Felt Safety


child felt safetyOf course my child is safe. He is with me. We live in a decent neighborhood. We lock the doors. The cabinets are full of food. But that doesn’t mean that he FEELS safe. Without felt safety, children cannot learn to trust their environment and their new parents; without felt safety, children cannot securely attach. A child who does not feel safe is afraid. A child who is afraid is not able to learn, which means he or she is not listening to your lectures and your punishments are ineffective. Fear is a common response when children are stressed, like when their entire world has changed, they do not understand the language, and they feel out of control. When a child joins your family through adoption, parents must work extra hard to ensure that the child FEELS safe.

Yesterday, I had to leave my son with a babysitter for a few hours. We chose a babysitter that is a background-checked college student that works at his school, someone he has known most of the time he has been in the United States. Someone who has cared for him at school, given him snacks, put on his shoes, etc. I have observed this babysitter to be extremely nurturing and gentle. There was no rational reason for my son to be afraid, but he was. He was not afraid that the babysitter would hurt him; he was afraid that he would be left alone. We talked about how to call mommy. We talked about safe neighbors. I even assured him that the babysitter would not leave until I came home with money (which was probably lost on him but I was running out of ideas). When he wanted to call a family friend that is a police officer to ask the police officer to drive by the house and make sure he was not alone, I let him do that. I am a pretty rational person, I did try to reassure my son, but in the end what was most important was doing the things that made him FEEL safe. He was laughing when I left the house, so I think we managed the concern.

Felt safety means that a child knows and believes that he or she will not be harmed, will have enough food, will be comforted when scared, will not be rejected, is valued, and that his or her desires are important. The child’s history before joining your family, simply the fact of adoption and being separated from biological family for some children, is likely going to interfere with your child being able to easily believe some or all of those things. This is just one more way that adoptive parenting requires a bit more from the parent.

A child needs to know and believe that all of his or her physical and emotional needs will be met. For a child to begin to trust that his or her new parents will meet all of his or her needs, parents need to respond quickly, consistently, and compassionately – saying “Yes!” as frequently as possible. To encourage Felt Safety, parents can also use a warm, gentle voice, offer frequent praise and affirmation, create a predictable schedule, and give warnings prior to transitions. Dr. Purvis shares a great example of a child who is safe but does not believe she is safe using food in chapter four of The Connected Child.

Photo Credit: Paul Vallejo

Brooke Randolph, LMHC, is a parent, therapist, and founding team member of MLJ Adoptions, Inc. with more than 20 years of experience working with children and families. She is the mental health expert contributor at DietsInReview.com, a national diet and fitness column; a private practice counselor in Indianapolis, Indiana; and the Vice President of PR, Outreach, and Communications at KidsFirst. She is a single adoptive mother who has authored adoption education materials and presented at numerous conferences and workshops throughout North America. Brooke is primarily motivated to encourage, equip, and empower parents and individuals to make changes that strengthen their lives, their careers, and their families.