Supporting Families in Crisis:
Potentially Dangerous Situation
Taken from Training Guides for
the Head Start Learning Community
may pose some degree of risk to the safety of family members and
staff. Since erratic, unpredictable behaviors can be
characteristic of people in crisis, a crisis presents some risk to
the safety of those involved in the situation. The potential
for physical harm exists in any emotionally charged crisis
situation; that potential should never be overlooked or discounted
Staff skills in
handling a potentially dangerous situations shape intervention
decisions. Sometimes, staff find themselves faced with, or
caught up in, a family situation that is too complex or too
dangerous for them to address directly. At such time, it is
critical for staff to recognize the situation is beyond their
intervention abilities and to discuss alternatives with their
With violence and other dangers escalating in the streets,
in the workplace, and the home, the issue of family and staff safety is one of
mounting concern today. This module examines the issue of staff and family
safety at a number of levels: risk management, the protection of family members,
staff self-protection strategies, and program safety measures. This module
prepares staff to assess fight and flight defenses and provides strategies for
dealing with threatening behaviors.
Assessment in Crisis Situations
Prevention is the first line of defense
against behaviors that place staff in danger. Prevention begins with
education and program policies designed to prepare staff for dangerous
encounters. All staff must be alert to signs of impending danger, know
ways to avoid becoming entangled in a dangerous situation, and know how to
escape from a threatening or violent person.
Crisis or emotionally charged situations
may pose some risk to the safety of families and staff. To protect family
members, as well as themselves, staff must be alert to danger or risk.
First, be attentive to the psychological effects of a crisis. If a family
exhibits any psychological effects, such as a bout of severe depression, a
parent's refusal to take prescribed medication for an emotional disorder,
impulsive behavior, or difficulty thinking clearly, there is reason to proceed
cautiously. The crisis state is likely to intensify a family's past difficulties
and increase current risks.
Second, the crisis itself may pose danger
to family members or to staff. For example, a crisis brought on by spouse
abuse, gang activity, unsafe living conditions, or a drug overdose suggests that
children's safety may be at stake. There are also risks to the safety of
adult family members in such situations, as well as to the safety of anyone who
attempts to intervene.
Third, because a crisis can have a harmful
impact on family members and family functioning, there is always some potential
for danger. For example, overwhelming anxiety may undermine a parent's
ability to exercise self-control when a child misbehaves, to complete routine
parenting tasks, or to curtail hostile feelings toward those seen as causing the
crisis. If a state of crisis continues without supportive intervention,
there are additional risks. Family members may attempt to gain control
over their anxiety through an array of destructive behaviors that increase the
risks to everyone involved.
While the risks to the safety of families
and staff cannot be predicted with absolute certainty, the risks are lessened
when staff are aware of the danger signs. The
Checklist is designed to alert staff to family
behaviors and situations that suggest safety measures are called for.
Does the family have a history of child abuse/neglect or other forms of
Is there any information to suggest a family
member is (or may be) emotionally unstable?
Is there any information regarding the family's
access to guns or other weapons?
Does the family live in an extremely isolated
location? In a dangerous neighborhood?
Does the family keep any animals in the home or
Does the home environment appear unsafe for the
child(ren) due to deteriorating physical conditions or lack of other basic
Are there any indicators to suggest the family may
flee from the home/community? A parent may flee with a child(ren)?
Do you sense that the family situation is unsafe?
Are your instincts signalling danger?
Is violence or aggressive behavior exhibited by
family, friends, and/or relatives?
Is substance abuse or drug dealing an issue in the
Has an adult family member ever shown sharp mood
swings or other types of volatile behavior?
Has an adult family member ever made verbal
threats, screamed, or cursed at you? Other Head Start staff?
Other persons in authority?
Has an adult family member ever caused property
damage to home or elsewhere during an outburst of anger?
Has an adult family member every physically
Has an adult family member ever been arrested for
physical assault, disorderly conduct, or property damage?
Is any family member threatening to harm
himself/herself or someone else?
Have there been any reports of reckless driving on
the part of family members?
Has a family member ever talked about committing a
Has a family member ever expressed fears or
concerns about losing control, taking a drug overdose, or harming someone?
