Safety can be a tricky beast when we’re parenting kids from hard places. Oh sure, it is easy for us to look around and see that our children are physically safe. They’re well fed, clothed, have adequate shelter, and there are no “bad guys” coming after them. What isn’t always so easy to see is that safety a very real and very primal need that drives everything. If that need isn’t met or it is compromised in some way (as it was for so many of our kids during their early year), everything changes.
Have you ever wondered why kids who had a rough start in life have an extreme need for control? Big secret here…It’s not really about control. It’s an extreme need for safety. Remember, our sweeties once lived in a world where NOTHING was safe and no one was there to help them through the terrifying things they experienced. In fact, the people who were supposed to protect them didn’t do it…and may have even been the one who hurt them. They no longer have any faith that anyone can or will keep them safe. This is especially true of their moms.
Hurt kids don’t perceive the world the same way we do and nor do they think the same way we do. Absolutely EVERYTHING they do, say, think, and feel is filtered through the lens of “Am I safe” and “Am I going to die?” It doesn’t matter if we think they are safe or not. It’s all about their perception. If they don’t believe it, if they don’t feel it, and if they don’t process whatever is going on around them as safe, then they aren’t safe. It’s that simple. No amount of logic or reasoning will change it, either.
Here’s the really crazy part of this. Kids who don’t feel safe will create truly unsafe situations for themselves and for others. It’s all part of the faulty brain wiring caused by trauma. Sometimes the real danger overrides the constant anxiety. Sometimes it’s lacking impulse control, and other times its simply not caring because they believe it’s going to end anyway.
The #1 rule for parenting trauma
The #1, most important, non-negotiable rule for parenting kids from hard places is “Safety First…Always!” There is no delicate or pretty way to say what comes next, so I’m going to just put it out there. It is NEVER OK for a child to abuse a parent (including mom), sibling, pet, or peer. Period. No exceptions! There is no question about the reverse being true as well. It’s never ok for parents to abuse, intimidate, or bully kids.
I realize that is a tough thing for a burned out, stressed to the hilt parent to hear. It is such a critical piece of making home a place where healing can happen that it can’t be ignored. It doesn’t matter if the abuse is physical, verbal, emotional, sexual, or some other kind. It doesn’t matter if the infractions are big or small, either. Abuse in any size, shape, or form is still abuse and it damages everything and everyone it touches.
As parents, we have both a legal and moral responsibility to do all we can to stop it. It isn’t easy to wrestle a rabid wolf to the ground or to stop a string of verbal vomit in its tracks, especially when all that special stuff is directed right at us. We still need to do all we can to try and stop it every single time it happens. In some cases, this may mean doing very hard things.
Does this mean we’re always going to be perfect at it? Not a chance! Are we failures if we blow it from time to time? No! The level of crazy that comes with parenting hurt kids will get to all of us at times. We’re going to make mistakes. We’re going to lose it. What matters most in those times is that we step back, fix our own mistakes, apologize when needed, and keep trying. It is important to realize though, that allowing it, taking it, ignoring it, or not doing enough to try to stop it will only make things escalate and undermine trust in the long run.
Emotional safety matters too!
Emotional safety matters as much or more than physical safety. Remember that old little ditty we used to recite when we were kids? “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me!” It’s not true. The physical bumps, bruises, and breaks heal long before the emotional pain and scars do. It is important for all of us to live in an environment where we feel safe, both physically and emotionally.
Emotional safety isn’t just for kids. It is equally important for us as adults. Unfortunately, we moms tend to get the full brunt of all our kids “special” stuff. Not only does the stuff dish out damage our own self-esteem and mental health, but it also undermines all other relationships as well. The best way to protect and defend all those things is to take a stand and say “No!” to the abuse. Guess what else? A child who can abuse you will not trust you.
Yes, they are going to test you on that over and over again. Do you know what they’re really looking for when they do? Boundaries. They are looking for evidence that you are strong enough both physically and emotionally to keep them safe.
Take safety seriously!
When in doubt, always choose safety first for every member of your family. Do whatever it takes to make it happen and maintain it for everyone. Call for help if you need to. Call every single time if you need to! Sometimes it’s the ONLY way to get real help.
Do you have a solid, detailed safety plan in place? Do you need help writing one? Is it followed and enforced every single time things even remotely start to flare? If not, that’s a great place to start.
We tried for years to find someone to help us write one. While we appreciate the efforts of some who tried, they weren’t anywhere close to what we really needed. They either only addressed a few of the things we were already doing or they were never actually completed to the point they could be useful. We ultimately found success by writing our own step-by-step plan based on things that happen in our home with our kids. It follows the format of “If A happens, then B. If B doesn’t work, then C…and so forth.” It is exponentially more detailed than anything any therapist or social worker could help us with, too. It wasn’t easy to do, but once we had it in place and started following the steps consistently, things started to settle down very fast.
Taking the lessons home
There’s a lot of information packed into this little post. What stood out to you? What do you need to do to maintain safety for everyone in the home? What can you do today to support your child’s need for safety while guarding and defending your own needs at the same time? What support do you need in order to confidently stand up and say “NO!” to abuse?