International Day of Families in the time of COVID-19

Did you know today, May 15th, is International Day of Families? To mark this special day, we asked Hannah, our communications manager, to reflect on family life during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Musings of a Social Distanced Mum

Here’s to International Day of Families! I want to start out by honouring yours with you, whatever it looks like and whatever state you feel like you are currently in; whether you are experiencing lockdown nirvana or barely hanging on by a thread, we know you are doing your best.

In the most ‘normal’ of circumstances, family life is already all kinds of messy and marvellous, wonderful and weird, full of joy and sorrow. It’s courageous, creative and challenging, and this lockdown has magnified the very best and the very worst of who we are. For most of us, this season has given us more time together than ever before and there will be as many differences in our experience as conversations we have about it.  

I am one of the lucky ones.

In our house, where both parents have been working throughout; one from home and one on the road, and where three children have been knuckling down to some form of schoolwork every day, the routines and the expectations have had to adapt. We’ve certainly had our fair share of tears and tantrums, as well as moments called “I always want it to be this way!” Haven’t you?

We live in an isolated spot and I’ve never been so grateful to have hills and valleys and green on every side. Collectively, (adhering to government advice) we’ve walked the dog twice a day, every day, because the only life form we’re in danger of bumping into is sheep. 

I count my ‘location’ blessings every single day.  I am one of the lucky ones. 

But I’m also keenly aware that this is pretty unique and for countless thousands, there is no green space on the doorstep or garden to play in and so you’re doing your best to entertain your kids, you’re patient with your restless teenagers, and you’re soothing with your toddlers who can’t roam around like they normally would….

 

…..We want you to know, this International Day of Families, we see your struggle and frustrations and we honour you.

 

I can’t wait for my husband to come home at the end of his day, and sometimes I wish he was home all the time. When he calls; “I’m back!” my heart leaps, like when we were dating teenagers and the dog wags her tail and the kids holler back, “Hi Dad!” 

I count my ‘partner’ blessing every day. I am one of the lucky ones.

But I also know so many people are alone right now. Single parents caring for children without a break, desperate for someone to share the load.  People living on their own, now completely isolated, who might even settle for an argument if it meant having some company.

And then there are women and men for whom an argument is dangerous, quickly escalating into so much more. For you, this time is peculiarly cruel, and even riskier than usual. Your senses are heightened and you’re even more tired than usual, doing your best to calm and soothe and anticipate the triggers….

 

…..We want you to know, this International Day of Families, we see you and our hearts ache for you.

 

I love my kids, albeit, they can still push my buttons. I’m a mum for whom the school holidays can’t come quickly enough, and when they’re here, they’re over too soon. I’ve relished every stage of their development, always saying that ‘this’ phase is definitely the best.      

I count my ‘kid’ blessings every day. I am one of the lucky ones.

But I also know that kids can be tough and they don’t always play ball. I know that life shapes our kids just as much as it does us and sometimes we don’t have the answers to their questions, the patience for their tantrums, the money for their needs and the resolution to their challenges. And it’s exhausting. And sometimes it’s overwhelming…

 

….. We want you to know, this International Day of Families, we see you hanging by a thread, we see your exhaustion and we want to reassure you -  your “good, really is good enough.”

 

One of the things I’m really missing in this strange and unusual time, is my parents and siblings, nephews and nieces, even the in-laws! We’re a relatively large clan and I’m so grateful that, (most of the time,) we really get on! 

I count my family (and online video-conferencing) blessings every day. I am one of the lucky ones.

But I also know families can be war zones or at least, no-fly zones. Some of us don’t love the ones we speak to or speak to the ones we love, and some of us are just trying to track down the ones we think might be out there.

 
….. We want you to know, this International Day of Families, we see you wishing things were different, we see your wondering and your pain.

 

Finally, from my 95-year old grandparents, to my 12-week old niece, I can be very grateful that we are all healthy and well. 

 

….But we are very aware, this International Day of Families, that some of you are mourning the death of a loved one. We want you to know we see you. We grieve with you.

 

Whatever family life looks like this International Day of Families; whether you are alone, or surrounded; biological, fostered or adopted; blended, extended or befriended we take this opportunity to honour you.

It’s certainly a good time to reflect isn’t it? And when the dust settles and the world begins to move again, we can choose to take some things we’ve learned and appreciated into our future, and perhaps leave some other things “locked-down.”

Maybe, as a community, we can open our eyes and look about us to be the encouragement we ourselves, might one day need.

 

Over to you!

What lessons are you learning from being at home together? Or from being on your own?

What strategies are you discovering for peaceful family living?

What, if anything, will you do anything differently when all this is over?

 

Feel free to comment below or send us an email 

SFAC enjoys…..

Every month we thought it would be fun to put our heads together and come up with a list of some of our favourite things, which you can try out if you want to. So whether you’re looking for inspiration in the kitchen or a really good book, you know you’ll find it in our Good News and A Giggle updates.

If you want to stay in touch this way, you can sign up to our Subscriber Club by scrolling to the bottom of this page and filling out the form in the footer. As an added bonus, you'll also get access to our growing Free Resource Library!

This month’s suggestions come from Hannah, Communications Manager on the team.

 

Favourite Book:

I love the trilogy by Khaled Hosseini; The Kite Runner, A Thousand Splendid Suns and, And The Mountains Echoed. I couldn’t put them down!
Covering the kaleidoscope of human experience from fear, faith, war and death to love, sibling rivalry and marriage against a gloriously painted backdrop of the middle east. They would definitely feature in my all-time, top-ten favourites.

Favourite Recipe:

We recently nicked this recipe for Hasselback Halloumi from a friend of ours and the kids loved it. I’m trying to mix up some totally veggie or vegan meals, together with fish and meat in our     diets; healthy us, healthy planet!

Favourite Movies:

Quarantine has given us the perfect excuse, (and the time,) to try and watch the entire Marvel catalogue in order! I have no idea when we’d ever have another opportunity! Which is your favourite Marvel hero?  

 

May News In Brief

Lockdown might have confined us to our homes but somehow it hasn't slowed us down - so far it's been quite a year!

🤝 Look at what you achieved! 🤝

We're grateful for every single one of you because at very short notice, in last week's #twopointsixchallenge you helped SFAC raise £1000 👏

Our staff members and supporters hopped 🐰 baked🧁 read 📚walked 🚶‍♀️🚶‍♂️and jogged 🏃‍♂️ their way to '2.6' and although £1000 might not seem like a huge amount in the fund-raising world we put it to good use immediately! Your generosity provided:

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦  a COVID19 emergency placement guide, written by SFAC's social workers and therapists so that our partners can continue to safely place vulnerable children, even in the midst of the current crisis (or any other emergency situation)

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦  consultation sessions with organisations in Paraguay and Uganda, to improve decision-making in foster care.

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦  3 sessions of mentoring support and training for a foster care organisation in rural Uganda who are adopting and adapting good quality social work practices in care planning which, in non social work speak, is everything we need to know about a child to take care of them well. 

👨‍👩‍👧‍👦 20 subsidised training sessions for organisations that cannot afford it. 

We're determined that everyone can access our training and that lack of funds should never be a barrier. That's why your support is so vital.

THANK YOU!

🇧🇷 Invited to speak in Sao Paulo Brazil 🇧🇷 

2020 began with a visit back to Brazil for SFAC. Mick has been travelling back and forth to Brazil for many years and has even been referred to as “the father of foster care” by local SFAC partners.

On this occasion SFAC had been invited by 1 Million Home to discuss assistance in child welfare reform for vulnerable children and families. 

Mick also visited ABBA;  a foster care programme and long term partner of the charity. 

We celebrate Mick for being so committed to the work in this country that, twenty years ago, he learned Portugese to communicate effectively. Hats off to you Mick!

💻  And the world went online! 💻

In April, Dan was invited to participate in the European World Without Orphans conference in Croatia. As the world went into lockdown, everything was transferred online and he found himself participating with 45 participants from 21 different countries for the very first WWO online conference on family care. 

It included lots of sharing ideas on how to best protect children during the current crisis as well as discussions about strategies and support for promoting and implementing alternative family care (foster care, kinship care, domestic adoption), instead of children's homes, as the main option for children who cannot live with their parents. 

How appropriate for Dan to be involved in such a discussion whilst being temporarily locked down in his own childhood bedroom, (complete with stuffed toys,) in his own family home!

