What Not to Say & When Not to Say It

When there’s a crisis, there are a set of rules that could fill a small library – a small, complex library with plenty of hidden shelves for the rules whose existence you have no idea about, until they are broken.

There’s a brilliant theory that deals with the unwritten rules around responding to people in a crisis. It’s one of those life tools that makes you grateful you were in the right place when it came your way – which I was, and which you now are now, if you want to be …

The theory is the brainchild of Susan Silk and it came about as a result of the way people responded during her own crisis. After surgery for breast cancer a colleague wanted to visit her. When Susan mentioned she wasn’t up to visitors, her colleague’s response was ‘This isn’t just about you.’

Perhaps right now, as I am, you are taking a sharp breath in. True, this response is ‘out there’ but there are plenty of subtle and not so subtle versions of the very same thing – people drawing on those more affected by a crisis than they are for support or a sound-off. One that happens far too much is the parent who leans on the child after a divorce or separation.

As Susan Silk explains, her theory – the Ring Theory – ‘… works for all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential.’  Here’s how it works.

  1. First, draw a circle. This is the centre ring and in this circle is the person at the centre of the crisis (let’s call them the ‘centre-person‘). They can say anything they want – cry, complain, fall apart, lean on or break down – to whoever they want.
  2. Next, draw a circle around the centre ring, and another circle around that one and so on until you have a number of concentric circles, like a target. 
  3. Everyone in the centre-person’s life is then placed in one of the circles around the centre circle, depending on how close they are to the crisis. Those who are are closer to the centre-person will be in one of the circles closer to the centre ring. Less intimate relationships will be in the outside bigger circles. So in the next circle to the centre-person are the next most affected people and so on. 

There are no boundaries on what anyone can say. Just who they can say it to.

To use the separation example, the children have no control over the decision or the outcome and they will have trouble understanding their broken hearts and the changes happening at light speed around them. They are affected the most, so they are placed in the centre circle. In the circle around them are the parents. Next, maybe grandparents, or children who live with another parent. Next, maybe friends or siblings of the parents. You get the idea. 

In this instance – and remember it’s just an example – the parents must never look to the children for support, but they can look to the grandparents, siblings or friends – anyone in a circle that’s bigger than their own. The grandparents in this example must never look to the centre children or the parents for support but they can go to other siblings or friends. 

Everyone in the circles can say what they want to, whenever they want to, but only to people in the larger circles – never to people in the circles closer to the centre-person than theirs.

When speaking to anyone in a smaller circle, the goal is to comfort, love and support – whatever is needed. It’s important not to look to them for support though. They’re busy supporting themselves and those in the smaller circles to them. Don’t say anything even in the same land mass as ‘I’m really struggling with this,’ or ‘I’m just crying myself to sleep over this,’ or ‘This is really upsetting to me.’ Just. No. 

Also best not to give advice unless it’s asked for. Though the advice may be well-intended, people in a crisis don’t need to hear what they ‘should’ do. They’ll be having enough trouble doing very much at all until the crisis starts to clear. Until that point, let them know it’s fine if all they do for the time being is breathe.

If, when supporting someone through a crisis, you want to cry, scream, talk about the unfairness of it all or the awful things it’s dragged up for you, that’s absolutely fine and completely normal and healthy. Just do it to someone in a larger circle than yours.

The idea is a simple one – ‘Comfort in, Dump out’.

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Behaviour is never from ‘bad’. It’s from ‘big’. Big hungry, big tired, big disconnection, big missing, big ‘too much right now’. The reason our responses might not work can often be because we’ve misread the story, or we’ve missed an important piece of it. Their story might be about now, today, yesterday, or any of the yesterdays before now. 

Our job isn’t to fix them. They aren’t broken. Our job is to understand them. Only then can we steer our response in the right direction. Otherwise we’re throwing darts at the wrong target - behaviour, instead of the need behind the behaviour. 

Watch, listen, breathe and be with. Feel what they feel. This will help them feel you with them. We all feel safer and calmer when we feel our people beside us - not judging or hurrying or questioning. What don’t you know, that they need you to know?♥️
We all have first up needs. The difference between adults and children is that we can delay the meeting of these needs for a bit longer than children - but we still need them met. 

The first most important question the brain needs answered is, ‘Is my body safe?’ - Am I free from threat, hunger, exhaustion, pain? This is usually an easier one to take care of or to recognise when it might need some attention. 

The next most important question is, ‘Is my heart safe?’ - Am I loved, noticed, valued, claimed, wanted, welcome? This can be an easy one to overlook, especially in the chaos of the morning. Of course we love them and want them - and sometimes we’ll get distracted, annoyed, frustrated, irritated. None of this changes how much we love and want them - not even for a second. We can feel two things at once - madly in love with them and annoyed/ distracted/ frustrated. Sometimes though, this can leave their ‘Is my heart safe?’ needs a little hungry. They have less capacity than us to delay the meeting of these needs. When these needs are hungry, we’ll be more likely to see big feelings or big behaviour. 

The more you can fill their love tanks at the start of the day, the more they’ll be able to handle the bumps. This doesn’t have to be big. It just has to be enough. It might look like having a cuddle, reading a story, having a chat, sitting with them while they have breakfast or while they pat the dog, touching their back when they walk past, telling them you love them.

All brains need to feel loved and wanted, and as though they aren’t a nuisance, but sometimes they’ll need to feel it more. The more their felt sense of relational safety is met, the more they’ll be able to then focus on ‘thinking brain’ things, such as planning, making good decisions, co-operating, behaving. 

