By Amber Chesser, MS, LPC, NCC

I recently watched Annie Murphy Paul’s Ted Talk titled “What We Learn Before We’re Born.” Ms. Paul presents research stating that babies in the womb gather information which she calls biological postcards. These biological postcards are received via food the mother eats, air she breathes, emotions she feels, and sounds the baby hears. The baby takes this information and their body grows to anticipate the world into which it will be born. Will it be a world of “scarcity or abundance” as Ms. Paul asks? The baby’s body makes decisions as it develops the nervous system, digestive system, circulatory, endocrine and all the body’s major organ systems based on the answer to that question.

As I listened to this talk, I thought about how this applies to children from hard places. Sometimes we don’t know what information they received through their biological postcards. We do know that many children from hard places are wired for survival mode when they come into a foster or adoptive home. The neurotransmitters and hormones are at levels as if danger is around the corner or perhaps staring them in the face. The possibility that this wiring was established in the womb means that this child may be unprepared at their very core to feel safe.

I love Ms. Paul’s imagery of postcards. I imagine this little newborn baby with a suitcase packed for a specific trip. Items specific to the place they are going with specific functions and fulfilling specific needs. What happens when the location is suddenly changed? They packed parkas but are instead going to the beach? They packed tennis shoes for hiking but are going to the snowy Alps? Children who have experienced early trauma might have suitcases packed for danger and starvation. What happens when they are in a place where those tools are not needed? Can they change the contents of their suitcase?

Felt safety as defined by Dr. Purvis is, “when you arrange the environment and adjust your behavior so your children can feel in a profound and basic way that they are truly safe in their home with you. Until your child experiences safety for himself or herself, trust can’t develop, and healing and learning won’t progress” (p.48, The Connected Child).  The research presented by Ms. Paul helped me have a deeper understanding of why felt safety is absolutely necessary.

To answer my own question, I think Dr. Purvis would say yes, a child’s suitcase contents can be changed through the tools she gives to create felt safety. Research supports this claim as Dr. Purvis has studied neurotransmitter levels before and after working towards felt safety. When foster and adoptive families create an intentional environment with felt safety in mind, they “soothe and disengage the primitive brain so it won’t bully the child into poor behavior” (p.49, The Connected Child). Dr. Purvis gives lots of ideas of how to begin this journey and here are some of her suggestions:

  • alert children to upcoming activities
  • make their day predictable
  • give appropriate choices to share control
  • speak simply and repeat yourself
  • be an effective leader
  • prevent sensory overload
  • don’t corner them
  • handle food issues gently
  • help the child meet new challenges
  • be approachable
  • introduce the child to a new environment
  • don’t catastrophize, honor their emotions
  • respect their own life story

“Not every child is destined to become a super-achiever, but we believe with all our hearts that through the right care and treatment, virtually every at-risk child can become a happier, more loving and better-adjusted member of his or her family and society” (p.19, The Connected Child).

We can help develop and strengthen our empathy and compassion for the struggle children from hard places have as they navigate their new environments. We have to remember and honor the postcards children from hard places have received throughout their life. If they are 2 months old, 2 years old or 12 years old, their bodies have received information that taught them how to survive in their world. If we are intentional about creating felt safety we can begin the process of sending new information to their bodies and supporting them in their journey to achieving felt safety.

“It is not you against this child. It is you and this child against this child’s history.” – Karen Purvis

Purvis, K.B., Cross, D.R. & Sunshine, W.L. (2007) The Connected Child. New York, NY: McGraw Hill.