I call upon you, for you will answer me, O God;
incline your ear to me; hear my words.
Wondrously show your steadfast love,
O Savior of those who seek refuge
from their adversaries at your right hand.
Keep me as the apple of your eye;
hide me in the shadow of your wings
There is a term within the trauma-focused, cognitive behavioral therapy (TF-CBT) model called “safe space.” It seemed a bit psychobabble-y to me when we first arrived on the doorsteps of the Trauma Recovery Center. It is now essential to the well-being and ongoing process of healing for Georgia, Olivia, and Nathan.
God created us to understand and respond to safety. During childhood, that safety is first demonstrated through whole and attached parents. It moves into a child’s home during toddlerhood and ideally lives there well into adulthood. Our homes of origin should bring back a warm blanket of security.
They often do not.
Ultimately, Jesus calls us to a better home that he, himself, is preparing. That home will always be safe and nothing will ever rip it away from us or us away from it. The shadow of safety we ought to feel in this life is simply a pointer to the true reality of our home with him. But I don’t want to dismiss the importance of that pointer. Without it, we must work even harder to grasp tightly the truth that we are loved without measure and held securely without condition.
Insecurity is a direct descendent of the fall.
Joseph and I thought we were providing so much security for our children. We loved and praised them. We set boundaries and had structure. We discussed consequences and explained discipline. We worked to remain consistent in our expectations. And above everything, we regularly confessed our own inadequacy to accurately demonstrate the love that must come only from Jesus Christ.
So, how did our children end up victimized? The easy answer is sin. We simply don’t live in a perfect world. Now, how do we work backwards to heal something that was broken without us even realizing it?
We practice safe space.
Essentially, it is a mechanism for calming the mind and, by extension, the body. It uses visualization, deep breathing (belly or balloon breathing is how our children refer to it), relaxation, and sometimes bilateral stimulation to help reprocess traumatic memories and triggers. Our children each developed their own unique space that already feels essentially safe. These spaces can be real (Nathan uses the corner of my closet where he can smell the familiar and musty odor of my perfume and Joseph’s cologne mixed with dust and shoe leather), or they can be imagined (Georgia and Olivia both created whole worlds where their imagination gives birth to fanciful creatures and earth-defying physics). It doesn’t really matter where it is, but it must feel absolutely and essentially safe. There are no monsters lurking under beds, no smells that might trigger a traumatic memory, and no uneasiness that must be forcibly ignored. Once the safe space is chosen, the children fill their lungs with giant breaths of air that force their little bellies to distend like a balloon. This deep breathing checks hyperventilation, reoxygenates their blood to increase mental stimulation, and slowly allows their heart rate to slow and their body to relax. After a few moments of deep breathing, the child is ready to begin utilizing bilateral stimulation, a guided process of self-assessment, or a guided process of thought replacement.
Bilateral stimulation simply acts as a conduit for your brain to reprocess traumatic memories. It is often used in treating PTSD. The child closes their eyes and works through the first few steps I mentioned above, then they either use their eyes to bounce back and forth between two objects along an imaginary horizontal line in a pattern that feels natural but doesn’t cause dizziness, or they feel a parent or therapist’s finger gently tapping in an alternating pattern on the backs of their relaxed hands while they continue to visualize their safe space in their mind’s eye. This alone can really help bring down a child whose behaviors may be spiraling out of control.
Self-assessment helps the child reconnect their brain to their body. In abuse, victims of all ages will often dissociate themselves from the activity of abuse to stay sane. When healing begins, it is essential that the body and mind be put “back together.” Otherwise, genuine healing is stilted and incomplete. But putting those pieces together is scary and may cause unpleasant emotions or sensations to come back to the child. A little person places an incredible amount of trust in the hands of an adult leading them through this potentially frightening exercise. Therefore, it is imperative that self-assessment be done in a place without possible interruption and only with people in whom the child has absolute confidence. The typical body scan asks the participant to inventory the way their body feels in a methodical, head to toe sweep including everything from finger tips to genitals. In this way, the mind must focus on each piece of the body and recognize the sensations of the carpet or the weight of the blanket or the breeze of the air vent across their cheek/leg/toe. My children were incredibly uncomfortable with this exercise in the beginning of therapy. They still have a difficult time staying focused through all the parts of their bodies. Putting their mind to bear upon the sensations in their little frames has become foreign. Giving them the space to take their time in relearning how to put it all back together requires patience.
Thought-replacement is the last piece of our safe space puzzle. It is also where human secularism can have the greatest influence in the process. Many guided meditations and apps will use self-affirming statements to try and invigorate the child’s acceptance of their inherent value. However, we understand that without a true understanding of grace, and the lavish love of God upon his children, we can never truly be satisfied with ourselves. So, rather than repeating empty phrases that make meaningless assertions, we repeat the truth of God’s word.
- He hides us in the shadow of his wing (Psalm 91:4)
- We were chosen and set apart before the foundation of the world was every laid (Ephesians 1:4)
- He loved us while we were still at enmity with him (Romans 5:8)
- We were designed for good things (Ephesians 2:10)
- His grace is sufficient to cover all our brokenness (2 Corinthians 12:9)
- He has a plan for our good in the midst of every terrible day (Romans 8:28)
- We are completely righteous in Christ (2 Corinthians 5:21)
- We do not need to live with past shame (Romans 8:1)
- We will never be separated from the love of our God (Romans 8:31-39)
Christ alone can bring healing to me and my family. But I believe that he also provided resources and tools that will facilitate that healing. We cry out to God for his mercy and miraculous intervention in our lives.