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Safety

Helping children feel safe in their relationship with us helps them feel safe in their relationship with God. This is how we can help our children have faith – a precious gift.

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One of the things that we do as therapists, when we’re working with somebody who has been traumatized, is we concentrate on making them feel safe. As I think about it, that’s also true with everybody that comes into my office – and especially true of children. The relationship isn’t going to go anywhere until they feel like they are going to be taken care of. And I’m not just talking about a safe location, but also emotional safety – free from judgment and put-downs and all the things that go along with that. Of all the things that I try to teach parents to do with their children, this one, on balance, seems to be the most difficult for people to pick up.

So today we’re going to get really specific about how to create emotional safety. Children are small; adults are big. Children do not have formal operational reasoning and adults do. Children have no power and adults have all the power. So it’s easy for adults to intimidate or frighten children without even realizing it. It’s even easier to shut them down emotionally and make them feel shamed, or guilty, or inferior. Older siblings can cause that to happen to children, too. They have more strength, more physical ability, more mental capacity. So they can, also, intimidate their younger siblings and make them feel inferior. Kids don’t often realize that their older siblings have had more time to learn and grow. They think that it’s a level field and when they can’t do as well as their older siblings, a lot of times they feel like they’re not as good as, or less than.

So, when we talk about an environment that’s safe, it’s a place where we want them to feel like it is safe to be themselves – to express themselves. Parents have to balance that with socializing children. There are so many things that they have to learn how to do and they have to be taught, but we don’t want to pound away on that so much that they feel like they are not worthwhile. They need to feel safe while we’re doing that.

So we’re going to look at some areas today where children can easily be damaged. I’m going to try to draw your attention to each one of those and talk about what to do in a positive way.

The first area that I want to talk about is childhood fantasies. Children, just by nature, fantasize. It’s a part of their development, actually. It’s a way to deal with life in a safe way. And it’s the way to try on different kinds of things that they haven’t experienced yet. Think about fairy tales. Grimm’s Fairy Tales – some of the ghastliest stories – have existed for hundreds of years. Why is that? Well, the big bad wolf who eats kids, and other scary things in life, like the bully down the street, can be contained with dad sitting on the edge of the bed reading about it. And they can connect the bully down the street with the big bad wolf in an unconscious way. And it’s a safe way to do that for them.

They like to try on new things. I had a little boy, some time ago, tell me this fantastical story about his exploits on the elementary football team. One look at him could tell you that he wasn’t capable of doing those things. It was just so obvious that the story was made up. So I said, “It’s really cool to be good at something like football and you wish you could be even better!” He kind of perked up and nodded and smiled at me. So he understood that I got what he was talking about and, I think, maybe helped him understand that, too – that his story was really about a longing to be more proficient – maybe not even at football.

Sometimes, also, besides just trying on something new, fantasies that kids have are a way to communicate things to us. I had a twelve-year-old tell me about a meeting her mother and the teachers were going to have at school in a couple of days. She said, “They’re all going to sit around and talk smack about me.” Only she didn’t say smack. So I had that comment in my mind as I went to that meeting. And I found a group of young women who were very positive, very energetic, and they were all talking about what they could do to help this girl resolve some problems that she has at school. So it’s obvious that the girl’s thought was not accurate, but that’s how she imagined it would go – just a paranoid fantasy – a story that she made up in her mind about how it was going to go.

So what communication do you think was there in that story? I think she might have been saying, “I’m worried that my behavior has made them think I’m a bad person.” And she is a little bit on the mercurial side and has been called a “drama queen” by nearly everybody she knows at one time or another, including me. So I think she’s probably done some things at school, or been into some things, that have caused her to feel like people are looking at her. So what I was tempted to say was, “Oh come on, they care about you. They’re just there to help you,” and all the adult stuff that we like to trot out. But what I said was, “You think that they don’t like you.” And that led to an involved explanation of how she got into a fight with another girl at lunch. And now the teachers were all taking turns, inviting her into their classrooms for lunch. So I now know what’s going on, right? They are concerned about her and they’re taking their own personal time to try to keep her out of harm’s way. So I said, “They care so much about you that they’re trying to keep you out of trouble by spending time with you. But you don’t like it because you’d rather be out with your friends.” She kind of did the double-take and, “Yeah.” So she got to know that I understood what she was concerned about. And I also got to connect reality with that fantasy for her. And she could accept it that way. Whereas, if I had affrontally assaulted that issue, she probably would have denied it. She had her fantasy she was believing in.