🎓 Caitlin Becomes a Protective Behaviours trainer for SFAC!  🎓

SFAC days come in all sorts of shapes and sizes 😃 This picture looks like Caitlin is working in a very cold house.... which she is 🥶 Home renovations whilst everything is on pause and there are two of you on Skype calls, means you dig out all your winter clothes and work in separate rooms!

What you can't see, is that this is almost the final step for Caitlin in becoming a qualified Protective Behaviours trainer. Protective Behaviours underpins a lot of our therapeutic work with children, families and care providers and soon, Caitlin will be delivering PBs training courses in addition to all the ways we currently use it in our practice

One thing you can say about this team is that we're willing to work wherever and whenever to get the job done.... although fingers crossed 🤞 it won't mean freezing conditions and isolation forever! 

🇺🇸 Making an author appearance in Virginia USA! 🇺🇸

An ongoing part of SFAC’s work is advocacy, and Mick had an incredible opportunity to talk about caring for vulnerable children when he was asked to talk about his book; "Children Belong in Families" at a Virginia-based bookclub over SKYPE!

After two hours of Q&A, drawing on his social work practise and international experience Mick had answered as much as there was time for, and debunked several myths! 

If you would like to hear more from Mick or any one of the SFAC team, in your bookclub, small group or in leadership training, you can email info@sfac.org.uk

If you would like to add a copy of Children Belong In Families to your quarantine reading you can go to www.childrenbelonginfamilies.net and pick one up today

✒️ Check out the Blog ✒️

The past few weeks have given us time to collect our thoughts! We’ve been writing for the blog about things which affect people, somewhere in the world, every day. Some of us are fortunate enough to be and feel safe all the time and the sudden absence of that during COVID-19 brings into sharp focus what life can be like for millions of people in their daily lives. You can read here about:

Coping Strategies - What they are and how they work

Three practical science-based coping strategies

Being and Feeling Safe 

Assessing Emergency Placements

🇵🇾 Teyhu Renda 🇵🇾

Dan has been working with Teyhu Renda, a Paraguayan charity wanting to develop a foster care and adoption framework and training materials. As with many of SFAC’s partners, the initial response to an enquiry involves really getting to know and understand them, and then plotting a practical course towards achieving the safe care and protection of vulnerable children in their community, wherever that is. This is just the beginning of what we hope will be another encouraging leap forward for Paraguay’s children.

Assessing Emergency Placements During the COVID-19 Pandemic

‘How do we make decisions for children during an emergency like COVID 19?’ 

Perhaps, not surprisingly, this is the number 1 question we’ve been asked recently. 

It’s a very hard question to answer, especially when we know your aim is to do the best you can for the children you’re protecting and caring for. Often, the dilemma goes something along the lines of:

How do I ensure my work is of safe standard when I can’t visit the child or family,  have cases needing decisions immediately, and resources that are even more limited than usual?! 

There have been a lot of resources released recently hoping to provide some support in this area. Having looked through many of them, we realised there seemed to be a gap when it came to brief, practical strategies organisations can implement immediately. We hope the following decision map and accompanying guide to making decisions about where and how to place a child during a large-scale emergency, like the COVID-19 pandemic, helps fill that gap. 

Confident readers of English should get through all of it in 15 - 20 minutes - unfortunately, putting it into practice will take a bit longer than that! 

 

Managing expectations in emergencies

Before we go any further, we want to make it very clear that during a large-scale emergency like a pandemic or immediately after a natural disaster, our goal changes. We’re no longer aiming for ‘best practice’. Instead we’re going for ‘the safest practice within current limitations’. 

It’s important to remember in the midst of a crisis ‘good enough’ really is good enough.

Emergencies are tough; emotionally, physically and professionally. We face limitations in what we can do and have to take bigger risks. Our day to day practice has to be different from our normal processes. That may also mean it’s different from what we want to do. 

The combination of change, uncertainty and heightened risk also means our baseline stress levels, our starting point, are higher than normal. We may feel scared, anxious, and worried about children we are unsure are safe. We might be anxious and worried for ourselves. We may feel frustrated we can’t do more. Emotions and experiences will vary from place to place and person to person and even within individuals on any given day but everyone will face periods of challenge and stress throughout the emergency period.

A change of focus: moving from "best practice" to "safe practice"

Our primary focus during times of crisis has to be basic needs - food, water and safety. Ultimately, this means organisations need to change their assessment processes to focus on these core needs and prioritise their cases accordingly. In crisis mode, cases we might normally respond to very quickly may have to be put on a waiting list as more pressing cases (life or death situations) take priority. Safety and survival are paramount.

Usually, our work at SFAC involves equipping our partners to protect and care for the children they work with in a way that allows them to not just survive but to thrive. In times of crisis, however, the focus flips from thriving to surviving. From “best practice” to “safe practice”. 

The decision map below and the explanation and guidance that follows are designed to help you work through the process of assessing and finding appropriate placements during this pandemic or similar, large-scale emergencies. They relate to decisions where you (and your organisation) believe a child needs to move in order to be safe and where restrictions arising from the emergency situation are limiting the services you can offer. We are grateful to have had the assistance of Joseph Luganda from CALM AFRICA in Uganda in developing this for you.

 

 

You can instantly download a printable copy of the decision map by clicking on the image. Alternatively, you can download a full pdf booklet including all the information in this post, the decision tree and some examples of Emergency Assessment forms from our Free Resource Library.

You can access all the resources in the library by joining our Subscriber Club. We recommend this option as the booklet contains additional resources and information, you’ll have access to the other resources in our growing library and we’ll also follow up with you to see if you would like any further assistance or have other questions. 

Some things stay the same

  1. In all circumstances, day to day and during emergency situations, we must first work with government officials and processes. This includes informing the appropriate authorities of any actions and decisions you’ve made.
  2. In all circumstances, even during large scale emergencies, the first response is always to try and resolve concerns, meet needs and lower risk without moving the child to a new placement (carer/children’s home/family member etc.). 

For a family struggling to provide basic needs such as food and water, the first priority is to explore how to meet those needs. It is not to move a child. 

Where there are concerns about a child’s safety the first response is to ask:

“Can we support the family to improve the situation and lower the safety concerns?”

However, during widespread emergencies, the available support is likely to be more limited which will have consequences for determining which cases you prioritise, the support you offer as an organisation and when you may make the decision that the child needs to live elsewhere. 

Large scale emergencies mean there will be children’s homes, foster carers, kinship carers or even parents who are usually able to care for children but can no longer do so. This may occur for a variety of reasons related to the nature of the emergency. For example, at the moment, carers may have contracted the virus or and, as a result,, been quarantined or hospitalised.  Many other parents and carers are unable to work due to lockdown or social distancing restrictions and, as a result, can’t afford food and other necessities. 

The limitations of the emergency may mean, despite their best efforts, your organisation is unable to resolve these issues and assist the child to stay where they are until the emergency has passed and your organisation is able to return to their usual procedures. Large scale emergencies require creative responses and new ways of working. 

Emergency Assessments: determining which living arrangements will be safest for the child

The aim of the emergency assessment process is to determine whether the child’s basic needs can be met where they are for the unknown period of COVID19 restrictions and, if not, where they would have the best chance of being safe.

This is a very limited assessment compared to what would be considered best practice under normal circumstances but still allows your organisation to gather the information needed to make a decision regarding the child’s immediate safety until the emergency abates, restrictions lift, and a full assessment can be conducted.

Methods for conducting assessments under restrictions.

Phone and video calls are valuable tools in emergency situations. Video calls might include someone doing a camera review of their house and both phone and video calls allow for interviews with everyone in the household. 

For some of you, this won’t be a practical option. In those circumstances face to face visits must only take place subject to government advice, risk assessment of safety for the staff member (which must be prioritised), and only where absolutely necessary. In the current situation strategies need to be implemented to allow social distancing to take place.

If assessments cannot be completed then the placement should not go ahead as without a clear understanding of the situation you cannot be confident the child will be safe.

Emergency assessments should only be conducted if it has been determined a child cannot remain where they are.  If this is not the case, assessments should be delayed until after the emergency when a full, best practice, process can be followed. 

This might happen for the following reasons:

  • The child is living in a children’s home that has been mandated to close by the government.
  • The child is living in a children’s home that is trying to reduce numbers as a result of the emergency situation (in the current situation, this might be in an effort to improve social distancing and isolation option or as a result of low staff due to COVID-19 infections or exposure. 
  • The child is living in the community in an unsafe family.
  • The child is living in the community in a family that is unable to care for them as a direct result of the emergency (e.g. parents hospitalised due to COVID-19 infection).

The emergency assessment process is designed to help your organisation find a safe option that can temporarily care for the child during the emergency and until best practice assessment processes can resume. 

