Being safe can be dramatically different than feeling safe. It’s not personal – it’s not that you don’t have a clean home, food in the refrigerator, and plenty of toys. The child is not worried about how many smoke detectors you have, or that cleaning supplies are stored properly. You don’t feel safe, because you are a stranger. And in the eyes of a child, the unknown can be terrifying.
For a child who has experienced frequent housing instability, hunger, community violence, or even bullying – the brain is constantly in survival mode. Feeling scared when faced with unpredictable family crises can flood a child’s body with stress hormones, making it hard for them to relax, learn in school, digest food, or to think rationally. Under chronic stress, a child (or an adult for that matter!) is more likely to feel triggered, becoming easily upset and reactive to seemingly small problems.
While we cannot eliminate all stress when welcoming a new child into our home, there are steps we can take to make the transition a little smoother. Here are 7 tools to ease a child’s anxiety when adjusting to a new environment:
- Acknowledge their feelings: Let children know that they are free to share how they feel, so that emotions don’t come out later as behavioral issues. Children may feel like it’s not OK to cry or to feel scared, and attempt to bottle up their emotions or appear numb. But when you give your emotions a name, they have less power over you. Or as Dr. Dan Siegel, neuroscientist and author of The Whole Brain Child puts it: “name it to tame it.”
- Simple, routine schedule: Creating a predictable environment can bring calm to the chaos. When a child is new to your home, limit activities with high levels of sensory stimulation (like grocery shopping) and introducing them to new people. Give them a chance to establish your presence as a secure base before bringing in a babysitter or taking them to a friend’s house. Prepare children for transitions, particularly from a fun activity to a less desirable activity like brushing their teeth, by giving gentle reminders and allowing plenty of time.
- Playful engagement: Play takes children out of their survival brain and stress response into the upper cortex of the brain, where they are able to think, control their impulses, and relax. Getting down on the floor to play with a child, especially if you find opportunities to giggle with each other, creates social connection and security. Research shows that laughter reduces stress, boosts the immune system, and decreases muscle tension.
- Provide appropriate levels of control: A child staying with a Host Family does not choose to be there. Feeling out of control breeds feelings of fear and anxiety. Younger children may additionally feel confused about where their parents are, and when or if they will see them again. Help a child feel more in control by giving them choices whenever possible. Would you like to wear blue or red? Would you like a banana or an orange? Giving a child some power does not mean getting to decide to only eat ice cream for dinner, but providing two healthy options whenever it is appropriate so they can feel some sense of ownership.
- Bring attention to the body: Teaching a child to notice how their body feels can build their self-awareness to where they are able to notice when they need a break or to take some deep breaths. Breathing intentionally grounds the child into the present moment, and gets them in touch with their feelings. Most of us feel emotions in our physical bodies before our conscious mind is aware of them, so noticing when we have ‘butterflies’ in our stomach or a headache may mean our body is trying to get our attention. Asking a child to “smell the flowers and blow out the candles” can be a fun way to get them breathing!
- Healthy touch: Respect a child’s need for personal space, but also be willing to offer a hug or hold their hand when they ask. Human contact increases the body’s production of oxytocin, which promotes feelings of trust and bonding in addition to reducing stress. Putting lotion on a child’s hands is a good opportunity for healthy touch, if you have built up enough trust for them to feel comfortable with that. For a child who has experienced inappropriate touch or been physically harmed in the past, however, maintaining physical boundaries is vital to feeling safe. When you are unsure about a child’s history, Dr. Karyn Purvis – the co-creator of Trust-Based Relational Intervention – suggests using just one hand so a child doesn’t feel trapped, and never giving affection unexpectedly or without asking.
- Nourish the body: While some children may refuse to eat anything other than cereal and mac ‘n’ cheese initially, giving their body the best possible chance to regulate emotions requires nutrient-rich food and water. The bacteria in the gut have a significant effect on our brain. Bad bacteria in the gut, caused by stress and exacerbated by sugar and processed foods, has a direct link to a lower mood, anxiety, and depression. Greens, fruits, and fermented foods rich in probiotics are central components to healing a gut that has endured high levels of stress.
Fear can cause children to behave in ways they normally wouldn’t, lashing out or throwing a tantrum. While we want to teach children that misbehavior has consequences, a child’s brain cannot even begin to learn and absorb new information until they have established sense of safety. Simply put: reducing stress improves behavior. Patience, remaining calm, following through on what you say, and spending time connecting with a child through play can begin to chip away at their fear and build trust. When a child feels safe, bonding and connection with other people becomes possible. No matter how much time you have together before a child returns home, a feeling of security and an increased capacity to build new relationships with others are tools they can always carry with them.
by Kate Englund-Ginn, LCSW
Kate is the Program Director of Safe Families PLUS. This program equips mentors to walk alongside youth aging out of the foster care system. She also serves as the National Director of Research, Training, Scaling, and Innovation at Safe Families for Children.
Kate previously worked at an agency providing therapeutic case management to families and assisting them with adoption and guardianship services. Kate is passionate about helping children who have experienced trauma and supporting caregivers to strengthen and preserve the family unit.