a significant part of our lives.
However, the kitchen can also become one of the messiest rooms in the house. If you've ever seen the aftermath of a hectic meal preparation, you'd know what I mean. It gets cluttered so rapidly - it seems like there's always a new set of dishes to clean just when you thought you were done. We all love to eat, but let's be honest, no one relishes doing the dishes. Yet, it's a vital part of maintaining the kitchen space, isn't it? So, what can the kitchen teach us about felt safety?
When discussing the environment, we're not merely referring to the physical space of the home. We're talking about the elements we can't see but can sense. If something is nourishing, it contains nutrients vital for growth, health, and wellbeing. Sure, you can choose to consume food that's harmful, but you also have the option to eat healthily. The same applies to our homes. We need to do more than just help the children in our homes survive - we aim to help them thrive.
So how do we instill nourishing components into our home environment? Let's look at what nourishment is and isn't:
Nourishment isn't rigid. It isn't about being unyielding, stiff, or unwavering. Instead, nourishment is flexible. It's about being ready and able to adapt and change.
Nourishment isn't harsh. It doesn't involve being cruel, severe, or rough. On the contrary, nourishment is gentle. It's about being calm, soft, and tender.
Nourishment isn't selfish. It's not about being solely concerned about oneself. Rather, nourishment is kind. It reflects generosity, thinking of others first, and being helpful.
Understanding this, we can introduce a response to children's demanding and defiant behavior - compromise. Much like when we're ravenous and raid the pantry for anything edible, children can also make hasty choices. This response can aid their survival behavior and help them feel safe. For example, you could offer two equally good choices, and they may reject both. At this point, you can suggest a compromise. You could ask, "Do you want a compromise?" They might respond with something like, "Can I watch TV?" If the request is reasonable, you can agree to it but set a limit, such as, "Yes, you may watch for 30 minutes, and then you need to clean up your toys." By using compromise, we avoid a head-on collision by shifting the focus from what the child can't do to what they can do. We're giving them a voice and helping them thrive by teaching them to meet their needs and feel safe.
So, let's reflect on this - in what ways do your children need nourishment? Remember, the kitchen isn't just for cooking meals. It's a space where we can learn valuable lessons about creating a nourishing and safe environment for our children.
What comes to mind when you think of a dining room? Perhaps a room with a table and chairs, maybe a hutch or buffet for dishes. It could be a formal space or a room used daily, but it's essentially a place where everyone gathers to have a meal together. It is the center stage for many activities such as homework, deep conversations, or even a temporary workspace. The dining room holds an arsenal of memories of great times with friends and family because it’s where we connect. But to create these connections, it also has to be a space where you are not distracted.
Environment: The Need for Focus
Just as we need to be focused to get the most out of the time we spend in our dining room, the same is true for the focus we give our family and our kids. In a world filled with distractions, it is easy to let our focus shift from what is most important. Things are hard at times and it’s so easy to just not think and allow ourselves to be distracted. Or maybe we are so busy that it just happens before we realize it. I know that when we have so much happening and we are not focused on what the kids in our home need, we can observe a big difference in their attitude, how they operate, and how they behave. When we are focused, we can provide the response that is needed.
Being more proactive than reactive is a valuable lesson that the dining room teaches us. Letting the child know when a transition is about to happen by giving a reminder, for instance, helps them have time to process what is about to happen. This predictability can ease their anxiety and equip them to better handle the situation. Children are often fearful and have processing delays which make them more likely to react inappropriately when faced with new and challenging situations. For example, you know every time you go to the store there is a fight over getting a candy bar. To avoid this, you can rehearse the scenario ahead of time about what they can do, and even re-enact it in the car before heading into the store. This rehearsal allows the child to gain concrete ways they can deal with their feelings, have a measure of control, and hope. Such predictability requires us to be focused and engaged so we can make sure we don’t miss opportunities to teach our kids. Another useful tool for guiding children is the use of short, repeated phrases or scripts. This gives a standard vocabulary for guiding children while conveying important life lessons. Here are some examples:
"Use your words"
"Show me your eyes"
"Can you say that with respect?"
"Good using your words"
"Are you asking for a compromise?"
"Please use your walking feet"
"We need kind hands/feet "
"Who’s the boss?"
The dining room, a space so integral to our homes, teaches us about focus, predictability, and proactive responses. It shows us the importance of creating a safe and predictable environment for our children. The question we need to ask ourselves is - Why is it so hard to provide predictability for our kids? The answer to this question can unlock a deeper understanding of our roles as caregivers.
What is the laundry room? This is where the washer and dryer are located. Maybe there's a spot for all your cleaning supplies, a laundry hamper. It's where you take your dirty clothes to wash so your clothes can be fresh and clean. It could be in the basement, or on the main level, it could be in your utility room. If your room is large enough you may have a spot to fold your clothes there. The best part of the laundry room is that your clothes can be cleaned but the worst part is now you have to fold and put them away. What can the laundry room teach us about felt safety?
The laundry room can serve as a metaphor for two key elements in our lives: forgiveness and the opportunity for 're-dos'. Just as we clean and refresh our clothes in the laundry room, we can apply the same principles to our relationships, especially with children.
Forgiveness is the act of not holding an offense against that person any longer and they don’t owe you anything either because of the offense. How much do we all need that? I know I make mistakes and need that greatly. So if we think about our homes here are two thoughts:
1. When a child comes to live with you we should start with a clean slate. Begin to form your opinion of them from the time you spend with them.
2. It’s easy to come to a place with a child who is not your own, when they make a mistake to just not forgive them or give them the grace you might extend your own children or family. You might tell yourself I don’t care anymore, they can just leave. If you are here, don't stay.
A 're-do' is giving your child the chance to practice a new behavior. This is a tool to help them learn while building self-esteem through being successful. Here are a few tips:
When a child’s actions or words are inappropriate, pleasantly ask for a re-do (Let’s try that again….)
Guide your child through the re-do in an upbeat and fun manner. They are not intended to be punishment.
If necessary, demonstrate the re-do yourself by modeling the desired behavior
The child can copy the re-do one or more times
Praise your child sincerely when they demonstrate the correct behavior.
As you think on the importance of forgiveness and the opportunity for 're-dos' in our relationships with children, consider these questions:
1. In what areas in your home would giving a 're-do' be the hardest? (i.e. when lying)
2. What do you need to forgive your child for?
The answers to these questions can provide invaluable insights into how you can create a healthier, more nurturing environment for your child. Just like the laundry room, where dirty clothes are refreshed and clean, your home can be a place where mistakes are washed away, and new beginnings are possible.
How might have you responded in a way that provided “felt safety,” to the child who exploded into tears yelling, “I hate you! I hate you! You are so mean." because they did not get a snack right before supper? Here’s how: a simple act that would reassure the child in a visceral way. You hand the child a protein bar, explaining they can hold onto it, but are not allowed to eat it until dinner time. This gives the child control while addressing their fear of being hungry. Small changes like this provide 'felt safety' to a traumatized child, and build trust.