Step One

  • Is there a family member the child regularly visits that is considered safe (and is either known to you, the child or the family)? 
    • If you are working in a children’s home you will (hopefully) have this information (ideally it will be recorded in their care file. We are aware not all children’s homes have such files. If this is the case for your organisation, we would recommend setting up a clear case management system as soon as you are able after the emergency situation and be sure to keep careful records of any assessments conducted during the emergency period so they can be incorporated in the new system).
    • If you do not know this information, or the child is living in the community, then it’s time to ask the family and the child. 

There are several reasons we explore this option: 

  1. It’s familiar (therefore the child is more likely to feel safe and be safe), 
  2. it’s where a child already has a relationship (therefore the child feels a connection and a sense of belonging so are likely to feel safer), 
  3. it meets their identity/cultural needs (provides for their emotional need to connect to themselves, their family and their environment), 
  4. it involves minimal change (our brains prefer familiarity and the certainty that comes with it so feel safer when change is minimised). 

If we think of a child’s main needs as physical and emotional safety - both being and feeling safe and a sense of belonging (connection to people, place and culture), then a home where they experience these things is where they have the best chance of thriving. 

Therefore, If this first option can provide safe care, it is in the child’s best interest to move there. 

Step Two

What if there is no information or no family member known or able to provide such care; or such options are impractical (too far away, for example)?

This is when we then need to explore the other options. 

Formal Options

Are there any formal foster carers available? Are there any children’s homes (preferably small ones) that are regulated and you know are safe? 

If yes, these might be viable options for a temporary solution as they provide you with an option that has been assessed as safe by a other organisation (the regulating body of the children’s homes or the organisation providing foster care.  

But we need to check two things first: 

.1.   Do the assessments/inspections/reports from the other organisation satisfy us that the placement would be safe for the child and meet the child’s needs, especially if there are any disabilities?

            (a) This is important as your organisation needs to ensure any child placed with a foster carer or a children’s home will not suffer abuse, neglect or have to move again. Never assume that a children’s home or formal foster care placement is going to be safe and appropriate. 

            (b) If you do not have assessments/inspections/reports you might use your own knowledge (or other people's knowledge) of the organisation providing the care but you need to be confident that it will provide safe and appropriate care and this should only be done as a final resort if all other alternatives have been exhausted. 

.2.   Are there any better alternatives? 

Informal Options

In emergency situations, organisations sometimes choose places for children to live that have not been through the standard full assessment procedure. This might be a family member who has not previously cared for the child but knows them, or might be a member of the community known to you or the family or someone community leaders know of who might be able to offer care to a child. 

Keeping in mind the importance of belonging and connection, for the child a safe and appropriate placement with a family member, even if it is one they haven’t previously stayed with, is usually preferable to alternatives. However, conducting an assessment to ensure it will be a safe place for the child to live is still essential. This should be more in-depth than the one that would be completed if the child was to be placed with a family member they stay with regularly. In this case, the assessment will need to explore what they know of the child, their parenting experience, how they can meet the child’s needs, their motivation and more so you can assess if the placement is more likely than not to be safe and appropriate for a significant period of time. 

Placement with a community member is more risky but is sometimes the best option. This type of placement requires an even more in-depth assessment, exploring the reasons why they want to do this, whether the child might be at risk of trafficking, abuse or slavery as well as the standard questions around parenting experience, how they will meet the child’s needs, and so on. 

In the UK, Dan has placed a child with a neighbour who knew the child very well and was willing to care for them until we could conduct a full assessment of the situation. 

In Uganda, Joseph has arranged for a local community member known to the CALM staff to become a temporary foster carer until they could conduct a full assessment and find a suitable, long-term arrangement. 

In both scenarios, checks must be made with police and community leaders and you need to consider how practical it is for your organisation to monitor the placement. Remember that checks need to include everyone in the household and assessments should involve talking to everyone in the household. 

Informal options provide a higher level of risk as we know the least information about the people and homes involved but they could still provide a safe option for the child. 

In all situations, emergency assessments need to take into account any visitors to the home as well as other homes the family might visit for overnight stays. Initial steps can include asking the family not to have overnight guests or stay overnight elsewhere until a time where more thorough assessments can be completed.

Monitoring of the Child to Ensure Safety during Large Scale Emergencies

It is vital that children living in the community and in children’s homes are monitored to ensure they are safe.

Monitoring normally involves visiting the child and talking to them face to face. However, in the case of a wide spread emergency situation like the current pandemic you may be limited to phone or video calls. Monitoring could involve texts/whatsapp or other sources. As children may not be able to talk freely it might be useful to set up codewords prior to their move to the new living situation for them to use to indicate they are not safe. 

Just as during non emergency periods, the frequency of monitoring visits or calls will vary according to the needs and vulnerabilities of the child and the placement. In informal options, such as a family or community member, the child doesn’t normally visit checks should be daily or every other day for the first month and then reviewed but never less than once a week. In other situations it should be a minimum of once a week and more frequent in the first month (every other day). 

If possible ask trusted community leaders or community members to also check in by phone calls, distance observations (walk by the home if safe to do so and within government guidelines) etc. 

What if there is a concern about the child’s safety in the placement? 

This will need to be carefully managed with government officials and processes for child protection but steps may include increased calls and checks and support. If in doubt, the child may need to move to another safe place. We will be discussing this in more detail in a future post.

What if calls are difficult?

Consider your options for providing carers with prepaid SIM cards or a basic phone at beginning of placement if possible. If phone access or other forms of contact and monitoring are going to be impossible to conduct safely, then you will need to review whether or not the placement can go ahead. 

Analysis: deciding which placement is best

When we are deciding between placements we need to consider a number of factors.

Which one:

  • is going to provide the safest level of care? 
  • is the more practical in terms of monitoring?
  • is the placement we have the most information about? 
  • is the placement best suited to meet the child’s needs and causes the child the least disruption (eg geographical changes, family connection etc)? 

It may be in a child’s best interest to remain in a children’s home. When exploring if a child can live elsewhere the conclusion may be that they could be safer in the home and the risks are too great or uncertain for you to be satisfied they can go elsewhere. 

A word of caution: Never assume any placement option is safer than another. Every option must be properly assessed in order to make an informed decision based on the needs of the individual child. 

During the COVID-19 pandemic (and in other emergency situations), for some children, remaining in a children’s home that is safe, providing food, access to water, preventing visitors, has toilets, has carers and is taking steps to provide extra care to minimise risk of infection may be a safer and more appropriate alternative than an emergency placement or move into the community in a rushed process. As circumstances improve and a full assessment can be conducted, that child’s placement in the home can be properly reviewed and alternatives considered, if appropriate.

The priority always needs to be to ensure the child, you and your team are SAFE. 

 

 

What happens next? Some things to consider

When COVID19 restrictions are lifted, or the emergency eases, you can explore whether any emergency placements you have made could become more long-term or even permanent. Before making these decisions, more in-depth assessments would need to be conducted. If you’re interested in finding out more about how to do this, please use the form on our Contact page to get in touch.

Emergency situations, like the COVID-19 pandemic, often expose holes in our processes or problems with our normal way of working. Taking time after the emergency to reflect on what worked, what didn’t and what, if any systems, your organisation could have had in place beforehand that would help you, both in a large scale emergency and in your day to day practice, can lead to important steps towards best practice and providing the highest quality care and protection to the children you’re responsible to.  

We hope this is a helpful starting point for you. Everything outlined here will need adapting to your context, culture, legislation, resources, government guidance and restrictions and it is not the only way of doing things. It's an idea and framework to support your responses. 

As the emergency resolves you and your organisation can continue on your journey towards ensuring the way you work is best practice but, for now, the focus is on safe practice.

Hang in there!

And remember, good enough really is good enough. 

Three practical, science-backed coping strategies for difficult times

Here they are - the first three coping strategies for you to experiment with and, hopefully, add to your personal coping kit! If you haven't already, I'd really encourage you to read the introduction to this series. It explains how and why coping strategies work, who they're for and who they might not be for, what they can and can't do, and why the science behind them matters.

