Felt Safety and Ficus Trees

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At Fostering Hope, “felt safety” is a term we speak of often. Felt safety is our body’s unconscious determination that a situation is safe. It is different than safety and can sometimes be difficult to explain.  

Oftentimes, as foster, adoptive, and kinship parents, we are confident that the environments our kiddos are in, are safe. So why don’t our children from hard places feel safe? 

I recently had an experience with a Ficus tree that reminded me just how hard achieving felt safety can seem. 

Last summer, I bought a Ficus tree. It is large and lovely. I put it on my back patio in a huge ceramic planter. I watered it and watched it grow.  

Just before the end of the year we had a hard freeze here in Texas and I brought my tree indoors, knowing it would not survive the weather.  

Safely inside, the leaves started to wither and drop. I watered it, dusted off the leaves and worried just a little. Once the weather warmed up, I took the plant back outside, but it still wasn’t looking good.  

I thought maybe my plant wasn’t going to survive all the change.  

Last week, a friend who is a “plant expert,” came over and examined the situation. 

She told me it was probably shock from the changing environment; my tree was in self-preservation mode ensuring its survival. The roots were still healthy, she told me. Meaning, in time, the tree would adjust and once again put out new leaves and continue to grow.  

I was relieved to hear the roots were healthy, and my tree was doing fine, but it got me thinking about felt safety…  

Again, we experience felt safety when our body’s unconscious evaluation of a situation determines it is safe. It is different than safety. Felt safety is our subjective experience of safety. Our brain takes cues from our body to determine the safety of a situation.  

For example, when a child wakes up from a bad dream, they are safe; they don’t feel safe so they seek out their parents who can help them feel safe again.  

So, what is happening in the brains of our kids who have experienced trauma?  

Brains are designed to keep us safe, scanning our body, our environment and the people we are with. Our brains are efficient and use our past experiences to decide the safety of our current situation.  During early experiences where our children were not safe, their brain learned that, in general, the world is a dangerous place and that it was their responsibility to keep themselves safe.  

When the child is no longer in danger, their brain continues to take conscious and unconscious experiences from the past and now, blends them together and predicts how they should respond.   

If a person has experienced an unsafe situation in the past, it will weigh similar situations more heavily and is likely to judge a situation as being unsafe. That is why for some kids, a bump in the hallway feels like an attack.  

Understanding felt safety helps us understand our child’s behavior and can help them manage their behavior.  So how might this play out for us, with our kids? 

Let’s say you take your kid to a friend’s house, where they have a trampoline. Your child bounces on the trampoline jumping higher and higher. Laughing the whole time, until another kid gets on the trampoline and starts to bounce. The other child accidentally bumps into your kid and mayhem ensues.  

Both kids are pulled off the trampoline and your child screams and yells about the unfairness of the situation, unable to help your child get regulated, you leave embarrassed about your child’s behavior.  

It is strange to think at that moment your child felt threatened. After all, it was just an accident, and your child’s response came out of nowhere, seemingly. 

How could we handle this differently?  

As parents we utilize our own felt safety to help our kids feel safe. Children determine if they are safe by evaluating their parents’ cues (tone and volume of voice, tension in the body, heart pounding).  

So, the first step we take is to make sure we feel safe. As we are pulling our child off the trampoline, we take some deep breaths, keep a calm voice and use as few words as possible.  Once our child is safe, we can work to restore their felt safety.  

We take a few deep breaths and check in with ourselves.  

  • Am I hungry? Thirsty? Tired? Embarrassed about my child’s behavior? Worried we won’t get invited back?   
  • Can I move into a place of curiosity about my child’s behavior? And my reaction?  
  • Can I help my child regain their sense of safety?  

Just like when our child has had a bad dream, we bring them close, we remind them of their safety, we may cuddle them and, if they are small, bring them into our lap. We stay calm, we take deep breaths, we listen.  

Once our child is regulated – we might ask if they can identify what triggered their response. Point out what you noticed (keep this short and non-judgmental, for example: Your body was really working hard while you were bouncing, your heart was pounding fast, you had so much space to yourself and then when your friend got on the trampoline, he got too close to you and then bumped you, did that make you feel something? What were your feelings?) 

After we have helped our child return to safety, we can help them make any repairs they may need with their friend from the trampoline.  It doesn’t always go smoothly, patterns that have been learned over the years take time to change.  

But this work is worth the effort.  

What can a parent do to increase their child’s felt safety?  

  1. Be aware of our own sense of felt safety, point out situations where we might not feel safe, but we are. (Ex. seeing a scary movie, when a dog behind a fence barks at us). 
  1. Notice your child’s behavior and help them identify when they are not feeling safe. 
  1. Teach strategies for increasing felt safety.  
  1. Remain curious, listen to your child, respect their feelings. 
  1. Be with them, don’t minimize their feelings. 
  1. Set them up for success. If we know a potentially scary event or situation is going to be happening prepare them for what will happen.  

Want to talk more about felt safety or a situation you’re going through? 

Schedule a one-on-one with Beth. 

Additional resources 

Felt Safety? What’s that? – A podcast by Robyn Gobbel 

13 Practical ways to increase felt safety – blog post from The Cork Board online.