(And if this today was a bumpy one, that’s okay. Those days are going to happen. If most of the time their love tanks are full, they’ll handle when it drops a little. Just top it up when you can. And don’t forget to top yours up too. Be kind to yourself. You deserve it as much as they do.)♥️
Things will always go wrong - a bad decision, a good decision with a bad outcome, a dilemma, wanting something that comes with risk. 

Often, the ‘right thing’ lives somewhere in the very blurry bounds of the grey. Sometimes it will be about what’s right for them. Sometimes what’s right for others. Sometimes it will be about taking a risk, and sometimes the ‘right’ thing just feels wrong right now, or wrong for them. Even as adults, we will often get things wrong. This isn’t because we’re bad, or because we don’t know the right thing from the wrong thing, but because few things are black and white. 

The problem with punishment and harsh consequences is that we remove ourselves as an option for them to turn to next time things end messy, or as a guide before the mess happens. 

Feeling safe in our important relationships is a primary need for all of us humans. That means making sure our relationships are free from judgement, humiliation, shame, separation. If our response to their ‘wrong things’ is to bring all of these things to the table we share with them with them, of course they’ll do anything to avoid it. This isn’t about lying or secrecy. It’s about maintaining relational ‘safety’, or closeness.

Kids want to do the right thing. They want us to love and accept them. But they’re going to get things wrong sometimes. When they do, our response will teach them either that we are safe for them to come to no matter what, or that we aren’t. 

So what do we do when things go wrong? Embrace them, reject the behaviour:

‘I love that you’ve been honest with me. That means everything to me. I know you didn’t expect things to end up like this, but here we are. Let’s talk about what’s happened and what can be different next time.’

Or, ‘Something must have made this (wrong thing) feel like the right thing to do, otherwise you wouldn’t have done it. We all do that sometimes. What do you think it was that was for you?’

Or, ‘I know you know lying isn’t okay. What made you feel like you couldn’t tell me the truth? How can we build the trust again. Let’s talk about how to do that.’

You will always be their greatest guide, but you can only be that if they let you.♥️
Whenever there is a call to courage, there will be anxiety - every time. That’s what makes it brave. This is why challenging things, brave things, important things will often drive anxiety. 

At these times - when they are safe, but doing something hard - the feelings that come with anxiety will be enough to drive avoidance. When it is avoidance of a threat, that’s important. That’s anxiety doing it’s job. But when the avoidance is in response to things that are important, brave, meaningful, that avoidance only serves to confirm the deficiency story. This is when we want to support them to take tiny steps towards that brave thing. It doesn’t have to happen all at once.l and it doesn’t matter how long it takes. Brave is about being able to handle the discomfort of anxiety enough to do the important, challenging thing. It’s built in tiny steps, one after the other. 

We don’t have to get rid of their anxiety and neither do they. They can feel anxious, and do brave. At these times (safe, but scary) they need us to take a posture of validation and confidence. ‘I believe you, and I believe in you.’ ‘I know this feels big, and I know you can handle it.’ 

What we’re saying is we know they can handle the discomfort of anxiety. They don’t have to handle it well, and they don’t have to handle it for too long. Handling it is handling it, and that’s the substance of ‘brave’. 

Being brave isn’t about doing the brave thing, but about being able to handle the discomfort of the anxiety that comes with that. And if they’ve done that today, at all, or for a moment longer than yesterday, then they’ve been brave today. It doesn’t matter how messy it was or how small it was. Let them see their brave through your eyes.‘That was big for you wasn’t it. And you did it. You felt anxious, and you stayed with it. That’s what being brave is all about.’♥️
A relationally unsafe (emotionally unsafe) environment can cause as much breakage as as a physically unsafe one. 

The brain’s priority will always be safety, so if a person or environment doesn’t feel emotionally safe, we might see big behaviour, avoidance, or reduced learning. In this case, it isn’t the child that’s broken. It’s the environment.

But here’s the thing, just because a child doesn’t feel safe, doesn’t mean the person or environment isn’t safe. What it means is that there aren’t enough signals of safety - yet, and there’s a little more work to do to build this. ‘Safety’ isn’t about what is actually safe or not, it’s about what the brain perceives. Children might have the safest, warmest, most loving adult in front of them, but that doesn’t mean they’ll feel safe. This is when we have to look at how we might extend bigger cues of warmth, welcome, inclusiveness, and what we can do (or what roles or responsibilities can we give them) to help them feel valued and needed. This might take time, and that’s okay. Children aren’t meant to feel safe with every adult in front of them, so sometimes what they need most is our patience and understanding as we continue to build this. 

This is the way it works for all of us, everywhere. None of us will be able to give our best or do our best if we don’t feel welcome, liked, valued, and free from hostility, humiliation or judgement. 

This is especially important for our schools. A brain that doesn’t feel safe can’t learn. For schools to be places of learning, they first have to be places of relationship. Before we focus too sharply on learning support and behaviour management, we first have to focus on felt sense of safety support. The most powerful way to do this is through relationship. Teachers who do this are magic-makers. They show a phenomenal capacity to expand a child’s capacity to learn, calm big behaviour, and open up a child’s world. But relationships take time, and felt safety takes time. The time it takes for this to happen is all part of the process. It’s not a waste of time, it’s the most important use of it.♥️

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