Coping Strategy 1: Name it to Tame it - the power of labelling our feelings

Brain is back! (Did anyone else read that like an Eminem lyric?!)  Brain operates best when all its parts work together - from top to bottom and left to right. If you read our last Brain post you might remember that when we feel unsafe or stressed our amygdala sounds the alarm and Brain leaps into superhero mode ready to do whatever it takes to keep us alive. This means shutting down some parts of our bodies and brains that aren’t immediately necessary. One way to help stop our amygdala sounding the alarm quite so readily is to put a name to what you’re feeling. (1, 2) This helps parts of the brain that might not be communicating so well in a crisis or when we’re stressed - in this case the language department with the emotions department - to start talking to each other again. (This post explains this in more detail)

You could just put a word to your emotion or you can tell the whole story… “This happened and it made me feel ______ so then I _________ and then ______ happened.” {Insert your experiences and feelings and actions as appropriate}!  Dan Siegel and Tina Payne Bryson encourage parents to help children tell the story after a difficult or painful experience as an effective way of supporting them through processing the event. This could be something small like falling over or something big like being in an accident. It works for adults, too! 

Experiment with:

Over a period of a few days or a week, try to notice when you’re feeling big feelings. If you can, pause for a minute to see if you can give that feeling a name. 

Once you’ve named your feeling, or even if you haven’t, give yourself time to really feel it. 

Pay attention to your body. 

Where and how is that feeling showing up? What sensations is it causing in your body? If you could draw it, what would it look like? 

If you couldn’t name your feeling earlier, can you find a word that fits now?

Being aware of our feelings, and the sensations that go with them, helps us when it comes to deciding how we’re going to act on them. In Protective Behaviours work we sum up the above very simply: Stop. Feel. Think. Do!

Coping Strategy 2: Let nature nurture - the healing power of green spaces

Spending time in nature has been connected to multiple health benefits and women living in areas with higher concentrations of green spaces have even been found to have lower mortality rates than peers in more urbanised areas - in other words they’re more likely to live longer! The Japanese practice of Shirin Yoku or forest bathing has been associated with lots of physiological changes in the body that are consistent with lowered stress. So there are lots of reasons to get outside and find a patch of green. But what if you can’t go outside or don’t have any green spaces near your home?! 

I have good news for you! It seems that  just looking at images of nature and green spaces promotes activity in your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). You can think of your PNS as your body’s brake - it kicks in to help you relax and slow down. It actually briefly goes into action every time you breathe out. We also have an accelerator, the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). Both have important roles to play but when it comes to feeling calmer and less stressed we want to focus on activating the PNS and putting that brake on. 

Inmates in a US prison were regularly shown nature videos over the period of a year. They were involved in 26% fewer violent incidents than inmates who didn’t watch the videos and reported feeling calmer, more empathetic and less irritable. Prison guards’ reports were also consistent with the inmates’ reports. So it seems even virtual green is good for us. This is a great reason to take advantage of any online tours of parks and forests! 

However, if you have the opportunity to head outside to a green space you should take it because the real thing has the strongest stress busting power. So get up off that sofa if you can!

Recent research conducted at the University of Sussex in the UK also suggests that listening to sounds of nature activates Brain’s default mode, a mode which is activated during rest. There were other physiological benefits too. This is particularly effective for those who are feeling stressed. Intriguingly, for people who were already feeling calm and relaxed the natural sounds showed a slight increase in stress! Sometimes research can throw up some unexpected results. This just means there’s more work to be done and more to discover - science is an ever evolving process. 

As an added bonus, time spent in the natural world can also make you more generous and feel less entitled (34). And all this talk of nature’s benefits is leaving me feeling pretty good so I thought we’d give you a little gift so you can always be sure to have some nature in your pocket. 

At the end of the post you’ll find instructions for how to download two little zines (short for magazine and refers to a little, self published booklet) - one has big picture landscape photos and the other has up close images of nature’s amazing detail. There’s a printable version and a digital option. Let us know if you use them - we’d love to know which photos are your favourites. A big shout out to Daniel Sward Photography and Robert Lance for generously allowing us to use their photos in this post and in the zines. Here’s a little taster of what you’ll find.

Experiment with:

So whether you’re outside, surrounded by greenery, looking out your window, taking a virtual tour of a park or forest, or simply looking at the photos in your little zines, take your time.

Linger in the moment. What details do you notice? Look for patterns, colours, anything that stands out. What appeals to you? What makes you curious? What are you feeling as you look (and listen, smell, taste and feel if you’re outside)? 

Let yourself rest in nature’s amazing ability to nurture.

Coping Strategy 3: Balance the Bias - practising gratitude and searching for joy *

Back to Brain again. You might remember from my post on feeling and being safe, that Brain has only one job. To keep you safe and alive. Brain is always busy scanning our environments for threat, ready to leap into life saving action at a moment’s notice if required. This means Brain pays a whole lot more attention to negative things than it does to positive because whilst good things are great, they won’t kill us! Sometimes Brain is so busy doing his job keeping us alive that he needs a little help, a little prompt to focus on the positive. Thankfully, it doesn't take too much effort on our part to help make this happen!

Brain’s negativity bias is really important to remember in times of disaster and danger - like right now in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic - and also for those people working in jobs that regularly expose them to the darker side of life. Think police, paramedics, social workers, and those caring for vulnerable children and trauma survivors. If you fit into this category, your world will be skewed towards the negative and your brain’s bias in this direction will compound things so it’s extra important to put strategies in place to balance the bias and bring some positivity and joy to the forefront of your world. 

Here’s three quick and easy ways we can do this:

  • Turns out science agrees with the old saying “Count your blessings”

Research is increasingly showing that spending a few moments each day recalling what you’re grateful for and writing them down (or telling someone about them) can be surprisingly powerful. Gratitude can improve our mood and our sleep, it can reduce anxiety and make us feel more connected to others. 

I’ve been doing this almost every day for around 5 years now and it’s one of my favourite parts of the day. It never ceases to amaze me how even on my hardest days, when I look back over all that’s happened there are always little moments I’m thankful for. Finishing the day in this way means I fall asleep on a positive note. Big, hard feelings and thoughts might still be there but the little bright spots are at the forefront, reminding me the world isn’t all bad. 

If you’re struggling to think of things to be grateful for you could stick with some easy ones - food you’ve eaten, having shelter (if you did or do), or for someone you love. Where this strategy gets really effective is when it encourages you to start looking for little moments like when you sat in the sun drinking your cup of tea (even if it was only for a minute before you were interrupted!) Remember, too, you can be grateful for hard things if you learnt something from them or they reminded you of how good life normally is.

Experiment with: 

So consider setting aside some time each day to think of three things you’re grateful for. Find a way to record or share them that works for you. It could be writing them in a journal, telling your partner or children or even texting a friend.

And, if you can’t think of anything, don’t worry. Alex Korb, a neuroscientist at UCLA, says in his book, The Upward Spiral, that even the act of trying to think of something is beneficial. 

  • Put yourself in the way of joy

I have found this second part of balancing the bias often flows naturally from the first. The more I’ve started to notice things I’m grateful for, the more I’m inclined to include those things in my life rhythms and routines (more on rhythms and routines in a future post!). Start to take note of the things that bring you joy. Perhaps you get a moment of joy from your morning cup of tea or coffee. It might be the satisfaction of ticking off a To Do list or hearing your child laugh. Ingrid Fetell Lee, author of Joyful: The surprising power of ordinary things to create extraordinary happiness,  keeps a little note book in her bag and jots them down when they come to her. This way, as you plan your day you can intentionally build in little happy moments. The next step is to slow your mind long enough to notice and enjoy them when they happen. 

Experiment with:

So here is a 60 second challenge for you right now: 

Press pause on everything you’re doing and thinking about. 

Think back over today (or yesterday if today is only just getting started).

What’s one thing that made you feel warm and fuzzy so far today? How can you find ways to repeat similar experiences in the days to come? Let me know in the comments below.

  • Consider what you’re consuming

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by all the awful news the media churns out. Companies capitalise on our disaster bias because they know it will get our attention, thanks to Brain’s constant, life-saving vigilance. Good news rarely sells. 

Experiment with:

Put limits on when and how long you spend reading or watching the news or on social media if your feed is filled with horror, pain and fear. Seek out sources of positive news. There are now several publications and websites or social media accounts focussed solely on good news and positive reporting. See what you can find and share these happy sources with those you love. 

We could all use a dose of good news. 

Phew… that was a whole lot of info! 

I’d encourage you to choose just one thing from this list to experiment with over the next few days. See how it goes and then try out a few more. And remember, it's ok if they don't all work for you - some will and some won't. We're all different. Please share the results of your experimenting with us over on Facebook or send us an email info(at)sfac(dot)org(dot)uk. 

And don’t forget to hit the link below to download your free Nature zines! They're the first item in our brand new Free Resource Library available to anyone who signs up to our Subscriber Club. We have lots more resources coming soon so hit the button below to access them. If you already receive our emails check your inbox (and your Spam) - there should be an email with all the details!

