It was late one evening and a little cry came from the next room; one of the twins I was fostering had everything she needed: a warm crib, a full belly, a safe house that met all licensing requirements mandated by the state. Although her environment was safe, she was missing the feeling of being safe. I stumbled tiredly into her room and stroked her curly brown hair and laid next to her crib. My back ached as I reached up and held her hand until her little sobs ceased and she fell back into a deep sleep with the feeling of safety.
For children that come from trauma, there is a difference between being safe and feeling safe. According to Child.tcu.edu, many people in the foster/adoptive community use the term “felt safety” to describe these feelings.
Felt safety is established when adults “arrange the environment and adjust their behavior so children can feel in a profound and basic way that they are truly safe in their home and with [those adults.]”
Most parents have the basic awareness of what a safe house looks like: no sharp, broken objects; working fire alarms; locked medicine cabinets, etc.; but felt safety brings your home one step closer to making your child or children from traumatic backgrounds feel more comfortable in their new environment.
What does a felt safety environment look like?
TW: child abuse
A few years ago, I was straightening my hair and the bathroom door was open. One of my family members who had been adopted from foster care walked past the bathroom and flinched when I turned to look at him. With genuine fear in his eyes, he asked if I was going to burn him with my straightener.
In disbelief, I set the straightener down to talk him through the trauma response he was having. He told me his mom had a boyfriend who used to burn him with straighteners. He had an odd shape scar on his arm that looked like a birthmark, and my stomach knotted as the realization of where that mark came from set in. After some reassurance, some hugs, and, later, a CPS call, he seemed to be past the situation. Then, after that, whenever I was visiting home, that straightener did not come with me. Even though we talked through the situation and I reassured him I would never harm him, just being in the presence of something used for his abuse brought up feelings of being unsafe in his very safe home.
There are some things we will never know trigger our children, especially if they are too young to ask or are nonverbal. That is why it’s so important to watch your children’s reactions and cues.
A little boy in my care started urinating in a cup. Believe me, it’s a little unsettling to walk into a room and be hit with the smell of urine, only to find a cup full of pee. Instead of getting angry and scolding the child for urinating in a cup. I used the mantra “don’t get, mad get curious” (Karyn Purvis).
I gently asked him his reasoning for urinating in the cup and if he felt safe using the bathroom at night. He confessed to me he was afraid to go to the bathroom at night, even with the hallway lights on. We brainstormed together what could help him since using the cup was not sanitary or safe. We came up with the idea of a flashlight. He slept with the flashlight and used it to navigate to the bathroom at night, he could use the flashlight to see under his bed and the house in the night. That was the end of the pee-cup debacle.
If I had gotten mad at him and shamed him for what he had done we would have never gotten to the bottom of why he was urinating in a cup. The flashlight gave him a sense of felt safety.
Another child I worked with in a group home kept pulling down his curtains. He would have these beautiful new curtains put up and then the next day they would be pulled down again. My first reaction as a young worker new to working with kids from trauma was, “he is just being reckless.” Yet, the foster mom took him aside and asked why he didn’t want the curtains. He was able to confess some fears he had because of past trauma and the things that had been done to him behind closed curtains. Helping him maintain felt safety was as simple as taking down his curtains.
There are certain things that are out of our control as parents, but there is so much we can do to make children achieve felt safety. If you notice your child has odd or out-of-the-ordinary reactions to certain things, try to get those triggers out of your home. One child I worked with was afraid of chocolate cake because his Dad, in a rage of anger, smashed a piece of chocolate cake into his mom’s face while shouting profanity.
It was easy to keep cake out of the house, and sometimes we would have to leave a birthday before the cake was brought out. Eventually, this child learned to cope with what happened to him through counseling; but I am not a counselor, I was his caretaker. We could live without cake in the home.
I believe that our children are precious gifts from God, and only he knows the painful paths they may have taken to get to us. We may never fully understand their triggers and trauma, but it is our job to be as well-informed as we can be. It is our job to be ready to listen before jumping to conclusions, it is our job to show love over shame. We are responsible to help them overcome trauma and make it through, but sometimes, in the thick of a trauma response, it’s our job to just sit with them, hear them, and help them feel safe in our presence.