The Oak Life Journal
Jul | Aug 2023
By Ann Houck
4 minute read
Before I began working with children from hard places, I did not understand the “distinction” of felt safety. I just never thought about it! I knew when I felt safe and when I did not. Usually, if I felt safe, it was because I literally was safe; no life-threatening events were coming my way. It was all about physical safety. Was my personhood protected? Was I in danger of being hurt or losing my life?
If my physical surroundings were safe for me, I felt safe. I never felt unsafe because someone looked at me; I never felt unsafe by usual, daily noises. I am sure I would have felt unsafe if I heard a lion’s roar or the sound of a freight train rumbling toward my house; but those things never happened to me in my quiet, small town in the middle of the corn fields of Illinois in the United States.
My environment was not threatened by physical violence; there were no drug dealers in my neighborhood. There were no child kidnappers in my town. There were no wild animals roaming my streets. There was no war being waged around me; no bombs being set off; no fires raging and my friends and family dying.
I did not fear for my life. I did not have to spend time in my “lower,” instinctual survival brain; I was not constantly prepared to either fight adversaries, flee from them or try to make myself invisible by “freezing” in place. In short, I was completely physically safe and basically emotionally safe, all day, seven days a week.
So, it was a bit of a shock to me to realize that children from dangerous places grow up under constant fear for their lives.
I mean, truly in fear and terror.
And, once the circumstances are gone that gave rise to their constant fear, their brains do not make the switch back. They remain in fear for their lives.
Children from hard places come to expect that everything has the possibility of not only hurting you, but possibly killing you. How does one tell the difference between what is a danger and what is not? It is an awful mindset in which to live.
And, once the circumstances are gone that gave rise to their constant fear, their brains do not make the switch.
We know a lot about the brain and how it works, and we know that children who are abused as little ones, some even before birth, do not have brain development that allows them to see the world as a safe place. They live in this constant state of high anxiety, always scanning their environment for danger, and adapting behaviors that create a sense of “safety” for themselves, but which send a message of danger to others.
Behaviors are a way of communicating. For children who are unable to formulate words that express what is happening to them, they “act out,” become dysregulated or “flip their lid,” all as a way to protect themselves from perceived danger.
An adult approaches a small child and opens their arms to accept the child into a hug. The small child sees this as a danger signal; maybe someone hugged them and then hit them or worse. So, the child screams and runs away, hiding behind a chair, crying loudly, inconsolable. The adult is dumbfounded; they only wanted to offer a warm embrace of safety.
There are many physical and emotional protectors that children from hard places adapt as their way of feeling safe. How do we interpret them? How do we know what will make them “feel” safe so that they no longer need to use these maladaptive behaviors?
What a great question.
The first key on your part to deconstructing negative fear patterns is consistency of care. It takes a child years to develop these behaviors designed to keep them alive. And, it will take some time to learn to use other behaviors which will arise out of feeling safe.
And because consistency is important (and we’re probably talking about years of care), then patience is the second key. These children are precious, and they deserve our understanding of their circumstances. We want to come alongside them, and walk with them on their daily path. We want to give them the tools that will empower them to overcome negative fear patterns.
Finally, become familiar with trauma-informed child care; realize that you have not caused these children harm, but they may believe that you will. Research methods of interaction that will reduce fear responses. In this way, you offer them a chance to live a life free of continual fear, filled with empowerment and autonomy; becoming responsible, caring adults.