CIRCLE OF SAFETY

To be able to provide for the safety of children, we must first understand just what safety is.

We are beginning to appreciate what constitutes danger for children at home. Physical assault, emotional or verbal assault, forced or inappropriate sexual activity, and deprivation by neglect are some ways children are hurt.

We may believe safety is, then, simply the total absence of these types of events. That would, of course, describe one sort of safety, just as eliminating all virus and bacteria from the world would create a sort of health for people. It is not, however, a useful model for creating safety or health, because we cannot even begin to do it.

Does this mean that children cannot be safe from the dangers of abuse and neglect?

No. Just as people can be healthy and vital in a world full of virus and bacteria, children can be safe in this world full of people, many of whom might be inclined to cause harm at times.

What makes a person healthy is the immune system: a routine set of responses inside the body that contend with virus, bacteria and injury in a successful way. What makes a child safe is also a routine set of responses, an immune system of sorts, that we may call the Circle of Safety.

There are four discrete steps in the Circle of Safety, four steps or four stops where the safety of a child is made or is broken. The first is circumstances.

The circumstances that are relevant regarding abuse and neglect are: how are the other people in the childís home, who are those people, and what routines do they do, together with the child.

A person who succumbs to an impulse to attack a child physically, verbally, or sexually, or who fails to function to provide for that child is a person under stress. Asking how a person is, boils down to this: how much stress are they suffering from?

One way of describing character in a person is by describing how he or she breaks down under stress. This is the most fragile, or weakest part of a person, and in many cases this part is never seen by anyone but the child, in private moments.

There are no certain ways to guess what private weaknesses a person may have, based on public behavior.  Character is a complex and many faceted thing, and regardless of the many strengths a person may display in public, it is the weakest aspect that is the who that is likely to present a dangerous episode to a child.

A person will probably break down in much the same way as their parents did, so the same type of dangerous episode is presented, generation after generation, very much like a communicable disease.

What routines a child has in common with which people matters for two reasons. First, different routines afford different amounts of privacy for the adult with the child, and it is generally in private that the weakest part of a stressed adult emerges and presents a hazardous episode to child.

Secondly, what routines also matters because for each person, some domestic tasks are particularly more stressful than others. A parent might be fine most of the time, except during their least favorite chores. They might have a special difficulty giving homework help. Or maybe bedtime routines are the most difficult part of the parentís day.

Even if it happens that the child is subject to an assault, he or she can emerge safer after a dangerous episode than before it happened, if the Circle of Safety is in operation. 

The second step on the Circle of Safety is the childís report. A healthy childís response to an injury of any kind is to make sounds of distress, to tell about the hurt, bringing the hurt to the attention of a caring adult or older person.

Even a very young child will naturally use a routine of report: bringing a hurt to the spotlight of caring attention and telling about it. Infants are equipped from the first moment with the ability to cry and make distinct facial expressions, to cue someone to attend to their need.

Physical hurts at the hand of a close and trusted person create emotional hurt as well. Just as in the case of physical hurts like a skinned knee, the human immune system goes through certain routines to repair hurt on an emotional level. Talking and crying about the hurt allow healing for the child. Trembling and laughing are ways that leftover fear is resolved.

Very young children can and will communicate about emotional hurts with their body language and facial expressions, even if they do not have all the words to use.  Non-verbal report might be shown as: refusing to flow with the family routine, acting babyish again like taking up an old habit of bed wetting or sucking their thumb. If all else fails, report might take the form of the hurt child acting out the hurtful actions on a toy, another child or pet.

Once report has been engaged, then the third factor in the Circle of Safety comes into play: reception. The most important thing a caring adult can do for a child in distress is to notice and receive the childís report.

A healthy adultís reception of a childís report of injury is objective reception. This means that the adult neither shuts out the report by denial or silencing, nor complicates the childís report by adding their own information, jumping to conclusions.

Good reception of a childís report allows healing for this child, for this incident. The child can express their feelings and talk out the event until child and adult together naturally orient towards the two people learning action to make future results more desirable.

Since a child cannot affect either the who, (character weaknesses of the older person in question) or rarely the how are, (the stress level of the adult); retaining a choice about what routines they shall do alongside any given person to meet their basic needs remains the best and perhaps only avenue for a child to be empowered to stay reasonably safe.

The most advantaged child is one who is pro-actively involved in selecting their own flow or schedule of routines, yet not overwhelmed by no-structure nor too many choices. The full spectrum of experience will tend toward continual improvement in this way.

The way of life that allows for real safety of children includes built-in choices. It may be that only when we claim potential to improve even the good parts of the day, we become able to make it possible for children and all of us to eliminate the worst.

When a child learns to consistently apply definite action to positively affect their own experience, we can say the Circle of Safety is complete. The kind of serious assault that comes after an escalating series of events can be prevented. Oppressions do not become chronic.

Having a bad experience, in itself, does not make a child unsafe. Being unable to respond to a bad experience is what makes a child chronically unsafe.

Every time effective adjustments to bad experiences are made, the child becomes safer than before that event was presented. The routine of danger-report-reception comprehension-action to improve circumstances has been reinforced in the child, and in everyone who knows about it.  All are better prepared to overcome a similar hazard in the future.

This is analogous to an immunity being built in the body. The type of dangerous episode that is presented to the child in the extended family is like a particular failing being presented inside the body.

The bodyís ability to detect a familiar hazard early and take immediate appropriate action is the key to a successful immune system response. A communityís ability to recognize a familiar danger early, and take helpful action is the key to a successful Circle of Safety response for their children.

The way a household or community succeeds or fails to create a complete Circle of Safety environment for the child is absorbed into and imprinted on the mind of the child.
The outer system of community response becomes the childís inner system of thought, and here builds the character of the man or woman they become.

Is the Circle of Safety strong? Is the person able to make positive change in their life? Do they find healthy ways to meet their basic human needs and participate in the fabric of life?

When the internalized system of response to make positive change has been damaged, we can say that the Circle of Safety is impaired.

If the impairment is in the ability to report, the child has learned to compensate for an unsafe environment by failing to bring the information to his own conscious mind.

This is a person oblivious of danger, blundering into harmís way again and again.  This may also be a person who can adequately focus on and take care of details but does not address or respond to the larger picture of their life and the direction it is taking.

If the impairment is in the reception of the report, the person may be conscious of many bits of information but cannot put it together such that they are able to act.

Unfocused emotional distress replays again and again. Though possessing obvious talents, this one does not rest upon any detail for long, and hence may not function very well in the world.

It is possible for the factors to be impaired only in certain situations, and the results are people who are generally able to meet their needs and make themselves happy, but who have problems in one or two facets of living.

A person with a complete Circle of Safety is someone whose senses report a great range of information to their mind, who is capable of learning throughout all their life, and who can and does continually act to create or locate better and better circumstances for herself, himself and loved ones.

Such a person can build upon safety to find joy, immense development, and completion in their life. It is a wonderful thing. Another way of describing a person whose Circle of Safety is complete is to say he or she is fully conscious.
 


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(Lau Mu)

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