Building Protective Behaviors Networks

Lately I have found myself thinking a lot about "protective behaviors networks." The idea that we are supposed to be self-reliant--that asking for help and support is "weak"--seems so prevalent in U.S. society. Yet as Paul, a wise and seasoned educator, explained, we need human connections, whether we are children or adults:

Paul: My students have a support network made up of people who know how to deal with the system and so can give them a leg up. And we intentionally try to develop that network in the classroom. In our art center this past week, we had kids represent a network of people who can help them stay safe and healthy--a protective behaviors network--by creating a hand.* The thumb represents their family, but the rest of the fingers represent four other adults to whom they can go when they need help. I emphasized to them that I can be one of those fingers but sometimes am going to be distracted and not able to listen to them effectively, so they need to keep going down the road until they find an adult who can help them.

Connie: The parallels between what the students and we want and need continually strike me. These protective networks are important for us, too.

Paul: Well those connections are life.** 

What I like most about this metaphor of a protective behaviors network is that it requires building. All too often our efforts to transform our lives seem focused on deconstructing them—on identifying problems and trying to make them go away. A protective behaviors network, in contrast, asks that we focus on cultivating connections that sustain us.

Although we do not have control over the families into which we are born or the resources readily available to us in our local communities—such as affordable, high-quality health care services—we can actively seek out relationships that will nourish us and help to keep us safe. In the realm of developing such friendships, Charlotte Kasl offers some words of wisdom:

go toward people who are reliable, responsive, interested in knowing you, and supportive of your best self. Do not repeatedly put your energy into people who are indifferent, unreliable, and unresponsive to you…Feeling included in a safety net that treats people with respect and encouragement helps counteract feelings of exclusion and being somehow inferior…We are not isolated individuals so much as communities of people in which the well-being of one affects the well-being of all.

As a therapist, I believe in the power of individuals to heal our inner worlds and honor the life within is. But that does not mean we can do it alone. To borrow from John Bradshaw

Not one of us is so strong that [they do] not need love, intimacy and dialogue in community... Even after we have achieved some sense of mastery, even when we are independent, we will still have needs. We will need to love and grow. We will need to care for another, and we will need to be needed.

* More information about Peg Flandreau West's curriculum on Protective Behaviors is located here.

** I borrowed the written version of this interaction from Teaching for Social Justice? Paul is a pseudonym.