Helping Kids from Hard Places Feel Safe


In the month of October we see neighbors front yards turn into graveyards, spider webs covering trees, and skeletons hanging from racks in the grocery store. Generally, this isn’t unsettling for us and despite the decorations, we feel safe. The understanding we have of feeling safe in our surroundings is called “felt safety”.  

Kids who have experienced trauma may not feel safe, even in the comforts of a loving foster home. We KNOW that they’re safe. They have food, water, a bed, and hopefully a community of nurturing people coming around them to provide for their needs. However, because of what they have experienced, their brain development is often stuck with their fear center (the amygdala) being consistently activated, without a higher level of cognitive processing. Without the slower and more deliberate processing of higher parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortex), the stress hormone cortisol is released and the fight, flight, or freeze response is triggered. Regardless of the safety that we believe we’re providing for these kids, they don’t feel safe.

What can we do to help kids from hard places experience felt safety?

  • Broaden your understanding of the effects of trauma. Try reading The Connected Child, by Dr. Karyn Purvis and Dr. David Cross or attend a Trust-Based Relational Intervention Caregiver Training.
  • Practice “Playful Engagement”. If you’re used to responding to kids with a firm loud voice, and consequences, consider first trying a playful way to redirect them to follow directions and provide respect. Dr. Karyn Purvis has taught us that “play disarms fear”.
  • Create a “Yes” Jar. If kids from hard places come to your home often, you can create a “Yes” Jar, filled with little trinkets or small treats. Whenever a child asks, you allow them to choose something from the jar. Building up the “yes” response helps provide connection and positive interaction with the child. You could also provide or supply goodies for the foster/adoptive family that you support.
  • Provide sensory opportunities for kids. Research has found that many children from hard places struggle with sensory processing. They benefit from different physical activities that can either calm them (ex. breathing exercises, being covered in a weighted blanket, rocking) or provide them with stimulation that they’re seeking (jumping on a trampoline,  swinging, playing with fidgets).  Have fun doing some research on sensory activities and gadgets.
  • Implement Dr. David Cross’ 5 H’s.
  1. Hurt- Even as high-functioning adults, we are often carrying around our own hurts from our past. This can affect the way that we interact with others and care for kids. We need to do the work to resolve our struggles as well!
  2. Heart- Develop a compassionate understanding about kids’ behaviors as attempting to meet a need instead of viewing them defiant, difficult, or manipulative. Survival skills were required to have their needs met. We play the role of detective to learn those needs and help them communicate them in more effective ways.
  3. Healing- Learning about tools and resources to help kids from hard places is essential. Kids depend on us to teach and nurture them. We believe that healing comes through relationship, with God and with people.
  4. Hard Work- Putting in the time and self-control to help a child feel connection and felt safety is a commitment! It doesn’t come naturally for many of us to remain calm in situations when kids are struggling with emotional regulation. Putting in the work will be worth it!
  5. Hope- Even in the darkest of times and the thickest of challenges, we strive to have hope in the great Healer who has overcome and is able to give us what we need to persevere.
Tags: Support

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