Emotional Regulation – “Felt Safety:” A New Take on an Old Term

Most of you have probably read time and time again about helping your child feel safe, which will enable trust to grow between you and your child, and attachment will follow. In the past, helping a child feel safe was understood in terms of keeping a very scheduled family environment, limiting your child’s exposure to new people or things, and feeding your child familiar foods, etc.  All of these approaches, while helpful, only address a child’s physical environment.

I would like to share with you the powerful sense of “felt safety” that comes from a child’s interpersonal experience with you, the parent!

Parents understand that their child is now safe.  Some older children may also know that they are safe, but that does not automatically translate into the powerful feeling of safety. Developing the feeling of being safe depends on how you interact with your child.  In past articles, I have written about how easy it is to cross our children’s fear threshold, blasting them into a fight, fright or freeze response.  Let’s explore ways to create “felt safety.”

An underlying principle is that interactions with your child cannot cross their fear threshold. This is especially important when they need correction or discipline—a time when our own frustrations can leak over into our voice, facial expressions and body language. To avoid panicking a child it is important to be authoritative, but to not frighten your child.  We, as parents, can view misbehaviors as opportunities to teach our children new skills.  In education, teachers call this a “teachable moment,” and they jump at the chance to provide an experiential learning opportunity. In behavior lessons, they are called “Re-dos.” The child is given the chance to try again, this time with a safe and respectful response. This is very powerful for a couple of reasons:  humans remember better when there is motor activity associated with the learning. Second, one of the lasting effects of trauma, neglect or abuse is that most kids have language delays. This means they can pay attention to what you are saying for up to only 12 words at a time! So parents need to be direct when speaking to their kids. The use of stock phrases or “scripts” makes this much easier for everyone.

An example of how this might look: Sarah purposely bangs into another child. Her parent asks: “Is that treating Mary with respect?”  And prompts for a “no” answer. Next saying, “Let’s practice showing respect when we walk by Mary.” Then walk the child through the appropriate behavior and make a big deal of her doing it right. Parents need to go overboard in celebrating the correct behavior so as to make a lasting impression, and it needs to be repeated hundreds of times to override the old behavior.

In the past, our kids did not have the opportunity to exercise developmentally appropriate levels of control in their lives. They may respond by trying to control everything and drive all their family members crazy. They need “appropriate levels of control.” The key word here, of course, is “appropriate.” Put this into action by giving your child a choice about how something will happen, not what is going to happen. For example:  “the what” may be that they have to get dressed. “The how” could be getting dressed by themselves or with help.  “The how” could also be wearing the red shirt or blue shirt.

An underlying principle is that interactions with your child cannot cross their fear threshold. This is especially important when they need correction or discipline

Another example:  “The what” could be that it’s dinnertime.  “The how:” Do they want to sit next to John or Emily, or do they want a purple glass or a green glass. It is important to give them appropriate choices continually throughout their day. You can use this technique to head off their fear threshold.

Another example: You, the parent, says, “It’s is time to go to the store.” You know that transitions — even fun ones — can be difficult for your child.  You see the early signs of fear and quickly jump in by offering a choice: “Emily do you want to wear your red coat or your blue coat?” or “Emily do you want to wear a hat or not?”

Another way of creating “felt safety” is “playful engagement.”  This means using a playful voice and engaging in playful touch.

A playful voice sends a message of safety to your child’s overactive fear response system. A voice that is playful is not threatening.  “Mother-ease” or baby talk triggers primitive parts of the brain’s sense of safety. This primitive part of the brain responds without thought to the quality of voice used. Ever wonder why some kids are so much quicker to respond to dad telling them to do something? It is the deep voice primitively associated with physical power, which definitely will cross our kids’ fear threshold. So to prevent a flight, fright, or freeze response, try using mother ease at times when you can see your child approaching the fear threshold.

Playful touch can be purposeful or accidental. Purposeful touch could be through massage and playing the weather report game (the way you touch imitates wind, rain, thunder, or hail), soaping the back and drawing pictures, numbers or letters while bathing, or grooming (brushing hair, doing nails). Accidental touch could be through water play or music. It is important that you keep your voice tone and cadence soft and rhythmic, and your facial expressions playful, smiling and happy.  Research has shown that babies that get infant massages gain weight two times faster, mothers of babies with “failure to thrive” do much less touching of their babies, and that infants deprived of safe touch respond within days to safe touch.

This concept of “felt safety” is from the book “The Connected Child” by Karyn Purvis, Ph.D.,  or visit her website empoweredtoconnect.org.

Abbie Smith, LCSW | Former Holt team member

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