Resolving to Preserve Safety in Relationships

Silhouette of a man's head. Mental health related, universe as brains.

As I referred to Bessel van der Kolk previously, I struck once again at his recent conference by his emphasis on creating and maintaining safety in any relationship with someone who has been trauma impacted. This is one of those themes that cannot be overstated and is more complicated than it may appear at first glance.

Dr van der Kolk, like many, referred back to the seminal work by Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery inwhich she described the three stages of trauma recovery:

  1. The establishment of safety for the child/youth
  2. Remembrance and the establishment or reestablishment of an intact sense of self as safe, capable and lovable
  3. A reconnection to people and life experiences that support development, safety, creativity and joyfulness

As you can see, safety is a component in all of these.

It is important to appreciate that the trauma-impacted person often does not feel safe with themselves. This is what I shared in my last blog – that introspection can be very threatening to the trauma-impacted person.

While we can’t necessarily focus on that inner world of the trauma-impacted person, we can focus on the outside world, seeking ways to make it as safe as is possible.

Here are a few suggestions for accomplishing this:

  • Discuss the concept of safety with the trauma impacted person. Describe the differences between physical, emotional and relational safety. Invite the person to consider how safe they feel at any given moment, using a continuum approach. “How safe do you feel in your relationship with your teacher on a scale of 1 to 10? How about with your grandparents? How about with me?” (Know with this last one that the person may not feel safe enough to describe how safe they feel (or not) and may capitulate, trying to please you with what they say.)
  • Invite the trauma-impacted person to make a list of things that might help them feel safer. This can be a way to create a Safety Plan and can help you know some specific ways you can support them in feeling safer. Make sure you keep this list handy so you can periodically review it and use it to check with the person to see if they might want to add anything.
  • Be aware of your own body language when you are around this trauma-impacted person. Consider possible gestures, facial expressions or tone of voice that might feel threatening to them. Sometimes a brief puzzled look or frown, a slightly raised voice, or any kind of gesture that could be interpreted as a precursor to something abusive or violent can instantly sabotage your efforts to promote a climate of safety.
  • ALWAYS apologize if and when you say or do anything that might have compromised physical, emotional or relational safety with a trauma-impacted person. Acknowledge that what you said or did might have made them feel threatened or afraid. Share that you were not intending to do that but rather may have experienced a surge of your own emotions that may have led you to that.
  • Invite the child or adult to notice situations around them and even on social media or in movies where physical, emotional or relational safety is either being nurtured or violated. This is a nonthreatening way to raise greater awareness where the person can see that safety is an invisible force we all experience in our own unique ways.
boundaries stencil print on the grunge white brick wall

Promoting safety may not come easily to some of us because we too may have our own issues around feeling safe within ourselves and with others. Think about ways you can promote physical, emotional and relational safety for yourself. It’s a valuable exercise and can serve as a model for the children or adults in your life who have been impacted by trauma.

Invitation to Reflect

  1. To what extent and in what circumstances do you suspect that a trauma-impacted person you know experiences physical, emotional and relational safety? What has promoted that or lessened that?
  2. How receptive do you think this person might be to the suggestions listed in this blog? What are some ways you can customize these to meet the needs of this child or adult?
  3. What are some ways you can promote your own sense of physical, emotional and relational safety?

Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute