This blog is my place to vent and share resources with other parents of children of trauma. I try to be open and honest about my feelings in order to help others know they are not alone. Therapeutic parenting of adopted teenagers with RAD and other severe mental illnesses and issues (plus "neurotypical" teens) , is not easy, and there are time when I say what I feel... at the moment. We're all human!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Safety First

Children NEED structure and caring support to feel safe and start to heal.   This feeling of safety is not about physical safety and often not based in reality – it is a perceived feeling of safety.

Just like our kids keep using old defense mechanisms that are no longer needed, our kids with scary, traumatic early childhoods often get stuck in the feeling that they are not safe.

This is a life or death feeling! 

A child who feels unsafe is a scared child. A scared child will act out (or act in) to try to feel safe again.

Feeling unsafe is not rational. You can't explain to the child that they're safe now. Logic doesn't work. Feelings of being unsafe can pop up at the most unexpected times, like a PTSD flashback. For a good explanation of this see: The Frozen Lake Story (at the bottom of this post) by Nancy Thomas. Generally, this feeling of being unsafe will fade as our child heals, but there will probably always be times when it comes up again.
Children who don't feel safe in infancy have trouble regulating their moods and emotional responses as they grow older. By Kindergarten, many disorganized infants are either aggressive or spaced out and disengaged, and they go on to develop a range of psychiatric problems. They also show more physiological stress, as expressed in heart rate, heart rage variability, stress hormone responses, and lowered immune factors. Does this kind of biological dysregulation automatically reset to normal as a child matures or is moved to a safe environment? So far as we know, it does not.” ~ The Body Keeps the Score, Beseel A van der Kolk, M.D.
For a fantastic explanation of safety and why it is so important - plus what to do about it. I highly recommend the video Chaos to Healing - Therapeutic Parenting 101 which explains Daniel Hughes P.A.C.E concept in an easy to understand and practical way. One of the presenters in this video is therapeutic parent and coach, Christine Moers. If you haven't seen her YouTube videos or checked out her blog, I HIGHLY recommend her.

Kids of trauma are often easily triggered, extremely sensitive to emotions, unable to regulate their emotions... causing them to react as if they are in a war zone.  You can't learn, attach, and heal if you don't feel safe and you're living in a war zone!

Hypervigilance (obsessively monitoring her environment) is super common among kids with PTSD.  It relaxes when they start to feel safe, but probably doesn’t ever really go away.

Who's in Charge Here?

Our kids need to know we're in charge. If the adults aren't in charge then they can't keep the child safe. When we back down - let our kids argue, intimidate and manipulate us into changing our minds, we are sending a mixed message to our child. That message is that we cannot keep our child safe.

If the child feels that they are in control instead of us then their world is not SAFE.

I said "safe" a lot. That's because I believe it's one of the most important motivators kids with trauma issues have. They do not trust and they do not feel safe. 

An insecure, scared child behaves in increasingly bizarre and scary ways to get control of their world. When they have the control, instead of the adults, then they get more afraid and things cycle even farther out of control.

Structure and Caring Support

It took me a long time to believe it, but my children actually craved caring structure. Their favorite teacher at school was a behavior staff person who always called them on their behavior (if they were acting like a turd, she said so, bluntly), BUT, unlike the teachers who let them do whatever they wanted, or were super strict, but didn't actually care about my kids, my kids knew that this teacher legitimately cared about them.

When I began providing Caring Structure, I thought for sure they would rebel and make our lives miserable. They didn't always like it, but it seemed like their few complaints were based on what their peers thought about it, rather than something they were truly feeling. Unlike my neurotypical, biochildren who understandably would have protested the strict structure their adopted siblings required, most of the time, my adopted children just accepted it and moved on.

Without this structure or when we "lightened up," my son would act out until he had to be returned to the stricter structure level. Somewhere deep down, subconsciously, his brain knew he needed that structure to feel Safe. 


