“I thought at the time that I couldn’t be horrified anymore, or wounded. I suppose that’s a common conceit, that you’ve already been so damaged that damage itself, in its totality, makes you safe.”
Lionel Shriver, 2005
“The important role of ‘safety’ in our life is so intuitive and relevant that it is surprising that our institutions neglect it.”
The world we are living in is filled with paradoxes and challenges that need a different kind of leadership than the one we are faced with. The very foundation of our human needs can feel like it is threatened in all spheres of life and this is showing up loud and clear in our children and young people’s mental health. However, we are living in times that on virtually all of the key dimensions of human material well-being such as poverty, literacy, health, freedom, and education, the world is in an extraordinarily better place than it was just a couple of centuries ago (Rosser, 2019). You might be forgiven for thinking that this would mean that we had the right conditions to feel safer, more connected, with more agency and have the freedom to make more meaning out of our existence. But it seems not. These very human basic needs allude so many of us on a daily basis. People are more estranged from their bodies and their senses, creating an environment more likely to make them feel alienated and disorientated (Harari, 2018).
Children and young people today are living within a context that is largely alien to those of us in our 40’s and above and while that is true for each generation to some degree, the disconnect with what was and what is can seem huge.
*They are accustomed to being searched by ‘security’ nearly everywhere they go.
*They have access to absolutely any question that can be placed into Google so they never have to sit with ‘not knowing.’
*They live with the knowledge that their data is publicly owned.
*They are acutely aware that time is running out for the environment.
*They have less spaces to meet in offline.
*They live with terrorism as a very real threat and part of life.
Childhood in the UK and the US is not conducive to wellbeing according to Unicef’s Child Poverty Report. In fact, the United Kingdom and the United States find themselves in the bottom third of the rankings for five of the six dimensions reviewed. The six dimensions are material, health and safety, educational, family and peer relationships, behaviours and risks and subjective well-being. The most upsetting aspect of this study was the dimension “family and peer relationships” where the US and UK were the bottom two countries, respectively, in this category.
The questions looked at Parental time, family structure and friendships. If this does not spur people into action to do something differently then I’m not sure what will!
Feeling safe, creating connections and developing relationship based resilience could not be more important and more pressing and it could be argued that our very survival depends upon it. To respond to this deficit of connection, we need to travel more deeply within and more deeply towards one another. Our children are depending on us and we have extensive inter-disciplinary knowledge telling us how we best thrive and grow and develop the relationships we need to enable us to recover from the adversities that life throws up. More importantly, we have all that we need to support us in creating communities that families can thrive in, that schools can teach in and that people can have the support they need offering much needed protective factors.
Stephen Porges Polyvagal Theory is possibly the most comprehensive and revolutionary research in the science of safety. Seeking safety, identifying it and then connecting with those around us is a fundamental behaviour that supports our capacity to survive. The Social Engagement System, which Porges argues is the third branch of the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS), is what helps us detect safety through leaning in, listening, being listened to, smiling, eye contact, prosody. It is these cues of safety that calm our ANS and enable us to join the other person in a Window of Tolerance (Seigal, 2012) where we can ‘be’ together to heal, learn, grow, recover. We gently negotiate that space rather than jumping through a person’s somewhat small window which would make it very hard for them to detect safety.
Porges model of the Social Engagement System describes the Ventral Vagus/Social Engagement System which develops early on through having those multiple opportunities in our early years to feel safety and co-regulate with our caregivers. This helps us through life to find our community to feel safe, to seek safety. Where this has not been able to develop well early on, it is much harder to seek safety. In fact, even when a person is safe, detecting that they are so can be very problematic. When we cannot limit the escalation of the stress response system, the fight/flight mechanism or the immobilisation of the freeze response because life itself feels under threat, then the Dorsal Vagus emergency mechanism will kick in, so to speak. The Dorsal Vagus System is a mechanism that shuts us down. Literally conserving our blood, our frontal cortex, oxygen. Over use of this system has implications for our overall health. I have simplified an incredibly complex, lengthy and thorough piece of life changing research. However, the science of safety provides us with much of what we need to know about the neurobiology of seeking safety.
Our personal and professional agenda must always be to focus on supporting people to feel safe and calm in the knowledge that we cannot do anything very much at all if we are unable to feel safe. It is social engagement that facilitates social connectedness. I would argue that the quality of our vagal tone (our ability to detect that we are safe) and children and young people’s happiness are intrinsically linked. If we are to take on this supposition then the UK and the US are not places where children and young people feel safe at all!
If services, schools and organisations placed safety at the heart of what they do, then the desired outcomes for each of those settings would have the best opportunity to be attained. Until this is understood on an academic, a professional and a personal level, we will continue to create systems that retraumatise and services that add to harm rather than seek to support people to recover from it. Alongside this, we are likely to continue to develop a country where the mental health and wellbeing of children and young people is so compromised that their feelings of happiness will remain exactly as the table above informs us.
Child Poverty Report. Retrieved 8th June 2019 from https://www.unicef.org/media/files/ChildPovertyReport.pdf
Harari, Y. N. (2018). 21 lessons for the 21st century. New York: Spiegel & Grau.
Porges, S. W. (2017). The pocket guide to polyvagal theory: the transformative power of feeling safe. New York, NY: W.W Norton & Company.
Rosser, M (2019). The short history of global living conditions and why it matters that we know it. Accessed at https://ourworldindata.org/a-history-of-global-living-conditions-in-5-charts
Siegel, D. J. (2012). Pocket guide to interpersonal neurobiology: an integrative handbook of the mind. New York: W.W. Norton.
Shriver, Lionel. We Need to Talk about Kevin. Serpents Tail, 2005.