By Lisa Dion, LPC, RPT-S

Creating a neuroception of safety inside the playroom is something that we, as therapists, strive to do. But what, exactly, does this mean?

Does it mean knowing how to support the child? Does it mean working with their perception so that they know they’re safe? Does it mean helping them stay unflooded?

Yes, to all the above. But creating a neuroception of safety involves another element as well: the element of challenge.

So, how does experiencing challenges and sitting in the “uncomfortable” help create the neuroception of safety?

It starts with sensory data……

At any given moment, the brain is super busy! It’s ingesting all sorts of sensory data, which is then traveling into the limbic area. Here, the amygdala decides whether this sensory data is bad (so to speak) or not.

It does this by assessing for information from four major perceived threats of the brain: an ability to cause physical harm, perceptions in the unknown, shoulds and unmet expectations (telling ourselves we “should” be this or we “shouldn’t” be that), and incongruence in the environment. While each plays a part in creating a neuroception of safety, incongruence in the environment gets the starring role (more on that later).

The Two Branches of the Nervous System

There are two branches of the nervous system that we enter into based on our perception of a challenge. In fact, perception is the name of the game……

Trauma is a matter of perception. Safety is a matter of perception. Challenge is a matter of perception.

Based on our perception, we will move toward Sympathetic activation or Parasympathetic activation. The Sympathetic branch is designed to rev us up while the Parasympathetic branch is designed to slow us down.

And the Parasympathetic ventral vagal response is tied to safety. It helps with social learning and social engagement. It helps us settle when we feel seen, when we feel heard, when we feel met.

The Child/Therapist Connection 

When a child is playing, their nervous system is either going to get activated into a hyper-aroused state or it’s going to get activated into a hypo-aroused state. And, spoiler alert, so is the therapist’s! This is because of the process of interoception and it makes your perception highly important as well.

It also sets the stage for you to become the External Regulator. But you can’t help the child in experiencing a felt sense of safety if you don’t have that felt sense within yourself. After all, the child is borrowing your nervous system much like an infant borrows their caregiver’s. If a dysregulated caregiver picks up the infant, the infant will feel that chaos.

Paving the Way for Maximum Growth

Now let’s circle back to the beginning, back to the concept of challenge. Challenge plays a key role in maximum growth. A challenge that is overwhelming won’t do the child any favors nor will an underwhelming challenge that’s not really much of a challenge at all.

The trick is to find the magic middle, the place where the child thinks, “I’m safe. I’m not safe. I’m comfortable. I’m uncomfortable. It’s easy. It’s hard.” This is the concept of “one foot in and one foot out.”  In order for it to be fully effective, the therapist must also walk the line between comfortable and uncomfortable.

If a child is too comfortable, their window of tolerance won’t widen at all. If a child is too outside their window of tolerance, they’ll find themselves firmly set in a place where they don’t feel safe. In both instances, it’s difficult for growth to occur.

For therapists, when working in the playroom, the key is to be activated in your dysregulation. When you’re ventrally activated, you stay connected to yourself – you’re aware of what’s happening in your body, you can take a deep breath, you can rock back and forth, you can move, you can name your feelings.

You don’t necessarily feel calm – ventral activation doesn’t mean “warm and fuzzy” – but you do feel present.

Along the way, you’re disabling one of the brain’s biggest threats: incongruence in the environment. And this helps cultivate a neuroception of safety. Importantly, it teaches children how to cultivate one too.