The time to talk about rules and consequences is NOT in the moment. In the middle of a meltdown, our kids are most likely in Fight, Flight or Freeze mode and feel like this is a life or death situation. The thinking part of their brain is not online.

The premise of the Beyond Consequences books is that there are only two primary emotions, love and fear.  For example, when a traumatized child shows anger it is because he or she is scared.

It helps me to remember that during a meltdown, my child feels like a cornered or injured animal and is lashing out to protect himself. He is a scared little boy. This helps me be empathetic, which makes it easier for me to be therapeutic.


Rules are like fences. Kids need them to feel safe. If the child feels that they are in control instead of us then their world is not safe. 

Children NEED rules, routines, and boundaries – these are like fences, they keep children safe.  Think of children as researchers.  Some children are very aggressive researchers; they will continuously test the rules over time to see if they are still firm and clear. Rules make children feel safe.  Only when a child feels safe can they trust enough to feel loved.

Some "rules" on Rules:
  •  Rarely say “No” – Provide lots of structure from the beginning.  There is nothing wrong with saying, “No," but it's better to set up the child’s environment so that he/she doesn't hear a lot of "No"s.  There just shouldn't be an option of doing things that need a “no.”  Think of it like childproofing.
  • "4 Foot Rule" and "Shadowing" used when the child is dysregulated, threatening harm to him/herself or others, and being intimidating and/or aggressive… or just seems to need the additional emotional support. The child must be within (approximately) 4 feet of a caregiver at all times (this usually just means line-of-sight).
  •  Rules should be simple and few.  Make sure rules and consequences are very clear and consistent.  Go over rules with the children often!  It only takes 2 minutes to tell the children (or have them tell you!) the rules, and the consequences if they are not followed.
  • Positive and Concise!  Try to keep the rule to no more words than the age of the child (3 words for a 3-yr-old, 4 words for a 4-yr-old...) and phrased positively.

    Instead of saying "No running!"  For a 3-yr-old, you would say, "Use Walking Feet!"  Instead of, "Shut UP!  Why are you always screaming?!  You're making Mommy crazy!  Why can't you just play quietly for 5 minutes?!...."

    Keep it short and simple. -quietly state "Inside Voices."

    Instead of "Quit standing on the furniture!"  Try, "Chairs are for bottoms (not feet)."
  • Don't say “DON’T – When you tell a child “Don’t” you just increased his chances of doing what you’ve just asked them not to do tenfold.  Instead of telling a child what not to do, we need to tell them what to do.  Create a positive picture.  The more enthusiastic and happy you are the more likely they are to listen!  Really!
  •  Clear, consistent communication – When delivering consequences, make sure your message is clear and direct.  Be firm, consistent, and FOLLOW THROUGH!  Stay calm and pleasant.
  •  Fresh starts - Fresh starts should be soon – a whole week is ineffective.  “I’m sorry you forgot the rule.  Tomorrow (after nap time, after dinner…) we will try again.”
  • Blank Slate - Forgive, but do not forget. If your child's life becomes one endless punishment ("You're grounded till you're 35!") then they have no motivation to continue.
    However, if you continually give them second chances with no qualifiers, then they will continually make the same (or worse) choices. Instead, change your expectations to ones that are developmentally age-appropriate and allows them incremental steps to earning whatever privilege they want but can't handle yet.
  •  Choices – Never give a child a choice you don’t want them to make.  Give them one or two options (both of which are acceptable to you).  If you ask a child if they want to get in the car or continue to lie on the floor and throw a fit, guess what they’re going to pick?!
  •  Okay?” is not okay, okay? - By ending a statement with “Okay?”, you are asking their permission and sending them an unclear message. Drop "Okay?" from your vocabulary, okay?


STRUCTURE AND CARING SUPPORT - Helping your child feel safe by providing the structure they need/ crave.

