Vol. 17, No. 2 • May 2013

Being Safe vs. Feeling Safe

by Jeanne Preisler

Every human has emotions. We feel happy some times and mad at other times. We can feel angry, silly, and excited all in the same day!

One emotion we often feel without consciously knowing it is the feeling of safety. Feeling safe is not something we discuss often. For example, when a friend asks "How are you?" we rarely respond by telling them we feel safe.

Yet if you think about it, most of us can say that we feel safe on a fairly regular basis.

A Universal Experience
Safe can be defined as free from harm or hurt. So, feeling safe means you do not anticipate either harm or hurt, emotionally or physically.

Can you remember a time when you didn't feel safe? Pause for a moment to really
remember it.

Maybe you experienced a terrible thunderstorm and the wind was so loud you wondered if there was a tornado coming. Perhaps you witnessed a fight or were threatened in some way. Perhaps you were separated from your friends in a large crowd.

When We Feel Unsafe
It's likely you're able to recall at least one time in your life when you didn't feel safe.

Do you remember what emotions you were experiencing when this happened? Several emotions often compete for attention during traumatic events like this.

When I was feeling unsafe, I was scared and anxious, and my body just froze in place. My heart pounded and my mind was racing to figure out what was going to happen next. Because I was not in control of my body's reaction, panic was closing in.

Even now, years later, if I am in situations that remind me of that time, I vividly remember the event.

Psychological Safety Matters
You are reading this article because you touch the world of "child welfare" in some way. It is highly probable that you have heard the expression "safety, permanence, and well-being" before. We use these terms to compartmentalize the vision we have for children. We want them to be safe and free from harm. We want them to have a permanent family who will be there for them for the rest of their lives. We want them to be well --emotionally, physically, spiritually, socially, mentally, and economically. We have made a lot of progress on these goals over the last decade.

However, the concept of safety has evolved recently. We have historically thought of safety as simply being free from physical abuse, free from sexual abuse, free from emotional abuse, and free from neglect. This type of safety is a critical first step on the road to being well. But, we need to broaden our definition of safety to also include this concept of feeling safe; a concept that we call psychological safety.

What we are realizing now (and what the research is telling us) is that permanency and well-being can't fully happen if the child does not feel safe first. To have a childhood--to develop and grow and be well--children must first feel psychologically safe.

What Helps?
So, how can we help children feel psychologically safe?

Think back to the time when you didn't feel safe. What helped you?

I bet if I polled 20 of you, I might find 20 different things that helped create the feeling of safety. That's because what works for one person may not work for another.

At every age there are things that help us feel safe. In the very young it might be a pacifier, a special blanket, sucking a thumb, a stuffed toy, a loving caregiver, a kind word, a smile, a hug, or the act of rocking back and forth.

As we get older, we seek the feeling of safety in such things as a friendly voice on the telephone, a comfy pillow, a special meal, friends, clubs, a special location, spiritual beliefs, or books. We also seek it through some not-so-healthy methods like an overabundance of food, alcohol, and/or drugs.

One important thing I would like you to remember is that children who have
experienced trauma might get a sense of safety from things we hardly ever think about.
The fact that food is readily available to them at all times might help them feel safe. The temperature of a room might help them feel safe.

Trauma Reminders
On the other hand, things we believe should create the feeling of safety--a comforting hug or a hot bath--may cause a child who has been abused to feel terribly unsafe.

Sights, sounds, smells, people, places, things, words, colors and even a child's own feelings can become linked to trauma. Afterward, exposure to anything associated with the trauma can bring up intense and terrifying feelings. Sometimes, the child may understand what is happening, but these connections will most likely be completely unconscious.

This makes it challenging for caregivers to help. To help we must become really good detectives and help children identify things that instill the feeling of safety and eliminate or minimize things that cause them to feel unsafe.

Just because an agency has deemed a foster/adoptive/kinship parent as "safe," with the right locks on doors, no criminals living in the home, and pets up-to-date on rabies shots, does not mean that a child moving into this home will feel safe. In fact, I hope you can see from this article that a "safe home" has very little to do with the child feeling safe.

Angel, age 13

I know someone cares about my well-being by how inviting they are. When you first get to their home, everyone invites you in and makes you feel at home.

But the question is, do you feel invited? Do you feel in a safe environment?

Another way is by how they act and what they do to show they care.

Well-being is your happiness, so if you think about it, it's saying, "How do they make you happy?" By taking you on trips, having fun, and including you in everything!

Everyone makes mistakes, right? But after you made that mistake and got your punishment it's pretty much time to move on. But if your parents or foster parents go on and on about what happened a long time ago, that's kind of putting you down and not really making you happy.

Would you really want someone to make you remember a one-time mistake every day?

That's what I thought. No one does.

It feels great to know someone cares. When you've settled in and became a part of the family it's really not different from your real family. No matter if they are white and you're black, or they're black and you're white. You can still feel they care.

Even after this some people will still ask, but what does it feel like?

Well, I told you all you need to know. The rest is up to you. If you love or dislike the place you are at, that's how you know. No one can tell you what it feels like because they're not there. They can't answer questions that were meant for you.

At the end of the day it's up to you to decide whether that person or persons care about you.

Angel received $15 for having her work published in Fostering Perspectives.

Angel's essay in the box above reinforces this idea. She talks about what she felt when she entered a home for the first time. She felt "at home" and "invited." This would not have been possible if she did not first feel safe.

Psychological safety is an extensive topic, and we will continue to write about it in future issues of Fostering Perspectives.

Be a Detective
For now, I invite you to put on your detective hat and begin to see your child's strengths, fears, and behaviors through the lens of psychological safety.

When your child is thriving, what conditions are present? When your child is scared, what are all the factors that led to that feeling?

If there are certain behaviors causing problems, begin to notice what triggers (sights, sounds, smells, people, places, things, words, colors, etc.) were present prior to the behavior. If the child is old enough, ask them questions such as:

  • What scares you?
  • What calms you down?
  • What happens when you start to get upset?

Being a good "safety detective" can go a long way towards healing children who have experienced trauma.

Reach Out
In addition to wearing your detective hat, I have one more request of you. Please share this article with at least one other person who touches the child welfare system and discuss it with them. This is an important topic for everyone involved in the system to know and think about. By sharing this information, you will play an active role in transforming our system for the better.

Jeanne Preisler works for the NC Division of Social Services on Project Broadcast, an effort to help the child welfare system become more trauma-informed. She used the National Child Traumatic Stress Network's Caring for a Child Who Has Experienced Trauma: A Resource Parent Curriculum to inform this article.

Pass It On!

Examples of people you might wish to share this article with include your child's:

  • Guardian ad litem (GAL)
  • Court counselor
  • Teacher
  • Tutor
  • Sports coach
  • Any relatives who interact with the child.

To view references cited in this and other articles in this issue, click here.

~ Family and Children's Resource Program, UNC-CH School of Social Work ~