Yes, Sign Me Up for Zines!

Happy experimenting everyone. Take care and stay safe. 

 

* Research links for this section coming soon. It takes me a while to add them and I didn't want to wait any longer to publish this post!

Coping strategies – what are they and how do they work?

Well we didn’t see this coming did we?! As COVID-19 brings the world to a grinding halt we decided to bump this series of posts to the front of the queue. Anyone else feeling like crawling under a blanket and hiding until the world goes back to normal again?

The truth is, I began putting together bits and pieces for this series last year, well before the series of disasters and calamities that has been 2020! The coping strategies I’ll be sharing over the coming months are designed to help you with any and every difficult situation, from COVID chaos, to grief and loss, eco anxiety, a stressful work situation, or a natural disaster recovery.

Every few weeks I’ll share a few practical, science backed, coping strategies that will help make difficult times more manageable. They’re not magic wands (sorry 🙁 I really wish I could give us all a little bag of magic wands right now!) and they won’t make difficult times disappear. They might not even make them better but they can help increase our capacity to cope. But this post is all about the why and the how of coping strategies because understanding the why of something often makes the actual “doing” of it a whole lot easier. So, in the words of Maria Von Trapp/Julie Andrews, "Let's start at the very beginning"!

What are coping strategies?

The strategies are designed to help our wonderful friend, ‘Brain’ (If you haven’t met Brain yet, I’d recommend having a quick read of this post). They help the amygdala (a key part of Brain’s emotion department - remember: A for Amygdala which is shaped like an Almond and acts like an Alarm!) to be just a little less jumpy and a little less trigger happy when it comes to sounding that alarm and sending Brain leaping into life-saving Superhero mode. In Superhero mode Brain shuts down all non-essential departments. Well, they're not essential in an immediate, life-threatening situation but are kind of important in everyday life. You know, things like the thinking, planning, and dreaming department. Oh, and the digestion department, too… 😉 (There's a more detailed explanation here).

Simply put, they can help you feel safer.

 

Here’s another way to think about it. 

I’m going to tell you a story and get a little bit nerdy by illustrating this story with a graph instead of illustrations!

Meet Armen. Armen is at home doing some washing. Just as he gathers up the wet but clean washing he stumbles, dropping it on the ground. The less than clean ground. His new puppy, spying this potential new plaything, races over and jumps in, muddy paws, shedding fur and all! Armen’s stress levels spike momentarily. 

Thankfully, he's having a good day and isn’t pressed for time. Armen steps back, surveys the mess and laughs. His stress levels drop back to normal as he scoops the puppy up for a quick snuggle (dropping his stress even further) before getting on with the washing. A few days later Armen is running late for work, and his kids still haven’t finished their breakfast. 

Now imagine the clean washing, dirty ground, dirty puppy incident happened again. Today it’s no laughing matter. Instead there is yelling. At the dog. At the kids. Thankfully the rest of the day goes smoothly. He has a win at work and his partner surprises him with a special dinner to celebrate. 

Stress levels drop back into the “safe” zone. 

A month or so down the track, Armen’s father dies suddenly and unexpectedly. His life is thrown into complete turmoil. He is beside himself with grief. The world feels like an unsafe place. Even the most basic of daily tasks, feels overwhelming.

Insert clean washing, dirty ground and puppy scenario. This time he ends up on the ground himself. Curled up in a ball, crying and rocking. The washing stays where it is for another few days and, even then, it’s one of the kids who does it. 

It will take everything Armen’s got to get him through the days and weeks ahead - to move back to a place of feeling safe and to have some capacity to cope.  That “everything”? That’s his coping strategies. 

Let’s see how that all looks in our graph below for a moment.

Armen started off in the green “safe” zone but general life stressors of running late sent him into the yellow zone and saw him yelling and behaving in ways he’d rather not. The death of his father saw him soaring into the red, unsafe zone where any tiny provocation was completely beyond his capacity to cope. 

We all have different starting points on this graph. Think of someone living in a refugee camp or a domestic abuse situation. Their starting point might already be in the red, unsafe zone, so any tiny incident can send their Brain into Superhero mode. They might be living permanently in this mode which is exhausting and has a long term impact on both physical and mental health. Their reaction to the clean laundry, dirty ground, dirty puppy incident is going to be totally different to someone whose starting point is in the green, safe zone. From an outsider’s view, their reaction might seem completely out of proportion or unreasonable. 

As Armen’s story illustrates, even our own baseline is variable. But as well as triggers that send our stress levels soaring, there are things we can do to bring us back down into the safe zone or to lower our starting point altogether. 

Coping strategies are anything that helps to bring that baseline stress back down to a manageable starting point. It’s important to note that not all coping strategies are helpful even if they make life seem easier in the moment - think drug taking, excessive alcohol consumption or self-harming, for example. But, for now, let’s focus on what does help, not what doesn’t (!) but on the understanding that not all the strategies will work for everyone and that I’m trusting you’ll stop using any of them if you find them causing you distress for any reason at all. 

What coping strategies aren't (or "An important disclaimer")... 

While all the strategies I’ll be sharing have been shown to be beneficial to our wellbeing by helping us feel safer or reducing stress, this doesn't mean they’ll necessarily be effective in treating clinical depression, anxiety or other diagnosable mental health conditions. People in these situations will benefit most from professional support. Please don't recommend these strategies to anyone as a "cure" for anything or suggest to someone that if they "just tried" these they'd get better. 

One (or three!) steps at a time...

In the next post, I’ll  share three techniques:

  • Name it  to Tame it
  • Let Nature Nurture 
  • and Balance the Bias. (They’ll all make sense soon, I promise!)

Why not share all the strategies at once?!

Most coping strategies take practice. Like so many things in life, the benefit comes with time and cumulative use. To be fair, some of these options might also give you an instant boost. But, even then, you have to actually remember to use them! If I write a list of 12 to 15 options all in one post, you’ll struggle to remember what they were, let alone put them into action in the midst of life’s daily challenges. Even more so in the midst of a global pandemic and all the uncertainty it’s brought. 

Introducing a few at a time also means I can go a little deeper into each one, explain it more clearly and give you a few more ideas on how to incorporate it into your life, whether that’s in the midst of quarantine isolation, after a traumatic experience, or a stressful life event. And, it gives me more time to write them!

 

What’s science got to do with it?!

There’s a lot of information floating around in the world these days - hundreds of suggestions on how to handle life flooding your screens every single day. Many of these ideas are just opinions. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with an opinion but you’ve all got enough going on right now, and I don’t want to waste your time. I want to make sure the strategies I give you have the best chance of succeeding and the best way for me to do that is to provide suggestions that have been tried, tested and are trusted by experts in the field. Or, in academic jargon terms, they’re “evidence based.” They’ve been shown to be more likely to be effective at helping keep your emotions at a manageable level and your amygdala from sounding the alarm than would occur just by chance. 

My aim is to give you strategies that have sound science behind them and to explain them in a way that you can easily translate into your life right now

Not every strategy will work brilliantly for every person (research tells us when things work more often than they would just by chance, but I think I'm yet to come across social science research that says this worked in 100% of cases!), so think of these posts as an opportunity to experiment.

Be your own detective!

Over time, you will have built up a personal kit of ‘go-to’ strategies that you know help bring your stress levels back towards the green “safe” zone. To start experimenting and building your kit head over to this post for the first three coping strategies. 

Happy experimenting, take care and be gentle with yourself in these unusual times.

How to connect and find your people – building a sense of belonging

 

“Roots and wings!” She exclaimed, “roots and wings! It’s our job, as mothers, to strengthen their roots so that wherever they are, they can fly.”

So said one of the most wonderful friends I’ve ever made in a lifetime of moving around.We were sitting in her kitchen one day, talking about our kids and our experiences, she from Chile and me from the UK; two foreigners making homes on Texas soil…. And it’s true, the deeper our roots, the more secure we are and (in the words of the great philosopher, Dr Seuss) “oh the places you’ll go!” 

In our first article we talked about the vision we have for our work which can best be summed up in this little equation: 

Safe + Belong = Thrive

“A place to be and feel safe plus somewhere to belong equals the best chance to thrive” 

Where do you "belong"?

