Finding Safe Haven from Childhood Fear

Worried girl crouching in corner

A psychiatrist friend once summarized a basic tendency he saw in children from their earliest years. He said that a child could grow up either trusting the people and world he lived in or feeling insecure and uncertain about them. A child would either feel safe or unsafe, and a lot depended on this basic emotional orientation.

He told me about one of his neighbors, a boy about two and a half years old, who liked to come visit him. The boy would sit with his older friend and have a bowl of cereal as they talked. One day, the toddler accidentally knocked over the bowl and spilled the tiny nuggets all over the table. Immediately and without showing much reaction, he set about picking up every little piece to get them all back in the dish where they belonged.

As any parent could tell you, that is not what little kids usually do. In my experience it’s much more common for a toddler to enjoy the new arrangement of cereal bits and perhaps add another ingredient to make it even more interesting.

For one so young to carefully clean up a spill, the psychiatrist thought, suggested that the boy was trying to create a sense of safety. Perhaps, there was something in his home life that made him anxious? What happens to a kid if he doesn’t fully trust his parents to keep everything safe and stable?

This story brought to mind a brief incident that happened about 15 years ago. A colleague and I had been visiting a small town in a beautiful and remote region of the Southwest. We had just met the young physician whose clinic offered the only nearby health care. He walked us a couple of tree-lined blocks to his home for lunch. His wife, who was teaching in the elementary school, arrived as we got to the front door. With her was the couple’s three-and-a-half year old son. They were a beautiful young family living in a pleasant rural house. Everything seemed idyllic.

As the others were going inside, I suddenly felt a small hand take my own. There was the boy at my side.

“Come this way,” he whispered. “Come and see.”

He was gentle and good-looking like his parents. At the moment, he had a hushed air about him, as if he were letting me in on a big secret. I was a little reluctant to go off with him but didn’t want to refuse. I thought he had a special treasure around the corner of the house, and we’d only take a second to have a look. But it was a little more than that. As he drew me past the house, the narrow flagstone path turned into a long, wide dirt lane that led to a group of old sheds, stables, and a small barn. These were part of the house’s history, for there were no horses or other animals now.

I realized that he wanted to take me all the way down that lane, about 70 or 80 yards, to those buildings. I hung back a little for fear of taking too long before joining the others for lunch. Of course, I couldn’t resist him – he so wanted to share this – whatever it was. He kept on motioning down the lane while gently holding my hand.

“Come on, it’s here.” So we walked hand in hand all the way, and he paused in front of the barn.

“It’s in here.” He was still whispering and pointed to a weathered door in a shed right next to the barn. Slowly he pulled it open on its creaky hinges. I stepped inside with him, and everything went dark until my eyes adjusted to the dim light filtering through cracks in the siding.

We were in a small cozy room that smelled of wood and something like sweetgrass. It was no more than ten by ten, a storage space of some kind, and beams slanting down slightly from the barn lowered the ceiling to about seven feet. There was a deep shelf along one rough wall, which was just boards nailed to uprights. The shelf was covered with hay, and a couple of worn runner carpets and old blankets were spread across its length. It was a quiet shadowy nook – a perfect retreat.

“This is so special,” he said as he climbed onto the shelf. “It’s my secret place,” he whispered. He looked so comfortable and happy there, especially sharing it this way, but there was something sombre about him as well. I told him how I loved that room, that I had never seen such a neat place and wished I could have a spot like that too. I told him how lucky he was, and he sat there staring at the shadows and walls, his familiar companions.

After just a few minutes, he jumped down and took my hand again for the walk back to the house. “Remember,” he said while shutting the door on his retreat. “It’s a secret.”

We went back and had a warm, friendly lunch, but I was deeply uneasy the whole time. This wasn’t the first young child I’d met who had taken me aside – a total stranger – to tell or show me something. Of course, it was flattering and heart-warming to be singled out that way, but in every case this turned out to be the gentle, hushed sound of a troubled family and a very worried kid.

This boy had found his imagined place of shelter and safety, but he needed a lot more than that. About six months later I heard about the sudden and unexpected divorce of this splendid couple. No one had seen it coming. But that boy had taken in the signals on some basic level where his fear and worry had been growing, whether he was aware of it or not. He’d lost trust in his parents to keep him safe and so instinctively had started looking for safety on his own. Most kids I’ve known have paid a heavy price for taking on that impossible task. I have no idea what happened to this boy later – he’d be about college age now, but I often think of him in that quiet place he had found.

I know that many readers of this blog have had childhood ripped out of them by much more violent means. But it seems to me that my psychiatrist summed it up rather well – it comes down to that sense of trust and safety. From infancy on, the sights and sounds flood in – they may feel reassuring or they may put you on your guard, long before your awareness can give words to what’s going on.

Did you have the need for a safe haven when you were growing up? Was it a place or a style of behaving that gave you a sense of safety?