No matter our age, we all need to feel safe. Safety is so vital for our lives that it’s at the very base of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, only one step up from physiological needs like food and shelter. After we are fed and clothed and housed, we need to feel safe before we are able to pursue other needs like love, achievement and personal self-fulfillment.
Young people are no different. As many teachers could attest, kids can’t learn until they feel safe. Nor can they benefit from meeting love and belonging needs, develop properly, or grow up to meet their potential as people if they feel as though they are at constant risk or danger.
In the counselling setting, we as clinicians frequently work with children who know all too well the impact that a lack of a sense of safety can have on their lives. Children who have experienced trauma, abuse, or who are dealing with intense anxiety, self-harm, or suicidality will all struggle to feel safe. It may be others’ behaviour that is causing a literal lack of safety, as in the case of a child who has experienced physical or sexual abuse. It may be a past life-threatening experience or an intense phobia or anxiety disorder that leaves a child with a sense that she is not safe (even though in the present reality, she may not be in any danger). Or, as in the case of a young people who struggles with self-harm or suicidality, it may be his own thoughts and behaviours that cause him to feel as though he is not safe. Whatever the cause, working to help these children and teenagers to establish a feeling of security and safety is going to be a pivotal part of the counselling process. This sense of safety will need to be established as a foundation before clients are able to go on to do more involved therapeutic work such as exposure or processing traumatic memories.
“My Safe Base” is a handout designed to use the theme of baseball to help a counsellor and a child or youth client talk about the concept of safety. In baseball, when a player is on base, that player is considered safe from the opposing team. Similarly, on this worksheet, each base will represent a different source of safety for the client.
How to Use “My Safe Base”
1) With the client, identify the different triggers, behaviours, or people who lead them to feel unsafe. Write these triggers in the area designated behind the foul line.
2) Identify the places that the child or young person feels safe. These can be literal places that a child can go, such as her room or a favourite Aunt’s house. Alternatively, they can be imaginative places or places from memory that a child can go to in her mind through visualization. Depending on the needs of the child, a place in her imagination may or may not be appropriate. For example, if a child has been removed from a caregiver due to abuse, the child may be at immediate physical risk should that caregiver come to the child’s school. In this case, the child might need to go to the principal’s office or a counsellor’s office to seek safety and an imaginary “safe place” is not going to be appropriate. Write the child’s safe places on the first base circle.
3) On the second base circle, write the people with whom the child or youth feels safe. These are the people that the child can talk to when he is in danger, or when he is feeling unsafe emotionally. These people can include friends, family members, school staff, and medical personnel. It may be appropriate to include a social worker, crisis line, or emergency numbers (911) depending on the circumstances of that particular client.
4) For third base, identify and write down as many coping strategies appropriate to the child’s presenting problem that he could use to deal with feeling unsafe. In the case of a child who self-harms, this may be strategies to replace the self-injurious behaviour (e.g., holding an ice cube on the hand for a few seconds, taking a cold shower, or going for a run). For a child struggling with anxiety, these may include breathing or relaxation exercises or positive coping statements that the child can use. This base is the place to include both strategies the child already uses, as well as those that he is working to develop in counselling.
With this worksheet, the counsellor can focus more heavily on one of the bases if appropriate and the therapist may need to help the child identify when the resources on each of the bases should be accessed, or when they might be inappropriate. For example, in cases of abuse, the counsellor may want to focus with the child on people that the child can talk to if they feel like they are not safe or safe places the child can go if the unsafe situation arises. Or, if the young person is struggling with self-harming, they counsellor may want to place extra emphasis on coming up with different coping strategies.
Whatever the presenting issue, after doing this exercise, the child or youth should leave session with a safety plan that includes places, people, and coping strategies that they can use whenever they are feeling unsafe, as well as an awareness of the situations in which they may need to access those safety resources. This plan can and should be shared with caregivers and any other significant people who may need to know its contents in order to help the child use the plan. This exercise would work well for the middle stages of the counselling process; it could also be utilized in the beginning stages of counselling, should a client present in crisis.
Join the discussion: What tools do you find helpful to help a client establish a sense of safety and security in his or her life? Please share your comments in the discussion box below.