Just for a moment, think of all the places you belong and what that means to you. I don’t mean physically, although the ‘where’ is intrinsically part of belonging. For example, I gladly belong in my own ‘safe’ family, with my husband and children, and then there’s my extended family of grandparents and nephews and nieces and even the ‘Greats!’ Yes, I still have two of my grandparents who are great-grandparents to my kids! I also belong in my church; we’re a diverse bunch and there’s room for me there. One of my sweetest ever belongings (is that even a word?) was to my running club in Texas. In a Transatlantic move where nothing felt familiar I looked for my ‘people’’ and, when I found them, they were a gift to me; they accepted me, encouraged me, cheered me on, laughed at my British quirks and shared the best Texan (Chilean/Venezualan/Dutch/Australian) hospitality. We often referred to one another as our running ‘family.’       

Hannah with her running family - one of her sweetest "belongings". Where do you find a sense of belonging?

What does it mean to belong?

When we feel a sense of belonging we feel connected, accepted, included and, hopefully, cherished. It does soul-filling good which strengthens confidence, self-acceptance, self-belief. Belonging is an ever-increasing giving and receiving in relationship of time, shared experiences, adventures, challenges, wisdom, emotion and support. The list is endless.    

“Belonging” does not mean you are a belonging. You are not somebody’s possession to be used or traded or devalued. You are not owned by the family or club or place or organisation where you feel you belong, rather to belong means there is something mutually enriching about the relationship. It provides an anchor, a home, a safe space.

In a recent post we listed some of the UNCRC rights associated with belonging

Article 7 says ‘you have the right to a name.’ This means we are recognised as individual and unique … which is another one of our SFAC beliefs; every child is unique and their care should be too but more about that as the year progresses!

Article 9 says ‘you have the right to live with your parent(s) unless it is bad for you. You have the right to live with a family who cares for you.’ Mick’s book is deliberately entitled Children Belong in Families because he believes that every child thrives best in a safe family.

Article 15 says “you have the right to choose your own friends and join or set up groups as long as it isn’t harmful to others.’ What an incredible choice! We each have the right to create, as well as participate in, relationships which do us good.

In his poem; Meditation 17, John Donne said, “no man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” The idea that we are better off together than in isolation is exactly why belonging is so important. 

 

Perhaps my journey is a good example of how powerful belonging can be …. And the reason why we believe it’s so important for every child to be given that opportunity.

I grew up in a very stable home, with parents who have been together for nearly 50 years now. I’m the eldest of 4 children and lived in the same house from the year I was four, to the day I left home for university. I would definitely have considered myself to be a ‘home bird!’ and I was secure in who I was and where I came from… essentially, I knew where I belonged.

My adult life has been a completely different story. I got married 21 years ago and in the last 15 years my family and I have moved 11 times. Each of my three children were born in a different city! That’s a lot of moving around. We haven’t just moved house; we’ve moved postcodes, cities, even countries. So much for being a homebird…. But in actual fact everywhere has been home! 

If you had told me as a teenager that this would be the pattern of my life, I would have run a million miles in the opposite direction but it has taught me a very valuable lesson and it gives me confidence that our SFAC aspirations for every child to be and feel safe, and belong isn’t an unrealistic ambition. 

The first lesson is that, for our family, our security has come from who we are, wherever we are. As we’ve reflected on our journey, the kids have asked me where I feel most at home… i.e where do I belong? And I’ve explained to them, it’s wherever we are; they are my home. The second lesson is that deep and richly satisfying roots can be put down again…. And again …. And again, if necessary. If we apply this to the lives of the vulnerable children we’re working so hard to support, a disrupted childhood doesn’t have to mean a lifetime of disconnection. 

So, how do we give ourselves the best possible chance of belonging?

Looking back, one of the best pieces of advice I was ever given as a young adult, fresh out of leaving home and feeling nomadic, was to treat my current place like home, no matter whether I knew it was going to be 6 months, 6 years or the rest of my life. If you never commit, you never belong…. So I would say live like your current situation is permanent and throw yourself in hook, line and sinker (as we say in the UK)

This takes courage and perhaps it feels like too much of demand right now, or perhaps you feel like you’ve tried and nothing has opened up… or even that you have a string of negative experiences. Whatever your situation, start with the small things. If no-one has invited you for a coffee in your new place of work, perhaps you could start by doing the inviting? You never know what might open up.

If you’re looking to integrate into a new neighbourhood, small acts of kindness can pave the way for fabulous relationships and don’t decide too quickly on the ‘who.’ I’ve found that liberally sowing friendship seeds can cause amazing things in the most unlikely and unexpected places.  

Finally, find your people! Do the thing you love to do; is it running? Is it church life? Is it book club? And very quickly, as you share your life,  you’ll be establishing relationships which feel like they’ve been a lifetime in the making.

How do we do help a child find a sense of belonging?

And how do we do this for children? As parents, we endeavour to celebrate the unique people that they are, rather than squash them into a family mould or compare them with one another. We care for and provide for them according to their individual needs and abilities, encouraging them to make the most of new experiences and opportunities, supporting them to develop friendships and interests and praising their achievements. When life gets tough, we stand shoulder to shoulder with them to be whatever they need in that moment. All our moving around means we have several places we can call home but wherever we are, as a family, we will always belong to one another. 

If this article resonates with you, you can understand why we believe every child will thrive, given the opportunity to feel and be safe, and to belong. Our job is to give those working with vulnerable children the knowledge, skills and strategies to nurture children through this process.

 

Right now we need your help to make this happen. We're looking for 2000 people to donate £20.20 in 2020. Click here to help get us one step closer to that goal!

 

This post was written by Hannah Pease, our Communications Manager here at SFAC.

The photo in the image below was taken by Thought Catalog and found on Unsplash.

Thoughts on connecting and finding your people

Why Unregulated Children’s Homes Are Problematic

"You don’t have a safe place and not having a safe place is like being lost.”

Recently, I watched this news item about unregulated children’s homes in the UK.  

Unregulated homes are a global problem. Unregulated means there is no clear minimum standards or national inspection framework or license system. Homes can operate as they wish. This can also apply outside children’s homes to unregulated foster care, kinship care or reunification programmes. 

Regulation means having minimum standards, inspections and reviews are important to ensure children receive safe and positive care experiences. Inspections involve mandatory checks to determine whether an organisation is meeting minimum standards. A review, on the other hand, is requested by an organisation to help flag any concerns, highlight successes and explore ways their practise can be improved. It might seem like red tape but it's important.

 

Klaudia, a young person interviewed in the programme, powerfully describes the reason why the red tape worth it:

“{The worst thing was no} safety and stability. You don’t have a home. You have somewhere you are staying. You don’t have a safe place and not having a safe place is like being lost.”

Paige (a young person) said ‘loneliness’ is a big problem for children living outside parental care. She described how important it is for ‘staff’ (carers and social workers) to ‘care’, ‘to be present – have conversations, spend time with the young person or, in other words, to be a ‘parent’ rather than a staff member doing the bare minimum just to keep their job and get paid.

What was clear from them both was the need for QUALITY care. They felt unsafe or that they did not belong with a family or important person. 

Safety + Belonging = Thriving. 

These elements were not present for Klaudia and Paige. 

It is positive the government in the UK is committing to changing this and bringing in standards and regulation. There were a number of examples that illustrated the need for regular inspections and reviews:

  •     The fact that one support worker in a home was a convicted drugs supplier working with vulnerable young people. Vulnerable youth are especially at risk being exploited and recruited to join drug gangs, or become involved in drug trading. 
  •     The lack of clear assessments to consider what was a safe mix of young people in the home. 
  •     The lack of staff training can make the situation worse. I know from my own experience working in a children’s home before I became a social worker. I had no training so I had to react from my own instincts and thoughts, rather than knowledge and skills I had been supported to learn and implement. I also know that when we all started to receive training the quality of care improved. We started to provide quality care for the children we worked with, children who, due to some very challenging life experiences, had quite complex needs. 

 Klaudia later talked about her current situation living at university. Her body language and expressions changed completely at this point. She smiled. She relaxed. She moved closer to the TV camera and was enthusiastic. It was clear that at university, she felt safer and like she had somewhere to belong. She talked about being part of her community. She appeared to be thriving. 

 The programme clearly demonstrated that wherever a child/young person lives we need to ensure they are both protected and experiencing quality care. To do this we need to have clear standards and expectations including inspections to ensure those standards are being upheld , that staff are appropriately equipped for their roles, and services regularly reviewed to identify areas for improvement. Every country and every organisation providing care needs to have regulatory systems in place that incorporate these components. 

SFAC equips and empowers organisations and governments to set up and implement such systems. We can provide independent reviews where required so organisations can say with confidence whether or not the care they are providing is of good quality and truly protects children.