So the principle there is not to challenge fantasies, but to understand them. What I’ve seen over and over again is when the need for the fantasy is resolved, it just goes away. So that’s a little bit to think about. We don’t have to assault our children over those things. We can just go with it. And if we do that, a lot of times we get to input how things really are without actually saying it in a direct way, which makes it much easier for them to take in.

Negative feelings. Kids have radar for the negative feelings of adults. That same twelve-year-old I was just talking about came to my office for her session one day and that morning I had just learned that the daughter of friends of ours had died. The moment she sat down, she looked at me, and she said, “What’s wrong? Did I do anything?” There it was. That’s in a nutshell how kids kind of take in adults’ feelings. They automatically assume, if it’s negative, that they had something to do with it somehow. So I told her just enough about the situation so that she knew that she didn’t cause my kind of downer attitude. She, then, told me about a friend of her mother’s who had died recently and how she felt about that. So she just instinctively knew what to do. She might be a drama queen, but she does have the capacity to care – probably why she’s so dramatic – because there’s a lot of sensivity within that child.

If we do have to express negative emotions, we always have to make them feel secure that they are not the cause of it. Almost every child that I’ve met, who is in the process of going through a family divorce, thinks somehow that it’s their fault. So we don’t want to burden them with things. Kids carry their own share of stressors, so we don’t want to burden them, but we want them to know that they are not the cause of our problem.

I was talking, once, to a little girl whose mother had a seizure not long after they had an argument. She thought that she had caused that seizure. She was so anxious and guilt-ridden that she was having hallucinations over it. So once we dealt with that, they went away. But the principle there is, that kids tend to think negative things are their fault. So we want to approach things in a positive way. And, if we’re having problems that they can detect, we want to make sure they know that it’s not their fault.

The next one…I just call it reaching out. Kids need time to adjust to new things. When I first started to do counseling with kids, I noticed that they would kind of bunch up in the chair or the couch, or they’d try to burrow into the cushions when they would come in the first time. And it was really obvious by the body language that they didn’t feel comfortable or safe. So I started meeting them at the door. Where I first started practicing, there was a long hallway and then a foyer in this building, so I would stand in the foyer and wait for them to come in. And I would shake their hand and then I would walk down the hall with them and talk to them while we were headed to the office. Once we got to the office, I’d give them a guided tour, or, if they were able, I would just let them explore the office by themselves so they would know what their surroundings were like – just let them take the time that they needed to do that – to kind of get comfortable with the situation. I would notice that quite a few of them would turn their back to me and play with the toys that I had in my office. And while they would do that, I would talk to them. And they would nod. I could tell that they were paying attention, but they didn’t have to make eye contact immediately. It was just a safe way to check me out and also check out what I had there for them to play with.

So anytime your child is starting out something new – where there’s any apprehension at all – you can walk them into it. You can reach out to them and go with them. What I do with parents now is, I ask them to meet with me first, so that they can tell me all the things they want to tell me about their child without having to say negative things in front of them about them. Then the next week I ask them to bring the child into my office, introduce them to me, and then ask the child if they might leave so that we can work together. And, of course, we’re showing them all the stuff and talking about what it’s going to be like so they can feel comfortable.

The principle is to reach out to children and draw them in, rather than expecting them to come to you. That’s so true, even with our own children, especially when there is something stressful going on. It sends them a message of support and care. And it builds the relationship by increasing safety.

The fourth thing to talk about…I’m going to call that right places. You try to provide a safe and relaxing place for connecting or for confronting – if there has to be a confrontation. If you have to confront a child with something, you want to do that where they feel safest. I know a principal that doesn’t chew kids out in his office. He usually takes them out on the playground, or into the lunchroom, or somewhere they have a feeling of community. That’s really a good practice that he has going there for him.

So kids come in my office and I’m trying to help them feel safe. And being a male therapist, I have to find ways to make women and girls feel safe being alone with me. I’ve noticed there are three situations that are especially challenging. That’s girls just starting into puberty, girls who have been sexually abused, and girls and women who have had bad relationships with their fathers.

