Shelter in Place

There is something powerful about the common emergency-situation guidance to "shelter in place." For once, we are not going elsewhere to seek comfort. Metaphorically, we aren't day-dreaming about the future or getting swept back into the past. We aren't fantasizing or planning our next trip to distract ourselves. We're instructed to stay in place. Find what shelter you can in the spot you already occupy.

This is a radical notion in our society, with its many options for escapist fantasy, and it could teach us something powerful for working with kids, particularly adolescents who are developing the ability to see themselves abstractly.

If a hurricane is raging outside and you get the instruction to shelter in place, you are unconsciously doing something important: you are accepting the fact that there is a hurricane outside. How often do we deny ourselves that? Pretend that I didn't just have this fight with a friend, or that I didn't just hear some hard news. Begin instead with acceptance. This has happened. How powerful for kids to have the challenge to begin with acceptance.

With acceptance, we aren't wasting time resisting. We aren't denying the hurricane and trying to pretend we're still going to work as usual while trees fall over outside, using time and energy that could instead learn from and respond to the situation. So we teach our kids first to accept that when something is going wrong, it has happened.

Once we've accepted something, we can notice. Is it getting worse right now? Are things spiraling out of control? Usually, the answer is no. That friend said something disrespectful to me in class, but that was yesterday and right now, I'm angry but things aren't getting any worse. This stops the cycle of panic that all of us can get into, but particularly adolescents who are not sure just how bad a given situation, especially a social one, can get.

When you've accepted it, when you've noticed things are not getting worse right now, than a skilled guide can point out that you are actually handling it right now. You are meeting the challenge. The hurricane has not killed you. You have enough resources, inside yourself and in trusted people around you, to meet the situation. Now you can approach it with a little more power. So I was just insulted by someone I thought was a friend - but I have the resources to consider this. I can own the feelings this creates, the disappointment and anger, and I can still be here. I'm not running away. So now which tool do I want to use?

Then this branches into a million possible scenarios, but the beginning is consistent. When a difficult situation arises, we want to develop in adolescents the ability to find shelter in themselves. This requires acceptance first, then noticing that there is stability, and noticing that enough resources exist to survive this. Then considering a response, as opposed to reacting. Not easy to do, for any age. But teachable, especially when adolescents begin to notice themselves abstractly, to observe their own thoughts. As that capacity becomes available neurologically, let's seize the opportunity to teach kids how to break cycles of reaction. Shelter in place for a moment, look outside with a little less panic, and respond with awareness.