No organisation, government or otherwise, should ever stop learning and improving. We all need to be open to this type of review and reflection to ensure every child grows up in a place where they can be and feel safe and where they feel a sense of belonging. It is this foundation that will give them the opportunity to thrive. 

Being and feeling safe – what’s the brain got to do with it?!

Why is safety so important?

I’m going to leap straight in today and introduce you to a favourite friend of mine. Not your usual friend. An organ friend... You didn’t see that one coming did you?! Well, possibly the picture gave it away… Meet Brain.

This should probably come with a warning - the brain is one of my favourite topics and once you get me started it’s hard to stop! I’ll do my best to keep this brief. (and for those who want to know more, I’m developing an online course right now which will have waaaaayy more detail!)

Our brains have one job. Just one. To keep us alive. Keeping us alive is an incredibly complex job so our clever brains do everything they can to streamline and simplify. This means they’re constantly scanning our environments for threats (notice how you automatically pay more attention to negative things than positive ones? This is why.).

When a threat is identified an alarm is triggered (in a little place in the middle of our brains called the amygdala for the nerds like me who like names and extra info. It happens to be almond shaped so for English speakers all those As make it easier to remember - Amygdala acts like an Alarm, shaped like an Almond!). It’s time for our brains to leap into life saving superhero mode.

 

In superhero mode Brain shuts down anything not immediately necessary for keeping us alive in that moment. Including the thinking and planning part of our brain - the Prefontal Cortex. Why does it do this? Because if you’re about to step out into the path of an oncoming vehicle nobody wants a detailed, carefully thought out five step action plan. You just want action! So Brain sends the thinking parts off line and kicks the instinct parts into action. Suddenly, before we even really know what’s happened, we’ve jumped back out of the way of the car. 

This instinct part of our brain is incredibly clever and, in a split second, will decide what the best action is to ensure our survival. This could be anything from running away as fast as your legs will carry you (flight), getting mad and tackling the danger head on (fight), becoming totally still to avoid detection (freeze) or playing dead (faint). There are other options too, but I’ll save them for another day (If you can't wait, the book, Narrative Exposure Therapy by Maggie Schauer, Frank Neuer & Thomas Elbert explains it well)

Here’s where things can go a bit wrong. Brain isn’t great at distinguishing between life threatening situations and stressful or difficult situations. So the alarm response and instinct based behaviours are just as likely to be triggered before giving an important speech as they are when you realise you’re about to step on a poisonous snake. 

In Protective Behaviours work there is a core underlying theme: “We all have the right to feel safe all the time”. Anything about that sentence intrigue you? There’s a really important word in there and it’s there for a reason. Notice that it says “feel” safe. Not “be” safe. 

It turns out that just because we are safe physically doesn’t mean we feel safe. And if the brain doesn’t distinguish between the two then our body is going to react the same way in both situations. It means that when we feel unsafe or threatened the thinking part of our brain can go offline. 

Not ideal when we’re about to head into an important exam or presentation!! 

Here’s a couple of examples to explain what I mean.

A child who has just been removed from an abusive family situation and placed in temporary accommodation might now physically be safe but they probably don’t feel safe in such an unfamiliar environment. This child might not act in particularly logical, thoughtful ways. Instinctual behaviours are likely. Think reluctance to engage and withdrawal (flight); acting out, yelling or destroying property (fight); or zoned out and hard to reach (freeze). If professionals and carers working with the child don’t understand how the brain works when we feel unsafe, these behaviours can be misinterpreted and lead to frustration, poor decision making and the breakdown of the child’s care. 

One of the hardest things to understand is that being safe doesn’t necessarily mean you feel safe. And, if you don’t feel safe your behaviours and emotions will move towards an instinctive need to survive. 

 

Another situation where this distinction between feeling safe and being safe is important is in understanding why people who’ve been in abusive or chaotic environments often seek out similar environments even after they’ve been removed. 

Familiarity is an important part of feeling safe. When we know how things go, there is a level of predictability there that helps us to cope, even when what’s coming isn’t great. You feel safer with familiarity than the scary unknown, even when you know it’s not safe! It’s a horrible environment of anxiety, fear, and survival. 

Remember that Brain likes to simply its complex job of keeping us alive as much as possible. One aspect of this is Brain is not a big fan of unfamiliar situations… There’s too much unknown, too many potential threats.  Unfamiliar situations require Brain to do a lot of work to learn the new environment. It prefers you to be in familiar situations and routines.

For a woman who has left, or is considering leaving, an abusive relationship, the alternative might feel destabilising and disorienting - feelings which generally align with feeling threatened and unsafe. Choosing a new partner who behaves in a similar manner to the old partner might mean she is again physically unsafe but may also, at least temporarily, reduce how unsafe she’s feeling. Putting in the work to sit with the discomfort of adjusting to a safe but unfamiliar environment takes time and energy. It also requires a great deal of support and understanding from those around us. 

A new environment might mean we are safe but it doesn’t necessarily we mean feel safe.

So, now we know what happens when we are or feel unsafe but do we know what we mean by the word “safe”?!

When I ask people in training sessions how they would describe or define “safe” they often note the absence of things like danger or harm. Words like calm, relaxed and happy also frequently come up. After thinking about it a lot and taking the idea of feeling safe as well as being safe into consideration I’ve arrived at my own definition of feeling safe. 

I feel safe when I believe a situation is “within my capacity to cope”. This definition acknowledges that safe/unsafe aren’t necessarily a binary distinction. There’s a lot of variation between feeling totally safe, free from danger and harm, and feeling completely relaxed, happy and calm and feeling terrified and unsafe. While I’m within my capacity to cope I might still feel fear and worry and my brain might be starting to sound the alarm, but there are still enough elements I can control in my situation to make me think I can manage it. 

When we understand this distinction between being and feeling safe and how our brain and bodies respond to threat, it changes the way we see behaviour - our own and others. This new perspective then changes the way we respond to behaviour and that has the power to completely transform a situation. 

There’s a couple of things to keep in mind when thinking about being and feeling safe (actually, there’s a lot more than a couple, but I can’t fit them all into this post - they’ll have to come later!).

1. What feels safe is different for everyone.

I don’t mind speaking to large groups of people. This might terrify you. On the other hand, I’m not a big fan of heights. They might not bother you in the slightest. Just because you feel safe doesn’t mean that everyone else around you feels the same way. As a quick example, I can cope with injections and blood tests - I’ve had a lot over the years. I wouldn’t say I like them but they don’t bother me and certainly don’t make me feel unsafe. This is definitely not the case for Dan who faints almost every time. He starts feeling woozy just at the mention of blood or needles! It’s important to avoid making assumptions or judging someone based on what does or doesn’t feel safe to them. Instead, we can consider how we might help others or ourselves move from feeling unsafe back towards feeling safe. What we have the capacity to cope with will also vary from person to person and even within individuals over time. Our life experiences, health, current situation and access to basic needs all impact on our capacity for coping.

2. This doesn’t only apply to children.

Most of our work involves speaking to adults who care for, or make decisions on behalf of, children. This means when I speak about safety the focus is often on children and how it applies to them. But, in this context, the brain works the same way in both adults and children so this information applies to all of us. If we’re developing systems designed to keep children safe then a key consideration must also be ensuring those systems support the adults involved are safe too, both carers and professionals. 

Ideally, we want everyone to be safe and feel safe as both of these aspects of safety, combined with a sense of belonging, will provide the best foundation from which to thrive. So, if we think about thriving as being on a continuum from Surviving - just being alive - to Thriving - being free to embrace all life has to offer -  then Safe and Belong could be considered essential ingredients for moving from one end to the other (You can read our thoughts on what it means to thrive here)

To finish off, here are a few tips to help you, or someone you’re caring for, move from feeling unsafe back to safe again. 

1. Choice

One way to help regain a sense of feeling safe is to look for choices. Often the opportunity to make small choices in a situation where we have little overall control can help. For example,  if a child moves to a new family, the carer could ask them what meals they like to eat or let them choose their snack. It might be as simple as asking who they would like to accompany them as they leave one home and move to the next.

Small warning: Too much choice can actually increase feelings of being unsafe! Keep choices clear and within a framework of limited options. For vulnerable people, generally the fewer options the better. E.g. Instead of saying what would you like to do today, you could ask I was wondering about going to the park, visiting Grandma or curling up on the couch with some stories - what would you like?