I was with an elder teen once, in her first session, who sat on the couch with her knees pulled up under her chin, and she was perched – looked kind of like a bird on a perch – at the farthest end of the couch – the furthest she could get away. So just looking at her and thinking, “Wow, she really feels uncomfortable,” I said, “Are you a bit cold?” “Well, maybe a little.” So I gave her a fleece blanket to cover up with, which she draped around herself like a tent so that all that I could see of her was her head sticking out. And then she was able to begin that incredibly difficult work of counseling – self disclosure. I got to send her the message that I knew what was going on, and that I could take care of her, and she got to hide a little bit and feel safer that way – peek out at me. And before it was over, she was as relaxed as she could be and had no problems with that anymore. So beginnings are times when we need to be in the right place and so are endings.
That same girl, months later, when it was time to end therapy, I asked her what she might want to do that would be different on our last session. She said, “Could we do something fun?” So I said, “Well, probably. What would you like to do?” So we tossed around some things. What she decided might be a fun thing to do would be to go to breakfast together. So she came to my office and we walked down to Flying Star, which is what? a mile away, maybe? While we were at breakfast, I told her funny stories about my teenage years and I told her that I was going to miss her. She told me that she’d never forget me, and that I really helped her a lot, and she really appreciated it. I think it was easier for her to say, “Goodbye,” outside the office, where we’d done our bonding. This was more a social thing. I think doing something social with her helped her feel more valued, which was her struggle, because she never felt valued at home.

I’ve had some really great talks with my daughters in the car. I’ve also listened to them have some interesting talks among themselves. It seems like when an adult is attached to a steering wheel, they don’t exist. I learned a lot that way. Sometimes the car is a good place to talk to children – especially older ones, it seems.

So the principle there is that the right place can make children feel safe. So we want to give some thought to what is the right place for safety for a child.

I remember once I went to visit a family because the father had requested that I come and talk to one of his daughters about problems she was having with a teacher at school over the matter of evolution. This girl had a fraternal twin sister, as well. I think they were thirteen, maybe. And I remember that I got invited to check out their rooms. I mean, that was it – when you get invited into a teenager’s bedroom to check everything out and listen to their music and all that, then they feel safe with you. We didn’t have that talk there. We had it in the living room so that her parents could listen to it. After we had seen the rooms and listened to the music, then we were ready to talk. Until then, they were still checking me out a little bit. A good place is a good place.

The fifth principle I want to bring up is predictability. I remember when I went to visit my grandchildren when they were, probably, a year old. I remember I was up early and so I was the first one up. I was downstairs when I heard the first one wake up. Then dad came down. He went in, talked to them, changed them, got them dressed – well, I guess they were still in their pajamas. He brought them out, put them in their high chairs. He had milk warming up for them. You could tell by watching that they knew exactly what was going to happen next, because the same thing happened every morning. He gave them milk and then he had some oatmeal, or something, for them to eat. And while they were eating that, he went upstairs and mom came down. They did tag-team every morning. He went up to shower and she came down. She got a few more winks. Then she took care of them. And she finished off breakfast and got them dressed and bathed and all that. When it was about time for her to come down, you could see them start looking up the stairway, because they anticipated everything. That kind of predictability and routine is extremely helpful to kids. I try to do the same thing every time in my office – start out the same way and have a little routine I go through with them. Chaos destroys safety. When things are chaotic, kids get anxious.
I’ve been seeing one little girl quite a long time. Her mother is a single mom who struggles to make ends meet. There are other siblings in the family that have emotional problems that create a lot of drama. Sometimes the car breaks down. They have cash flow crises. I’ve noticed that when these things come up, this girl’s mood is definitely affected negatively. Now mom tries her best to keep things on an even keel, but sometimes she doesn’t have the resources to do that. I’m not blaming her for it, but just saying, the more predictable and routine-like children can have it – no surprises – the better it is for them. Moving can be a time of anxiety – changing schools, changing classrooms.

So the principle there is that predictability reduces fear and helps kids feel safe. So the more routine things are, the better. We deal with a lot of families that are just in constant chaos. And that’s why their children are sometimes mistaken for having ADHD – because they’re so anxious, they just can’t sit still – can’t focus. It’s not really a biological or neurological problem. It’s just their environment that’s causing it.

The sixth thing is about embarassment. We never want to embarass kids. One time one of my kids asked if her older sister could come to a session. She said that her sister wanted to meet me. Her sister, I think, is in her twenties. I’d heard lots about this beloved older sister, so I really wanted to meet her, too. They came thirty minutes late, which meant there were only fifteen minutes left in the session. When they arrived, the sister was properly apologetic and accepted the blame for the problem. She couldn’t get off work when she thought. I made light of it. It wasn’t that big a deal, but my little client was totally shut down. She had her mask on big time. I couldn’t tell if she was angry, or embarrassed, or what had happened – really hard to read. So the next week I brought it up just to clear the air. I said, “I noticed you didn’t have much to say last week, and I wonder if you’re all right.” She said, “I’m fine. I don’t want to talk about it.” So I said, “Okay, we don’t have to talk about it. In here, you get to choose what we talk about and what we don’t. And I will still care for you just as much.” So then she kind of relaxed a little bit. Before the session was over she was okay.

