Safe is a Perception: One Family's Experience


by Christie Toribara, R. Ph.


"Make him feel safe at home, and he will be fine. Children are resilient." This was the recommendation of the counselor for our three-year old son after an attempted kidnapping. He had left a friend's without permission and taken a long way home. Not only was he frightened from what happened, he knew he had disobeyed our rules for his safety. His curiosity stimulated his action and now he was both fearful from an attempted kidnapping by a pedophile, and also that he had not followed the rules for his protection.


When he finally explained why he was afraid to leave our side, we contacted the police to report the incident. The policeman laughed and said a three-year old's account meant nothing. This worsened the situation. He had been taught to respect policemen and go to them if he ever needed help. This offhand and uninformed reaction made it clear that he would not be protected, or even listened to, if he did need assistance. The response from the child counselor served to reinforce his fear, not his trust in adults.


Yes, children are amazingly resilient, but unresolved fear and pain develop into anxiety, especially when faced with disturbing circumstances. Tragic results may follow even many years later. If a child feels safe at home, he/she may perceive that to be the only safe haven. Later this becomes a problem, particularly when other incidents have deepened the pain, and then there is anticipation of leaving the only place perceived as safe.


In elementary school a teacher, known to be harsh, terrified him. Our son no longer wanted to go to school. I tried to resolve this problem with the teacher. She said she did not have time for one student and slammed the phone when I asked how could she then have time for thirty. At the end of the school year I asked our son how he had survived this teacher. He said, "I learned to be perfect and I learned to be silent." I mistakenly accepted this adjustment. Now, these many years later, I would tell him that no one is perfect and he must be respectful, but he does not have to be silent. I would even change schools to get him away from someone who lacks respect for the children she/he teaches. I learned too late how trauma increases the sensitivity of children and may stimulate unhealthy responses in coping with fear-producing situations.


High school presented another traumatic situation with a teacher who told the students on the first day of their freshman year that they were subhuman. I mistakenly assumed the teacher was joking. We later learned this same teacher targeted vulnerable students each year. Our son stood up to him and was the recipient of continued psychological abuse and threats right up to the time of his death.


Another teacher told the students they were grown up and should never involve their parents in problems at school. Consequently, we did not know about the abuse until the weekend before our son's suicide, and even then only learned the name of the teacher from his friends after his death. Although the majority give immeasurably to enrich children's lives, I caution parents to be aware of signs that a teacher (or anyone of influence) has emotional problems and encourage them to take steps to get these people help before they spread their pain to the students they teach.

Following our son's death, and rather than sue the district as some suggested, we requested a hearing and disciplinary action be taken. As a reminder to the educational staff, we donated a framed poster PRIORITIES which says, "A Hundred Years From Now It Will Not Matter What My Bank Account Was, The Sort Of House I Lived In, Or The Kind Of Car I Drove…But The World May Be Different Because I was Important In The Life Of A Child." This is important to each of us that how we treat children, being willing to listen, and what we say to them have long-lasting effects on them and society for years to come.


As parents we think that since our child "survived" the trauma and is safe in our arms that in a short time this will all be forgotten. Not so! When our child feels safe at home, that may be the only place of safety. The child's perception is what counts and that perception will influence the rest of his/her life. Unresolved pain causes a change in the brain chemistry and changes perception of what is safe.


Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not thought possible by many therapists in the 1980's, but now we know otherwise. Subsequent events are handled differently when trauma is unresolved. If I knew then what I know now, not only would I have dealt more in depth with the first trauma (being sure the counselor we sought was trained in how trauma affects children), but I'd also be sure my child felt safe in many places outside our home and with many other people. I have also learned that being overly protective decreases a child's confidence, increases anxiety, and increases anticipated trauma under similar circumstances, such as in our son's case when he would go to places unfamiliar to him.


I would also teach the importance of dealing with waiting and change . So often we hear that the two absolutes in life are death and taxes. Especially for inexperienced youth, wait and change are two absolutes they must deal with - waiting to hear about a job, acceptance to a school, results of exams. My recommendation is that they take this time to do things they normally do not have time to do, enjoy a hobby, learn something new, do recreational sports, or have some quiet time. It is also important they realize that life is forever changing, otherwise we would still be cave men/women. Some changes will be for the good, some for the bad, and some will just make life different.


After experiencing a traumatic event, it is important to affirm children's feelings, listen to their account of the event and their fears, and work to re-build their sense of self-confidence and competence to deal with the world. Because the traumatic event may cause unhealthy responses to stressful situations in the future, we need to realize the true nature and power of these events to change the lives of our children. Only by resolving these fears, putting them into perspective, and helping our children grow into secure adults can we hope to avoid tragedies that may be triggered years later.


Foremost, we must always understand that it is the child's perspective that matters, not ours, the adults. To miscalculate, dismiss, or underestimate a frightened child's feelings only adds to his/her terror and diminishes the traumatized child's ability to trust adults. Working together, all of us - parents, counselors, teachers, and police - can increase our skills in truly understanding the children for whom we care, and their happiness and healthy development will be our reward.