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  • Writer's pictureDeirdre Azzopardi

Safety Revisited

Updated: Nov 30, 2021

My professional life has been in an upheaval over the last month. I have never felt so at odds with my supervisors. The whole situation has made me feel scattered, afraid, and disoriented. Professionally, I have felt stuck in a place of both anger and sorrow. All of this is uncharted territory for me, and I have been working hard at find my footing. While engaged in my own life drama, I have been simultaneously concerned about my pediatric clients, and their need for solid ground in a world that often doesn’t understand them.

My study and application of polyvagal theory has transformed how I think and work with my clients. My overarching aim is to create environments where safety is at the forefront of all my interventions. Over time, I have also come to realize that this theory does not only pertain to my pediatric clients; it is just as personally relevant, as I attempt to work through my vacillating emotions. Polyvagal theory, as Dr. Stephen Porges outlines, is about our unconscious ability to sense safety through the vagus nerve. If we feel threatened, we may fight, flee or even shut down as a reaction to the perceived threats. Fight/ Flight reactions are obvious. Individuals may throw, hit, or run away from various situations. Shut down can be more insidious and is often misinterpreted because it can look like inattention or passivity.

Recently I have been pondering the impact of miscommunication. I have been feeling misunderstood, and my guess is my supervisors feel the same way. After my initial attempts to communicate failed, I did become combative. I am not proud of that. When those encounters, unsurprisingly, did not result in any solutions, I experienced a sense of defeat and disorganization. My own shutdown has gotten me to think about the many children I work with who struggle with communication. When you work in special education, you have daily encounters where your ability to understand is tested. When I have failed, my clients have offered up a variety of responses. There are those children who will valiantly keep trying. In an attempt to reduce my own anxiety, I have often pretended to know what they wanted and hand them my best guess. I would hope they would just move on; both of us knowing I missed the mark. These days I just own up to my lack of understanding. I will say something like the following, “I am so sorry that I don’t understand what you are saying (what you want) and that must be so frustrating.” I am hoping that my clients feel that I empathize even when I am unable to comprehend.

I have often seen children that will throw, hit and cry when they are not understood. This can occur when a child is attempting to verbally (or non-verbally) communicate but it also happens when I don’t accurately interpret what a child’s needs, perhaps because I am stuck thinking about my own agenda. Conversely, I have worked with students who will repeatedly try to communicate and when not understood will just freeze, put their heads down and not move on. The therapy session gets completely hijacked and I feel like a failure for not reading the cues.

This week I got to practice these concepts when I arrived in a preschool classroom to find my next 3-year-old client lying on his stomach watching the wheels of a car. I was told that this autistic, minimally speaking child had spent the day hitting, throwing items off his desk and yelling. He is usually happy to come to my therapy space so when he recoiled at the suggestion, I was surprised. I could have forced him, and perhaps he would have been fine once we arrived in the OT room. Instead, I just saw an exhausted, completely shut down boy who wanted to be left alone to stare at a toy car. The room was very busy with chattering adults and children, but I just abandoned my plan, laid down on the floor and watched the car too. I didn’t talk and eventually he started to watch me. We did a little back and forth with the car. This lasted for about 10 minutes and then the teacher started calling all the children to the table to complete a craft. I encouraged him to go and to my delight he willingly went and sat down. We completed the craft together, without incident. He did more during that group then he had all day and I believe much more than if I just forced him to come with me when he was not ready.

Feeling understood creates safety. As adults, we have so much choice to change our state of mind and move on from situations. We can work on acceptance and shift our perspectives (something I have been working on). Young children simply do not have enough life experience to make these choices. They need adults to constantly look deeper.

Do children just need us to stop and get curious, so we can deepen our understanding?

Are we truly trying to listen instead of moving on because of our own need to control?

Are we spending time looking at the children who seem so “easy” and making sure they are not in shut down because life is too demanding?

These are questions we need to keep asking if we want to truly understand our young clients as we also attempt to understand ourselves. Every day we are offered the opportunity to grow and change with children, especially through safe spaces of mutual understanding.

Please reach out if you would like to share your story of miscommunication or even communication wins at

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