Creating Safe Spaces for Neglected and Abused Children
When dealing with children who have undergone adversity, such as neglect or abuse, it’s important to create a space in which they feel safe and understood.
According to the Australia Institute of Family Studies, “in the years of 2015-2016, there were up to 225,487 Australian children suspected of being ‘at risk’ of abuse or neglect in their family spaces. The nurturing of children is already a fragile process and is enhanced when these children have undergone more adversity than others their age. So, it’s vital to understand how to create a space where they can experience their childhood at a normal rate and feel attended to and heard.”
If you’re looking to create a safe space for neglected and abused children, here’s what you need to know.
What is a Safe Space?
Safe Spaces are areas in which an individual feels protected from outside risks.
In regard to child neglect and abuse, however, the adversity experienced by neglected children often occurs within what they believed to be their own safe space. So, it is vital to help these children to feel at peace in their space.
According to the NSW Government, “a ‘child safe place’ is an area with rules or guidelines that are set up to make sure our kids are kept safe.”
So, what can some of these rules or guidelines be?
Identifying Comforts and Discomforts
Children with histories of neglect and abuse often have increased sensitivities and discomforts developed around habits or actions which may be considered normal.
For that reason, it’s important to be educated about each individual child’s history of adversity, in order to identify potential trigger points or areas of discomfort.
Moving forward, consent and communication are the most efficient ways of identifying these discomforts. For example, asking a child before hugging them or initiating any form of physical contact.
This is reinforced by counsellor and mental health potential Amanda Woolveridge who says that “teaching consent in early development years encourages kids to practice body autonomy. In times of stress and uncertainty, feeling in control of their own bodies can help children feel grounded and reduce distress.”
This will ensure that the child feels comfortable and unthreatened in their space, and can gradually and naturally nurture a sense of trust with areas in which they previously felt discomfort.
For example, Act for Kids outlines the story of Ethan, a six-year-old child who underwent adverse home conditions, including domestic violence, exposure to alcohol, drug misuse, and untreated mental illness.
As a consequence, Ethan was ‘unable to initiate affection’ and was ‘even more uncomfortable accepting it.’ This is an example of a discomfort cultivated from a neglectful environment, which can be avoided through communication with the child.
Helping Children Process
Processing emotional and physical trauma can be difficult, even for adults.
For a child, it is hard to find a way to effectively talk through the abuse or neglect they have endured, especially if it is still fresh; or if the cause is someone they still feel emotionally attached to, such as a parent or guardian.
In a safe space, it is also important to talk through and help them process the challenges they have gone through. This can be achieved through conventional forms of therapy as well as through play tactics to help them act out their experiences, which can help them process trauma in more hands-on ways.
By helping kids process these experiences at an early stage in a safe environment, children can surpass and overcome trauma and continue on towards happy and healthy lives.
Listening to Children
In neglectful environments, children often fly under the radar and their emotions and feelings are left unheard. In a safe space for a neglected child, it’s important to constantly listen to them and take their thoughts and opinions into account.
Often times, emotions can be pent up in neglectful environments due to a lack of interaction and a lack of an emotional outlet. This results in pent up anger, or, in Ethan’s case described in Act for Kids, children can have the habit to ‘internalise emotions and fear.’
By providing an outlet for children to express their opinions, or describe their feelings, the child can overcome certain discomforts or unhealthy habits which may have been cultivated in neglectful environments.
Developing Emotional and Intellectual Skills
Children with experiences of abuse and neglect may find that they are constantly on edge and on guard in their domestic environment. This lack of trust can lead to a lack of focus on education and the development of learning skills.
In a safe space, it is also important to use the safety and security you have established to encourage children to gradually develop skills of literacy, motor skills, and emotional intelligence.
Not only can this help with conventional education, but it can also develop a child’s ability to interact with other children or adults. As well as distinguish any harmful ideas which may have manifested during their interaction with people in abusive or neglectful environments.
According to the experts at Thinking Families, emotional and intellectual skills can be developed by “teaching kids to use assertive communication skills can be used to develop emotional maturity. If your child doesn’t feel as though they are ready to voice their feelings yet, creative problem solving is a simple and non-verbal alternative to help move towards intellectual skills.”
By teaching ideas of human interaction in a safe and gentle environment rather than a neglectful one, kids can grow a sense of trust and develop a more healthy way of interacting with people.
An example of developing a child’s emotional and intellectual skills in a safe space can be seen in Grace’s story in Act For Kids, where Grace, previously jumpy, untrusting, and easily upset, was given improved focus, due to her new ability to ‘focus on other important aspects of functioning,’ in a way which allowed her to establish a sense of safety, a basis from which she could focus on aspects of child development that other children typically have the capacity to focus on.
Safe spaces can be created by establishing a sense of trust and openness in a way that can give children a secure environment to process and overcome what they have experienced.
These spaces can also be used as a tool to help children focus on other aspects of growing which they couldn’t focus on before, to help them grow and develop at a healthy pace.
While kids may struggle with the unfair challenges they have to endure at the hands of adults and toxic environments, there is hope for recovery and a happy life.
Simon Moore is an Australian freelance writer and Sydney-based university student. As a business student, he has a passion for learning about global changes in business culture and specialises in entrepreneurship and innovation-related topics. When Simon isn’t at his desk, you’ll find him exploring National Parks.