Promoting Safety- what do I mean?
We talk a lot of about the core need your child has for a sense of safety. By saying, this I am not suggesting you are unsafe or doing anything to intentionally promote a sense of being unprotective of your child. You are working and involved precisely because you are intentional about helping your child know they are safe and loved.
Every child comes into the world helpless and requiring care, they can do nothing for themselves. The infant senses and “feels” this vulnerability and therefore cry when they have a need, or coo and look adorable to gain attention. In fact in cases where a child does not perform these behaviors, it suggests the child has learned that there is no one willing or available to meet their needs and they have in a sense given up. Some theories of parenting education that asks us to ignore the child’s cries and mold the child to our schedule of availability can be very harmful in my opinion, This dance between the baby and caregiver informs them implicitly of the way the world regards them, their sense of self value, and they learn how much to trust the world, others. They learn if they are protected as well.
Any mammal has an instinctual physiologically driven reaction when faced with a threat. You have likely heard of the flight, fight, freeze and faint reactions. The body releases cortisol, adrenalin and prepares to react in the most appropriate way for survival. We are aware and can become hypervigilant when the environment cues us that there is danger or threat. For children this can happen as they read very subtle cues, change in the environment, facial or body language or a sense of chaos or unpredictability. Again, this may not mean we are intending anything stressful, we may very well be working to prevent our child from knowing about the stress we are under however we know that our brains wire together so there is a shared truth in the situation- we cannot deny. Things are sometimes stressful. Let’s take each of these strategies and look more closely.
There are two reactions called “mobilization” which means getting ready for reaction: flight or fight. “Mobile” means to move freely. When a child is in flight mode- what is going on? What does that look like? A child is simply seeking to flee a threat, get away, escape, twist out of a hug or holding, avoiding and wanting lots of space. A baby may twist away or lean away from a parent. The limbic system has evaluated and assessed there is a threat, usually obvious but not always- remember the brain knows more than we can quickly understand, especially in crisis with contextual information flooding our senses. In fight mode- well, we likely all know what that looks like. Anger, aggression, moving towards the threat to “slay” it rather than away like flight. The survival instinct tells us we must fight to the death. The brain in both of these cases is reacting for action, which takes lightening speed coordination of systems and integration of information.
The remaining two reactions are what we call immobilization responses. I contrast to mobilization, these two survival strategies are faint and freeze. They are the reduction of movement or “life” activities for a brief time. Freeze is just that- paying statue, limb that stills. Its as if movement will shift the air surrounding and therefore stillness is protection- I am invisible. Faint is disassociation, checking out, sometimes sleep. There is a crisis and the body says- not for me, but I can get out fast enough so let’s check out. Children will resort to these without preplanning, they are instinctual responses.
Let’s explore: Which strategy does your child tend to use in stressful circumstances?
Describe a time when this was noticed
What was your response and how well did it connect you to your child?
SO to creating safety. First make sure you are seeing your child, the state they are in and meeting their relationship needs with you. Some children say straight up what they need, some fight for their needs to be met (again an adaptive behavior they learned), others are pleasers and want to keep peace and may need help stating clearly their feelings and needs. Your child may have learned somewhere that they have to meet other people’s needs and therefore are not skilled at bringing forward their own needs. Looking them in the eye when they are not aware of your inquiry- what are their eyes telling you?
Safety is deep. It means safety in terms of survival needs like “Where do I live? Who will care for me? Who will protect me from predators ( those who could do harm to a child)? or simply, Am I held or alone?" Safety is also to the deeper need of relational protection, will someone care about my feelings, provide me structure and predictability promote my agenda and joy?
copyright 2015 Kristine Clay