Creating Safety, Pt I: Knowing our Triggers

A common concern families often bring to therapy is around what to do when their child hits a roadblock. What exactly this roadblock, stuck place, shutdown or meltdown look like depends greatly on your unique child’s temperament, life experience and developmental stage. Given this, there is no one-size fits all approach to supporting your child in coping with their upset, naming and understanding the feelings that arise, and finding people or activities that can assist them moving through their escalation cycle.

As parents, we know our children better than anyone, and it can feel frustrating and confounding to see their process unfold and not know how to engage or intervene.  

In this 3-part blog series, I wanted to offer you a structure for getting to know your child’s unique triggers and corresponding behaviors through creating a “Safety Plan” that you can use as a consistent guide to responding to their emotional upset.

We’ll begin with ways to help your child understand their triggers and notice the first physiological cues of distress. In the next post, I’ll provide pointers about helpful adult responses during an incident with your child, student or even spouse. And lastly, I’ll share ideas for helping your child identify their feel-better activities and create a self-regulation zone your child can access at the first sign they are pushing up against their window of tolerance.

Before diving in, I wanted to share a video that explains what happens to our brains when we get upset or as Dr. Daniel Siegel puts it,“flip our lids”. This video has fantastic illustrated examples that make complex neuroscience concepts easy to understand for kiddos and adults:


Let’s begin by defining “Safety“, and how feeling “Unsafe” can trigger big feelings and emotional dysregulation (the fight, flight or freeze response).  I like to think of safety in a holistic sense which includes:

  • Physical Safety: Being safe in your body and safe in the world
  • Psychological Safety: Being safe with yourself
  • Social Safety: Being safe with other people
  • Moral Safety: Being safe with a guiding value system

Safety is also about setting appropriate boundaries, with our kids and with ourselves:

  • Saying YES only when you mean it
  • Saying NO (and sticking to it) when you mean it
  • Knowing the UH-OH or warning signals of “danger ahead”
  • Knowing and experiencing the OUCH of having your boundaries violated or violating the boundaries of someone else

Creating a “Safety Plan” helps children:

  • Proactively recognize their escalation signs to slow down response time and maintain composure, as well as point them toward favorite strategies once they are feeling overwhelmed
  • Remember cognitive and behavioral strategies to help calm down
    • Deep breathing, counting, relaxing imagery, positive self-talk, listening to music, drawing, legos, etc.
  • Understand that their emotions aren’t ‘bad’, but often need help being channeled or released in a safe way (understanding that their are no “bad kids” or “bad feelings” but we can make choices around whether our corresponding behavior is going to be “hurtful” or “helpful)
  • Practice self-regulation and build emotional vocabulary
  • Notice their inner worlds (thoughts, feelings and their resulting behaviors)
  • Feel empowered to take ownership of their needs
  • Provide consistent plan that both children and parents can come to expect

STEP #1 in creating a Safety Plan involves understanding our triggers & building awareness about our body’s responses to them (our PHYSICAL SENSATIONS). These hot-button situations relate to our past life experiences and cause our “survival” brain to instinctually respond to whatever threat (be it real or perceived) by gearing us up to fight, flight or freeze.

This Safety_Tool_for_Kids document provides a helpful visual aid for children to identify their triggers (image below), body cues and feel-better activities. While you as the adult may know your child’s triggers, inviting them to name triggers for themselves is a great step in building awareness about the initial onset of their escalation and make choices to direct their attention to a feel-good place to allow their “thinking” brain to stay online and maintain composure.

  • Print out the document and spend some time with your child on the first and second pages. It’s best to pick a moment when your child is feeling calm, well-resourced (ie, not hungry, tired or directly after an incident) and otherwise feeling “safe” in every sense of the word.
  • You can ask your child to think of specific examples that go along with the pictures. Don’t be surprised if your child wants to circle them all — the truth is that all the images below are potential triggers. Gently nudge your child to explore the ones that you know to be bigger challenges by prompting further exploration through conversation. They can also draw new pictures of triggers not listed.
  • Ask your child to think about what they notice happens to their body when they get upset (second page) by circling images or creating a “body map” using the Body Map Outline of their bodies, and coloring it in to represent feelings & sensations in whatever way they choose.

Stay Tuned for Pt. 2 of this blog series that provides us adults with some guidelines on the most effective way to respond to our children’s upset.
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