This may seem like a moot subject during this current landscape of life. At some point, however, we’re going to return to normal and begin interacting with others outside of our home. When that time comes, you will have to hold up the safety plan you created to keep your children, and other children safe. But how do we do that and not face embarrassment?
A safety plan is a written protocol for preventing unsafe behaviors before they start. Sometimes the behaviors we are trying to prevent carry a stigma. Sexually maladaptive behaviors, severe aggression, violence, stealing, and hoarding are not socially acceptable even though they are common for children who have experienced trauma. Those who do not understand the effects of trauma may judge someone exhibiting these behaviors as a “bad kid.” We want our children to be safe everywhere they go, but we also want to protect their privacy. This is the balance we must find when using the safety plan in public.
- Decide who needs to know. Not everyone needs to know your child’s story. Even the people who need to know parts of the story may not need to know all of it. Your child’s teacher will need to know about the plan if it involves keeping eyes on the child at all times. The resource teacher and school counselor will need to know as well so they can support with an aide to watch the child. However, the janitor or lunchroom staff will not need to know the plan or why it is in place. If you are going to a playdate with a trusted friend, inform the friend of the safety plan and ask if they feel comfortable enforcing it. If the friend isn’t someone you can trust with your child’s information, it is best not to play at their house, or you can accompany the child on the outing.
- Talk with your child beforehand. Our children may feel shame over their need for a safety plan. Reassure them that they should not feel ashamed. A safety plan is just like wearing a seat belt. We will probably not end up in a situation where we will need the seat belt; however, we always buckle it just in case. We will probably not find ourselves in a situation where we will have behaviors that are unsafe, but we always follow our safety plan just in case.
- Create a special plan for public places. Have a separate plan that you use for birthday parties, playdates, playing at the park, going to the store, or at school. Your plan should use the same familiar language but with situation specific details. For instance, at home the child may be able to play in his or her room alone. In public that same child may need to be in eyesight of a trusted adult at all times. Go over the safety plan before you ever go in public. Talking about the plan ahead of time will remind the child that they are not in trouble. Having a plan ahead of time will help the child not feel embarrassed if you need to call something to their attention.
- Have a code word. Create a code word around the unsafe behavior. The child may not want others to know that his mom is keeping eyes on him, but if the child steps out of the line of sight, the mom or dad will need to call him back. Using a code word can help the child to remain aware of the expectation without embarrassment. The word can be anything you chose. A phrase, like “I’m thirsty, how about you?” or “minnow” or “Honey, did you feed the fish today?” will not alert the others in the group that the child needs something. These phrases just sound conversational, like nicknames or cute inside jokes. Other people will ignore them, but they will alert the child that they have gone outside of the boundary of the safety plan.
- Create an ongoing plan for school, church, and sports if needed. You probably do some activities regularly. You know the schedule and the people who will be involved at these places. Create a safety plan to use at the places you go to often.
- Praise your child for doing the right thing. “I’m really proud of the way you played at the playground today. You were kind to other kids, and you stayed where I could see you all the time. Great job.” Point out the good things. Safety plans keep us safe. Yes, they are a response to an unsafe past behavior, but when a child follows the plan, he or she should feel proud of the accomplishment.
- Have an exit plan. Always have a plan for how to leave public places, such as Thanksgiving dinner, the grocery store, the classroom, or a playdate. Plan how you will excuse yourself and your child if following the safety plan gets tough.
Here are a couple of questions to ask yourself as you consider a safety plan, and how to manage one in public…
- Does your child have a safety plan?
- What are some ways you have helped your child in public?