Background and development

SafetyStories© is a traumaprocessing model that I have developed. It started in 2015, when I again and again heard about children who were traumatized but did not get the help they needed. I felt that there must be a way for ”ordinary” people to help each other to process trauma. I started to read everything I could find about trauma, and realized that the research during the last decades have found so many interesting aspects that are not included in many of the trauma processing models we use. Out from what I learned a model started to take form, that I came to name SafetyStories, as safety and storytelling are the two most important and powerful ingredients of effective trauma processing. I have now for a few years used, developed, and trained others to use SafetyStories.

In July 2023 my book about SafetyStories Trygghetsberättelser – från trauma till trygghet was published in Swedish. It will now be translated into English.

There is no research done on the model itself, even though it is built on research. My hope is that the model will be refined and developed as it starts to be used, and that eventually follow ups can be done so we know for sure how helpful the model is. The model is set up to be as safe as possible, so the risks of re-traumatizing or in other way make harm to others or myself  are as small as possible.

From trauma to safety

Many children and adults around the world have experienced traumatizing events, and are traumatized. A traumatizing event is an event when the person felt lonely, scared and powerless. The human reaction in such situations is to first try to find safety, then to fight or flight. If that is not possible, which is often the case especially for children, we freeze or fall. That is when the traumatic experience gets stored in the body. If we can fight or flight, the memory becomes a painful memory but not necessarily a traumatic memory. A painful memory is easier to process, but a traumatic memory is not stored together with other memories, and can therefor be hard to access. Through play, stories, safety and bodily expressions the memory is more easily accessed and processed.

In SafetyStories we invite and include safety into the traumatic memory in many ways: by the presence of a real safe person in the moment right now, by the presence of an imaginative safe person in the memory, by using our bodies to create empowering movements, by using play and creativity to build in joy, and by creating safe relationships and safe strategies to make the life here and now as safe as possible.

As so many people, especially children, need help from safe adults to process their traumatic memories, there is no way that they all can get help from professionals who are trained in trauma debriefing. Therefor we all would need to learn how to lead others in a safe way through the trauma processing.

A safe adult is a person who has worked through her own traumas, who knows how to ground herself when becoming overwhelmed,  who can feel with others and see what they need, and also can respect others and their boundaries. For a child it can be a parent, a fosterparent, another caregiver, a teacher, or anyone that the child feels safe with. For and adult it can be a partner, a friend, a colleague or a leader of any kind.

SafetyStories is developed to help any adult who is safe, to lead a child or another adult through the trauma processing. As I have now used SafetyStories for many years, I have come to realize that it has now become a way of living to me, a lifestyle.

The 10 steps

The following steps need to be part of the safetystories. It is not a step by step model, as many of the steps are integrated in each other.

1. Find a safe adult who can lead the child through the process.

2. Make sure this safe adult knows how to ground the child, out from what we know through the polyvagal theory, how to engage the social engagement system, and activate vagus nerve.

3. Prepare a timeline: things that have happened before and after the traumatic event, that helps the traumatic event to find its place in the childs lifestory. It can be memories from the birth and the first year, a few things that happened right before the event, an about 10-15 neutral memories of things that happened after the traumatic event. This will help the brain to understand that what happened then is not happening now – it is over!

4. The child´s traumastory: Listen to the child´s story – that can be told verbally or through drawing, playing or by other means. The story can be very short and details are not needed. Help the child to be aware about how her body reacts to her story and how the body reacted in the traumatic moment.

5. The child´s safetystory: Encourage the child to invite through visualization a safe person in to the memory. It can be a person the child knows, a person from a movie, a person from a fairy tale, an animal or anyone that the child feels safe with. Encourage the child to visualize what the person is doing and saying. Help the child be aware about how her body sensations change as safety is coming in to the memory.

6. The act of triumph: Observe if there is trauma energy that needs to leave the child´s body, and give time and space for that. Let the child act out any movements she feels for doing as the safety is coming in to the memory. Do the actions – the acts of triumph – together with the child.

7. The adult´s story back to the child: Tell the child the story about herself – the Safetystory – including the traumastory, the safetystory and the act of triumph. Include
– what happened before the traumatic event (you can start from the birth or just a few hours before the traumatic event)
– the traumatic event, as the child told about it
– the new story about how safety came in
– what her body felt like both in the traumatic moment and when safety came in
– the acts of triumph her body did as safety came in
– messages she needs to hear like ”you did your best”, ”it was not your fault”, ”no child should need to experience things like this”
– the memories of what has happened since the traumatic event, ending with this very moment.

Some times we need to start the storytelling with the adults story to the child about the traumatic event, including what happened before and after and the messages the child needs to hear. The child might then be ready to tell her story.

8. Explore together with the child what she came to believe about herself and the world. Identify thoughts that are not helpful, and exchange them for helpful thoughts.

9. Explore together with the child what she lost and what she needs to grieve. Do the grieving together.

10. Make sure the child can continue to feel safe, have strategies for similar situations in the future, and then celebrate together that it is over. Draw pictures of how safety came, role play it, dance it, live it!

Ulrika Ernvik