Over this past year, I worked with an 11-year-old girl named Jenny who was going to be re-introduced to her biological father after not seeing him for 18 months.  The caregivers brought Jenny to me as she was exhibiting a wide range of emotions and behaviours from excitement to anxiety. These were connected to the impending visit. Jenny was originally removed from her home because of severe physical abuse from her stepmother as well as living in the constant strain of domestic abuse.  For children like Jenny, these emotions and behaviours are typical. Children that have experienced relationships or environments that have been invasive, unstructured, violating or neglectful develop a pervasive feeling of being unsafe.

What does “safety” look like and feel like for a child?

For many children safety is a general feeling that they experience as they interact with the people and environments that they live in. The people are generally pleasant, the environments are predictable and the activities are engaging. This sense of structure offers a feeling that is settled and safe. However, for children that have experienced complex trauma the opposite is true. Relationships may have been invasive or violating, environments unstable or unpredictable and activities have proven unstructured or neglectful. The cascading emotion connected to these environmental and relational factors leaves the child feeling unsafe.

The child also experiences the lack of safety within their bodies at a nervous system and physiology level.  Their brains often become highly reactive to stress which leaves them quick to move into Fight or Flight mode – without the child even being aware of why this is happening.

Helping a child heal from historical trauma requires that a child experience safety in the relationships and environments around them. Helping a child to feel safe requires that the adult relationships provide the right kind of structure that allows the child to trust that the world looks and operates in a way that is predictable and non-harmful.

A simple model that has proven useful in helping adults connect with children in a healing way uses the acronym SAFE as a framework. SAFE simply refers to activities that are Structured, Attuned, Fun and Encouraging. When activities are designed and completed in a structured, attuned, fun and encouraging manner, children learn that activities and relationships are predictable, enjoyable and consistent. Over time, they learn to trust that these relationships and activities are non-harmful, preferable and possibly worthwhile.

We decided to incorporate strategies into Jenny’s visitations that helped her to feel safe:

S (Structured) – Following a predictable format meant that for Jenny we met at the same place each week at the same time.  The activities during the visits themselves were planned as well.

A (Attuned) – The idea of attunement means that adults are able to read and respond to the child’s emotional state during the activity.  Jenny had some tools she could use to help us differentiate her feelings (BEAR CARDS: and we all agreed that when she appeared to escalate, we could withdraw her from the environment.

F (FUN) –  Children enjoy activities that are fun. The Broaden and Build theory of Barbara Frederickson has found that enjoyment of play serves to calm physiological arousal. This lowers a child’s sensitivity to their emotional triggers allows children to be distracted from fixating on their stressors.  For Jenny this mean doing what she loved most – painting pictures with her dad and playing cards.

E (Encouraging) – Encouragement is a powerful tool that can build into a child’s self esteem.  Anchor the encouragement to an area that the child believes is a personal deficit. (eg. If the child has a poor sense of esteem, comment on the child’s character (“you were very kind; encouraging; brave”…) or quality of participation (“You are so coordinated; smart; creative”…)  As Jenny’s dad was coached through this process, he started to use some of these phrases while playing with Jenny.

Over the ensuing weeks, a specific strategy was incorporated that involved the father, Jenny, her caregivers and the social workers supervising the visits.  Overall, this was a positive experience and continued to build on some of the attachment and security issues that Jenny had with her biological father.  Jenny made a comment about 4 months later that astounded all of us at CCI; she shared that she felt ‘safe and had lots of fun with dad’ in her visits.  Not all supervised visits are a success, but with co-operation, a predictable routine, and clear goals that address the child’s greatest needs, we often see the best progress.

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About the author

Dr. Kirk Austin, Ph.D., RCC, CCI Coach

Dr. Kirk Austin is a Registered Clinical Counsellor and member of our CTR Clinical team. To learn more about him click here.

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