When our children were small we began quite early trying to set safety perimeters in their lives that would keep them safe. We taught them that the stove is hot and that touching it will result in a “boo boo.” We warned them of the danger of crossing the street without looking both ways. We explained the danger of putting things in the outlets with a shake of the head and a firm “No.”
As parents, our primary motivation during those early years, was keeping our children safe. We began with addressing safety in their immediate environment when they were just babies by baby proofing with outlet covers and cabinet locks. Then as they grew bigger and could better understand our words we taught them how to make safe choices within the home.
As our children grew older, and the size of their world expanded, our rules and guidelines had to grow with them. We began talking about how to keep safe from outside threats. We talked about not wandering away in the grocery store, of holding hands when crossing the street, and the danger of strangers.
When my children reached the age when we finally needed to address the topic of stranger danger, I fretted. Like so many of the BIG TALKS we must have with our children as they grow older and need additional information and counsel, this topic intimidated me. I wanted to make sure it was handled in a way that would protect my children without making them fearful of people.
Through a friend we were introduced to the children’s safety video by John Walsh entitled, Stranger Safety ,which became the foundation of our approach. Through this video we taught the concept of boundaries, of “Don’t Know” and “Kinda Know” adults, of the right to say ‘no’ when you are not comfortable, and of Safe Side adults.
This was a hard topic to address with my three oldest when they were little, and I find the topic all the more challenging to address with my younger two who have experienced trauma at the hands of those who should have been the Safe Side Adults in their lives. Their experience, coupled with years in the foster system of being shuttled from new home to new home, with strangers they were supposed to be able to trust, who weren’t always trustworthy, has resulted in very confused children that are always on high alert for potential threats. (Even when there are no threats to be seen.)
Recently we received some scary and upsetting news about one of the boy’s biological siblings that shook us all to the core. We found out that the abusive, biological parents of one of the boys had secretly been in contact with one of their biological siblings, unbeknownst to that adoptive parent’s knowledge, until recently. This knowledge has resulted in heartbreaking consequences for that child and that family. Consequences that may never be overcome. Consequences that we had to share with our children for their safety.
Now we have two terrified boys.
And those fears are playing out in challenging ways within the walls of our home.
They are afraid to go to bed, certain that their birth parents will find them too, and either kidnap them and take them back to a life of abuse, or simply kill them here in our home. And as much as I offer proof of their safety, and tell them that their parents will not show up at our doorstep (Because if they did they wouldn’t leave in the same condition. I’d love the chance to show them some of the “love” they inflicted on my boys…Grrr) Tyler and Ozzie have a hard time believing they are safe.
So rather than dismiss their fears as unlikely or improbable, we are facing their greatest fears head on, addressing their “worst case scenarios,” and are giving them a plan of action they can rest their worries on.
Last night, for family night, we set up our safety plan.
In therapy Tyler shared with Miss Tina that the thing that scared him most was the fact that he couldn’t remember what his birth father looked like. He frequently has nightmares about that monster but in his dream he can’t see his face. Tyler expressed his anxiety about not knowing what his father looks like.
Can you imagine? He walks around in a constant state of hyper-alert fear, scanning the face of every man who passes us at the park or in the store, uncertain of whether that man is his predator, his abuser, the man who may try to kill him. Can you imagine knowing that there is someone after you but not knowing what he looks like? You would never rest, never be free from paranoia or worry. That is Tyler’s perceived reality. And as his mom, I can tell you that living in a state of hyper vigilance, 24 hours a day, is exhausting for a little boy. So the first step of our safety plan was to put a face to the monster in the closet.
Last night I pulled out photos of Tyler’s birth parents and Ozzie’s birth parents and showed them to all the kids. After all that happened this past week with this other family we felt it important that all the kids knew who they should be on the lookout for.
The next step in addressing Tyler’s fears was to bring resolution to another concern he expressed. He shared that he was afraid that if he had to call 911 he would forget his name or address and the police wouldn’t be able to save him. This was an area of concern easily rectified with a few papers posted near all the phones in the house, containing all vital information.
The final concern he shared was that he wouldn’t know if the stranger at the door was a bad guy or not… a valid concern for all kids when discussing Stranger Danger…but even more concerning for children that learned at an early age that the Safe Adults in your life aren’t always safe.
So we role-played various scenarios. We took turns playing the parts of various people who might knock on the door. We started by establishing the rule that the front door remains locked and unopened, regardless of whether we know the person knocking, until mom is at the door with you.
We then talked about how to handle different people at the door beginning with the least threatening scenario of a friend or family member, and progressing to Tyler and Ozzie’s worst-case-scenario fear of a birth parent with a gun on our porch. While this threat is minimal, and addressing it may seem counterproductive in helping a child lay down a fear, I have learned with the boys that the worries playing in their brain are always 100% scarier than any worst-case-scenario situation I could name, and rather than these activities planting new seeds of worry for my boys they actually bring a lot of relief as their darkest fears are brought into the light.
We spent an hour moving through the various steps of checking through the peep hole, asking the stranger to leave, calling 911, etc. until moving through the plan many times established some muscle memory that the kids can call on in a moment of crisis when fear freezes the part of the brain responsible for logical thinking.
We then set up a “safe zone”…a secret place in the house that the kids are to run to together and hide in during a worse-case-scenario situation. The kids practiced running and hiding together when we yelled, “Safe Zone!”
I saw some of the anxiety lift as we faced their fears head on.
Like so much of the preparation we do with our kids to keep them safe from the dangers of the world, the likelihood of needing to apply this plan is minimal, and the prayer is that we will never have to use it.
But by addressing their concerns, and establishing a plan to face their greatest fears, we were able to pull those demons that haunt our boys out of the darkness,
And bring hope, light, safety and security to a scary world.
Fear will not prevail.