Sometimes kids get angry at siblings or they do something that they feel is stupid, and they don’t want others to know that they’re upset. They want to go off and either kick something or cry by themselves. It’s best to protect their privacy while they’re dealing with those strong feelings and not let the other siblings in on it. You’ve got to keep them protected.

So the principle there is that, if we protect children from embarassment, it helps them know that we care for them and that we’re going to keep them safe. I find myself having to curtail my curiosity and tune-up my sensitivity and my patience to wait and see what’s going to come of it.

Showing interest in a non-threatening way is the next thing that I try to do. We’ve talked about the dreaded communication pattern – interrogate, judge, fix. We don’t want to interrogate children. When kids come to my office, they usually are toting a big dead elephant along with them. It sits in the room and we don’t talk about it for a long time. We talk about what kind of food they like, what colors they like, what’s their favorite thing, what animal they’d like to be. We talk about pets. We talk about siblings, We draw pictures about what the family is like. We talk about favorite activities. They get to ask questions if they want to. They get to play. They get to draw. Then, when they feel safe, they start drawing attention to the dead elephant in their play or on paper. Sometimes he shows up in the play or even in discussions. Sometimes they address it verbally. Instead of interrogating them about it, we reflect back what we’re getting and that helps them go deeper.

I had a child once whose father was in prison. She could talk about that, but she couldn’t talk about the pain that her mother was going through. One day, finally, after some time, she said, “My mom and I don’t get along.” And I said, “And you’re hoping that that can change.” I said that because she told me at the beginning that she was hoping things could change for her, but she didn’t elaborate, so I kind of referred back to that. Then she said, “We’re really different. I’m a daddy’s girl.” “And now you wish you could also be a mom’s girl, too?” And she said, “Yes, but we fight.” “And you don’t want to do that, but it keeps happening and you can’t seem to stop it. You don’t know what to do.” She said, “I think we both miss my dad.” So now we’re starting to get closer to it. “And so that makes it harder to be kind to each other, doesn’t it?” She said, “You know, my mom is going to start therapy, too.” So I said, “You and your mom are both working on being nicer and you hope with all your heart that the two of you can be closer. You know that you need her.” She just looked up at me and smiled with the “Hey, you get it” look that you sometimes get.

So there are ways to talk to children to help them to express what is concerning them without bullying them into it. I tell the story about the boy who came to my office after being in the office of a behavioral psychologist. I said, “So what was it like there?” And he said, “He tried to make me talk about stuff I didn’t want to.” I said, “Did you?” And he said, “No way!” There’s a much better way to go about that.

I met a little girl not too long ago who may have a major mental illness. When I talked to her mother first, she told me that on top of all the stress that this girl creates in their family, she herself had just had pancreatic surgery. So you can imagine what is going on in that family. The little girl, in describing her family, told me that her mother helped her with all her problems and was the one who did everything for her. She even said, “I wouldn’t know what to do without her.” So we’re talking about the concern about what might happen to mom. So later I casually mentioned that her mother told me that she had just had surgery, and then left it at that – no pressure. I just mentioned it. So she said, “Yes, we don’t even know if it will help.” So I said, “Scary.” And she said, “Scary for her and scary for me.” It’s amazing what kids come up with. And I said, “She’s the one who understands you and helps you.” She said, “It makes me sad.” So I said, “Afraid and sad, because you love your mother so much and because she helps you so much.” She nodded. She didn’t make eye contact with me. She suddenly became engrossed in the drawing she was working on. So I just sat there and held her feelings while she went through that. What that will do is help her come to grips with that and she’ll talk more about that later when she’s ready.

So the principle there is to show interest without interrogation. And, instead of interrogating and asking direct questions, you just give back what you got and kind of go with the child and let them determine where and when to talk about those things.

The more we try to force our adult solutions on them, the more it makes them hang on to their individuality and their privacy. So, if we just go with it, we’re going to get a lot further a lot quicker.

So those are some specific ways that I help my little clients feel safe with me. And I’m hoping that people can extrapulate those into the family by using the principles.

So what does this have to do with helping a child develop faith in God? Well, it’s very simple. David said that God was his shield, his buckler, his high tower, his wall. God kept him safe from his enemies. All of us want God to do that for us. And if we foster a sense of safety in our children, they will know that we’re there to keep them safe. And when they grow up, they will know, also, that God can keep them safe, as well, because everything gets transferred to God in the long run – both good and bad. All of that happens in the relationship. So we focus on the relationship with our children to help them develop their faith as they get older.