CHAOS TO HEALING - Therapeutic Parenting 101 video which explains Daniel Hughes P.A.C.E concept in an easy to understand and practical way.

CHRISTINE MOERS, therapeutic parent and coach. See her YouTube videos and check out her blog,

ATTACHMENT THERAPY and THERAPEUTIC PARENTING - As the child heals and attaches to you he/ she feels safer.

CRISIS PLANS - Setting up a plan with the child's school, caregivers, treatment team... to determine ahead of time, what to do if the child starts feeling unsafe and acting out or acting in.

ANXIETY SCALE - a concrete method of determining how a child is feeling.

CALMING TECHNIQUES - some effective techniques for helping a child calm down or stay calm.

CONSEQUENCES - Thinking outside the box (letting the kids help)

DEVELOPMENTAL AGE APPROPRIATE LEVELS - a concrete plan used to explain to a treatment team why a child is being given privileges and responsibilities more appropriate to a younger child (hint: because they are dysregulated and don't feel safe!)

THE FAIR CLUB - This can be used for discipline, but it can also be used to provide a very structured lifestyle for kids of trauma.

MY TOP 10 - the things that helped me the most in this journey!


My kids used to say they wanted to be in charge and often manipulated people so they were in charge, but underneath, the belief that adults were "stupid" and could be manipulated easily, TERRIFIED my kids (especially my son). They NEEDED the structure and caring supervision.

When we felt Bear was doing well and gave him more freedom and choices, he usually reacted by acting out. For a long time, we thought it was because the freedom gave him the opportunity to get into trouble. Eventually, we realized that it was because that was the fastest way to get us to reinstate the restrictions so he could feel safe again. He WANTED/ NEEDED to know exactly what was going to happen next (structure) and being closely supervised made him feel cared for. If we "weren't paying attention to him," then we didn't love him (yet another example of black and white thinking).

Once the kids felt safe and really knew that we "had their back," THEN they could handle having some choices and being in charge of themselves.

Unfortunately, Bear was never able to trust others enough to feel safe. That's why he needs the structure that we were no longer legally able to provide when he became an "adult." He could have gotten this structure in the military, but he wasn't eligible (due to his mental illness and medications), so he got it in the only other place he could, prison.

I felt like a bad parent until I realized that this is how he's wired and there's nothing more I can really do at this point to help him heal. I still have hope that his brain will continue to heal and someday he'll be able to maintain relationships and trust enough to not need this much support. You Have Not Failed

THE FROZEN LAKE by Nancy Thomas
"In order to understand what an unattached child feels like, one must understand his perspective. Imagine that you are the young child who must cross a frozen lake in the autumn to reach your home. As you are walking across the lake alone, you fall suddenly and unexpectedly through the ice. Shocked and cold in the dark, you can't even cry for help. You struggle for your very life, you struggle to the surface. Locating the jagged opening, you drag yourself through the air and crawl back into the woods from where you started. You decide to live there and never, never to return onto the ice. As weeks go by you see others on the ice skating and crossing the ice. If you go onto it, you will die."
"Your family across the pond hears the sad news that the temperature will drop to sub-zero this night. So a brave and caring family member (that is you, the parent!) searches and finds you to bring you home to love and warmth. The family member attempts to help you cross the ice by supporting and encouraging, pulling and prodding. You, believing you will die, fight for your life by kicking, screaming, punching and yelling (even obscenities) to get the other person away from you. Every effort is spent in attempting to disengage from this family member. The family member fights for your life, knowing you must have the love and warmth of home for your very survival. They take the blows you dish out and continue to pull you across the ice to home, knowing it's your only chance." 

"The ice represents the strength of the bond and your ability to trust. It was damaged by the break in your connection to someone you trusted. Some children have numerous bonding breaks throughout their young lives. This is like crashing them into the ice water each time they are moved, scarring and chilling their hearts against ever loving and bonding again." by Nancy L. Thomas

No comments: