Living with the Fast and the Furious
Written by Noel Macnamara
You have opened your homes and your hearts to children who are unable to live with their parents. You want to help them access a better life. To feel safe, and connected, to people who care for and love them. Some of you volunteered to this for children you do not know, others of you are caring for children you are related to or already know well. The challenges of providing sensitive and structured care for children in foster and kinship care go well beyond usual experiences of parenting.
The children in your care may have developed survival-based attachment strategies to adapt to a threatening environment prior to coming into your care. Some big and confusing behaviours that served them well in a threatening environment can become problematic, impeding their capacity to form trusting relationships in their new family and at school.
I want to start by addressing a common misconception about so-called “maladaptive” behaviour. “Maladaptive” behaviour does not mean non-adaptive behaviour, but rather, adaptive behaviour that is ultimately not in our best interest. No child chooses to be angry, afraid, or immersed in shame. Certainly, some behaviours have big negative consequences for the children you care for and others around them. But understanding how the human brain works leaves me unwilling to negotiate the truth that the behaviour we see in children and young people in out-of-home care always has an adaptive function.
Said in another way: all behaviour makes sense, if we can see it for what it really is.
How the Brain Perceives Reality Through the Senses
To make sense of this, we need to understand a couple of things about how our brains work.
At any given moment, the brain is super busy! It’s ingesting all sorts of sensory data, 11 million pieces of data per second, which then travels to the limbic area of the brain. Here, the brain’s emotion centre, called the amygdala, decides whether this sensory data feels “good” or “bad”.
Yes, more than 11 million pieces of data per second!
Information Transmission Rates of the Senses
|Sensory System||Bits per Second|
Conscious brain vs unconscious brain
It is often assumed that the brain mainly works consciously. However, most processing is outside our conscious notice, and most of our bodily activities function outside our conscious control. Practice and habit are important because they train brain circuitry to carry out some actions “automatically” without conscious interference. A “simple” activity like walking is best done without interference from consciousness, which does not have enough information processing capability to keep up with the demands of this task.
The filtering process allows us to select information we unconsciously believe is important to us. At a fundamental level, our very survival depends on this filtering system working efficiently and effectively. This filtering process profoundly affects how we experience reality and what we make it mean.
Humans take physical stimuli through the senses and turn it into meaning, totally unconsciously. We act as if what we perceive is reality, but it is only our perception of reality based on how our brains have interpreted physical stimuli. Our emotions are a direct result of those perceptions, not of external events. We focus on our internal representation or “map” that we have built on what we selectively filter in, and emotionally respond to that map rather than to external events.
So, our brilliant brains are taking in 11 million bits of information every moment but can only spare between 12 and 50 bits for processing “explicitly” (paying conscious attention). The rest of those 11 million are processed completely outside our awareness.
Neuroception – Knowing without knowing
There’s an amazing phenomenon called “neuroception”. Our brains innately assess new situations for danger and safety. Our sensory organs (our eyes, ears, skin, nose, and tongue) send instant messages to the brain when presented with new stimuli. The central and peripheral nervous system then informs the rest of our body through electrical signals and chemical messengers, directing us towards actions that will keep us safe.
The brain is preoccupied with our safety. However, being safe doesn’t equal feeling safe. Have you ever said to yourself, “I know it’s true, but it doesn’t feel true”? The thinking brain (the upper part of the brain) can “know” it is safe, while the emotional brain (the lower part of the brain) doesn’t feel safe.
Children need to experience felt safety to recover from traumatic events and adverse histories. Felt safety is probably to most important part of caring for children who have experienced early life trauma. Without using the conscious thinking brain, without being aware, the lower unconscious emotional brain is asking “am I safe?” four times every second.
12:00:00 – “Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe?”
12:00:01 – “Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe?”
12:00:02 – “Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe?”
This is at the base of ongoing behaviours that children in your care use to feel safe. It is the answer to “Why does my child still do this, when we are safe people, and our home is a safe place?”
This unconscious super-fast safety detector is looking in three different places to assess risk:
- The Inside – heart rate, hunger, genetics, biology, inflammation, neuroimmunology, etc.
For example, if a child has a history of intense hunger, even mild hunger pangs can pull up a full-blown fight/flight response. Or if a child more strongly associates elevated heartbeat with fear and danger than with excitement and play, running around at recess could trigger a fight/flight response. Adults supervising may say, “They suddenly went from 0-100 for no reason, nothing happened”, but this is not true – they just cannot see what happened inside the child’s brain.
- The Outside – consistency, predictability, structure, routine, etc.
For example, you might get a call from school asking to collect your child, who has been extremely disruptive today for no reason – who immediately tells you in the car that they had a substitute teacher today. One child I worked with completely freaked out when his carer put a chocolate cake on the table, and it wasn’t until much later we discovered he had once seen his dad smash a piece of chocolate cake into his mum’s face while shouting and swearing at her.
- The In-Between – relationships to others and environments
One of the places a child’s brain looks to decide if they’re safe is if reliable people nearby (like you) appear to feel safe or not. If a nearby reliable person is in their own fight/flight response or a fear-based state, even trying to hide it, the child is going to experience that as “not safe”. When adults experience fear themselves, even if that fear is based on the child’s behaviour, the child cannot experience that adult as safe.
It’s hard to fully appreciate, the unconscious brain visits these three places detecting safety four times every second!
12:00:03 – “Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe?”
12:00:04 – “Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe?”
12:00:05 – “Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe? Safe or not safe?”.
Helping children feel safe, even when they “know” they’re safe
Your goal is to help children slowly feel safe enough to risk giving up behaviours they need to instantly feel safer, before you will be able to guide them towards behaviours that will be beneficial to them long term.
Here are 12 ways you can help with children’s felt safety:
- Be attuned to your child. Pay attention to non-verbal signs that your child is not feeling safe, so you can help prevent the child needing to respond with a full-blown meltdown.
- Name it to tame it. It’s unlikely your child will come out and say, “I don’t feel safe”. They need you to narrate what you’re seeing, in their face, voice, and actions. Your child will not necessarily agree with your narration, but over time will learn to connect their actions to their feelings and most common triggers.
- Give them their voice. Be willing to hear your child out, even if you don’t agree with what they say, or it makes you feel uncomfortable.
- Validate emotions. You might not understand where they’re coming from, but it’s important to validate how your child is feeling. A lot of situations register as traumatic for people because they felt alone in the experience.
- Offer better control. Whenever appropriate, offer choices and allow your child to ask for compromise. We feel more safe in situations we have more control over. This is also part of giving them their voice.
- Match energy in a controlled way. If your child is becoming emotionally heightened, mirror their enthusiasm while remaining in control. Think of yourself as an award-winning actor! This mirroring helps your child know they are not alone and helps them regulate their frightened nervous system.
- Stay playful. Playfulness helps keep a situation from escalating by keeping the nervous system relaxed. For example, back chatting can be triggering for us, tempting us to respond with a stern “Do NOT speak to me that way!”, when we could keep energy lower with more playful options like “Are you asking or telling?”
- Be curious. Curiosity to find out more about your child’s feelings and contextual information helps keep the nervous system from shutting down and becoming defensive. Being curious isn’t asking, “why did you do that?!”, it’s asking, “did you do that because you feel angry about what I said?” and giving your child an opportunity to name and tame their emotional responses.
- Stay consistent. We fear the unknown. Our children need to see us as stable and predictable.
- Keep it concrete. Use tools that help children experience things with their own senses, rather than just hearing what experiences theoretically are like. This helps them feel more confident with taking in information through their senses which helps them feel more secure.
- Less is more. Fewer words, minimal clutter, less on the schedule. Our children are working so much harder than others to keep up. We can lighten their load by giving them less to keep up with.
- Learn your child’s Care Language. The concept of “Care Languages” is that we all receive and give care in different ways. This is important to recognise because if we give care in a language that children don’t receive it in, they can feel uncared for and less safe. Pay attention to clues your child gives you to think about how they best accept care. For example, regularly casually asking if you think they made a good choice or did well might hint that they focus on verbal affirmation. Or the opposite direction – a pattern of offering to carry things for you or cleaning up when they’re trying to impress you might show that their care language is in service. This will also help you be more aware of when your child is trying to connect with you in subtle ways.