2. Time Limits

We are all so much better at coping with stressful or difficult situations when we know when they’re going to end. If I’m going through a particularly busy period at work but I know that I have a holiday coming up or that things will calm down again soon, then that light at the end of the tunnel helps me to keep going. It increases my capacity to cope with the situation. If, however, I can’t see any change happening in either the immediate or long term future, then I’m going to start feeling pretty unsafe. My performance and my physical and mental health and probably also my relationships may be affected, too. I’ll be sharing a framework I use for working with time limits alongside some practical tips and strategies in an upcoming post. 

3. Safe people

This one is key. If you or someone you know is feeling unsafe one of the easiest ways to help bring them back towards feeling safe is through connection with a safe person in their life. A fascinating research study conducted in the USA in 2006^ found women who were threatened with receiving a small electric shock showed less activation in their brains when their partner was holding their hand. Even holding the hand of a stranger reduced the activation compared with being on their own. When we’re in the presence of someone we trust we’re likely to feel safer and our brains less reactive. 

What a perfect segue into our next topic - Belong!

 

*Reminder: this is the briefest of introductions to this topic. There is much more to be said - keep an eye out for future posts and an online course coming soon!

 

References & Further Reading:

If you want to know more about the brain and how it reacts under threat check out Dan Siegel’s work. His book, Whole Brain Child, written with Tina Payne Bryson, is an excellent starting place. In a childhood trauma context Bruce Perry’s work at the Child Trauma Academy is really helpful. And for using an understanding of the brain to develop resilience in the face of depression and difficult life circumstances I highly recommend The Upward Spiral by Alex Korb.

^ Coan, J.A., Schaefer, H.S. & Davidson, R.J. (2006). 'Lending a Hand: Social Regulation of the Neural Response to Threat", Psychological Science, 17(12), pp. 1032-1039

 

What exactly does it mean to thrive? Here’s an (extended) definition!

Toddler with smile turned very much upside down. Text reads "Grumpy. Still thriving."

 

Over the last twelve months we’ve developed a little equation to help sum up our vision and our work:

Safe  +  Belong  =  Thrive

“A place to be and feel safe plus somewhere to belong equals the best chance to thrive”. 

 

Welcome to the first post in a new series for 2020. Each month we’ll be exploring an underlying aspect of our work, a bit about why we think it matters and what it might mean for you in your life or work. To kick things off we’re taking a deep dive into “thrive” (rhyming intentional!) Then, in a few weeks time we’ll be back here to explore what we mean by safe in more depth and the month after that we’ll be looking at the belong part of the equation. 

 

So, back to thrive… 

Turns out it’s not an easy thing to pin down! 

The Collins English Dictionary defines it as:

“1. (Verb) If someone thrives they do well and are successful, healthy or strong.

  2. (Verb) If you say someone thrives on a particular situation, you mean that they enjoy it or that they can deal with it very well, especially when other people find it unpleasant or difficult.”

A great start… but what does that look like in practice?

 

Child Rights as a Foundation for Thriving

Let’s begin by considering the UNCRC (The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child  - a bit of a mouthful?!). This important convention underpins all of our work here at SFAC. In fact, technically it should be underpinning all care and protection of children in every country around the world, (except for the USA) because we are all signed up to it.

This carefully thought out list details what every child needs to live a good life. In the preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rights are described as the “foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world” - the essential foundation for individuals and communities to thrive. If you have a look through the UNCRC (you can find it here - I recommend the summary version!) you’ll see most of the rights could fit under the categories of either safety or belonging. Here’s a few examples to get you started that I’ve taken from this child friendly poster version (this poster used to hang in my therapy room when I was a school psychologist in Australia).

Some rights associated with Safety

Article 6: You have the right to be alive.

Article 11: You have the right to be protected from kidnapping.

Article 24: You have the right to the best health care possible, safe water to drink, nutritious food, a clean and safe environment, and information to help you stay well. 

Some rights associated with Belonging

Article 7: You have the right to a name.

Article 9: You have the right to live with your parent(s) unless it is bad for you. You have the right to live with a family who cares for you. 

Article 15: You have the right to choose your own friends and join or set up groups as long as it isn’t harmful to others. 

All of these things, these rights contribute to our freedom to express ourselves, be who we are and to be connected with the rest of humanity.

Quick Disclaimer:

You will see people thriving despite rights violations and without that sense of safety or belonging. It’s important to recognise that they’ve had to work extra hard to achieve what they have. Research has shown that having just one safe adult in a child’s life can improve their future outcomes even when the rest of life is chaos. Obviously, the aim is for everyone to be starting from the same foundation of security and belonging.

 

Why it’s important to understand what we mean by thrive

At SFAC we often describe our work as “turning good intentions into good practice.” We recognise that most people working with and making decisions on behalf of children do so because they want those kids to thrive! This includes people who donate money to children’s charities like us… Here’s why we think it’s worth going deeper in our understanding of what it is to thrive: if we don’t really understand what it means to thrive or how children can thrive then we might start making some costly mistakes. Costly in terms of finance but, more importantly, costly in terms of children’s lives and wellbeing. 

In our 20 year, 40 country (so far!) experience, we’ve realised that people often focus on one aspect of thriving, i.e physical needs; so food, shelter, medical care, and they overlook or minimise the rest. Turns out “the rest;” the feeling safe and having a sense of belonging, is often the most important bit!

 

How thriving and risk-taking go hand in hand (and why risk-taking can be a good thing!)

When we know we have a safe place, a place where we feel like we belong, we can be brave. We can take risks. We can try new things. It is this courage that allows us to continue growing and developing throughout our lives. It is this foundation that gives us the courage to embrace life and to thrive. 

An example from my own life might help explain what I mean. It’s January as I write this - the start of a new year,  a new decade. Thinking back over the previous decade , I quickly realised it had a bit of a theme - risk taking! 

Here’s a quick summary:

  • I packed up my stuff, selling or giving away a lot of it, and moved to India to live and work with people I’d never met. 
  • A year later I met Dan at an SFAC training event which led to 8 months of online conversation. This led to a decision to fly home to Australia via Uganda (not a natural stopover when flying between Kolkata and Sydney!) - a country and continent I’d never been to before - to watch another SFAC trip from the sidelines and to spend some time with Dan just in case he might turn out to be “someone special”. 
  • It turned out he was kind of alright which meant yet another big risk - a trip to the UK to see his home and meet his mum and best mate. 
  • After temporary relocation to Kenya (where I shared a house with some lovely people and a less lovely horde of cockroaches) and a couple of run-ins with malaria, Dan and I decided we wanted to get married. That’s right, married. After a grand total of only 32 days spent in the same country at the same time (but around 50,000 messages. Yup, it really was that many!!). 
  • So yet another big risk… Once again packing up my stuff and relocating to a whole new country.

That’s quite a decade!

Every single one of these risks relied on a foundation of safety and belonging. I only felt able to take each scary step into the unknown because I was 100% secure in the knowledge that, should it all go wrong, I had a community of family and friends to return to - people that would give me a bed, feed me, be a shoulder to cry on; people who would take care of my physical and emotional needs, while I got back on my feet. 

If the risks didn’t pay off, if it all fell apart, I wouldn’t hit the ground. I’d land in the arms of my safety net.  

As it turned out each of these risks was absolutely worth it, but definitely not without challenges (and blood, sweat and tears) along the way. I called on that safety net often. Meals and beds were provided, shoulders cried on, frustrations vented. And I didn’t just survive. I thrived. I am the person I am now because of those risks. I took those risks because I felt safe enough to do so. Why did I feel safe? Because I knew I had somewhere I belonged - people who loved me and cared about my welfare. 

This is thriving… being secure enough in our safety net to step into the unknown of the future, to risk trying something new, to live a full life, because we know, if we fall, someone will catch us. 

This is why you’ll often hear us talking about families at SFAC - because we know that for most children, growing up in a safe family is the place they’re most likely to be and feel safe, to feel like they belong, and so have the best chance to thrive. 

 

What don’t we mean by thrive?

I just want to take a moment here to say thriving doesn’t mean living a perfect, Instagram worthy life. And it definitely doesn’t mean being happy all the time! I would even go so far as to say that thriving involves experiencing the full range of human emotions and having the capacity to express and manage them in a healthy way. Learning to cope with adversity is part of thriving. This is illustrated in the millions of people around the world living with chronic illness, in poverty, or facing racism etc. and yet continuing to connect with others and live lives they find meaningful. 

So, it all boils down to this one thing. 

We want children everywhere to thrive.

We’ve got big plans this year, to provide you with tips designed to help you and those you love thrive. 

What information would help you to give the children in your world a chance to thrive? How can we help you to thrive?

We’d love to hear from you in the comments or on info {at} sfac {dot} org {dot} uk.