Do a family member's words or actions suggest
being out of touch with reality? Being suicidal? Being severely
During a conversation with family members, have
you noticed any bodily signs of escalating aggression such as changes in
skin color, breathing patterns, or posture?
During conversations with family members, have you
noticed a marked increase in angry, brooding, or sullen behavior;
irritability; verbal outbursts; pacing; restlessness; agitation; or testing
Have the behaviors of any family member ever frightened
It is equally important for staff to
recognize "fight" and "flight" behavior defenses. Fight and flight
behaviors are natural ways people defend themselves and try to gain control over
stressful situations. Fight defenses are spurred by the need to be the
"winner" or to "out-do" someone else. Flight defenses are used to avoid
painful feelings or situations. Although these two defenses are commonly
seen in people in stressful or crisis situations, the behaviors that
characterize them can be quite difficult to deal with. Some
Guidelines for Fight
Presenting yourself as
being a calm, relaxed, and confident "helper" - someone who is in
control of himself/herself and can keep the situation from getting out
Speak in a low tone of
Maintain a matter-of-fact
attitude, don't appear bossy, demanding, threatening, lecturing,
accusing, or brusque.
Suggest that everyone sit
down to talk.
Make sure you explain you
role clearly, since some fight behaviors may be due to confusion about
Give the person "space" by
keeping a distance of about three feet, breaking eye contact, and
upset/angry/resentful feelings and give the person time to vent and
Stay in tune with your
non-verbal messages, unknowingly, you may be encouraging the fight
behaviors by acting cold and detached, tense, agitated, angry or afraid.
Let the person know there
are acceptable escape routes for changing or ending the discussion.
("I hear how angry you are right now. Do you think it would be
better for you if we took a short break or talked at another
Use "I" messages to present
positive alternatives and to define the limits. ("I think there
are a number of ways Head Start could help your family. I'd like
to tell you about them and hear what you think sounds best.")
Suggest that you get off to
a fresh start together by talking about other topics, such as family
Point out and reinforce the
strengths in the family and individual family members.
Guidelines for Flight
Be as supportive as possible.
Make positive statements about the family's strengths, suggest alternatives
for resolving the crisis, let the person know you will stick by him or her
until the end of the crisis.
Encourage the expression of painful
emotions. ("I like to hear more about how you're feeling right now ...
I understand how angry/sad you are, I would feel the same way.")
Repeat key questions or ideas several
times to keep the conversation focused on the issues at hand.
Explain the consequences of the flight
behaviors honestly and directly. ("I think I can help your family, if
you give me a chance." "I have to hear what you want to do about this
in order to help.")
Let the person know you are confident
about his/her ability to overcome the crisis. Point out success,
strengths, and resources, as well as constructive steps that can be taken
Use reframing to shift a person's
views about life events from the negative to the positive.
Help the person feel in control of
like by encouraging decision making. ("You and I could go to the food
stamp office together, or you could go by yourself. Which sounds
better to you?")
Point out the person's options for
handling the situation. ("Since you want to stop drinking, you could
join Alcoholics Anonymous or get counseling at the substance abuse treatment
Let the person know you believe he/she
is important, deserving, and capable. ("Anyone would have a hard time
handling this; you'll be able to get everything straightened out with the
resources available to your family.")
of Family Members
When risk assessment raises staff concern
about the safety of family members, staff must take protective steps. The
steps may range from consulting with supervisors about how to address the safety
concerns directly (e.g., helping the family to acquire food or other
life-sustaining resources) to requesting emergency intervention from community
agencies (e.g., child protective services, law enforcement, paramedics).
However, for the steps to be viable alternatives, they require groundwork at
program management and supervisory levels.
A comprehensive Head Start approach to
family safety includes:
A comprehensive set of safety measures
allows staff to be more effective in their work with families. Action must
be taken at management, supervisory, and direct service levels to make family
and worker safety a priority. An appropriate staff response in a dangerous
situation is crucial to ensure personal and family safety. In a dangerous
situation, staff should not work in isolation. Head Start resources, as
well as resources in the broader community, must be available to assist staff
whenever risky situations arise.
Physical and verbal assaults against
helping professionals are not a new or a rare phenomenon.
Professional literature suggests four major themes associated with worker
Activities in this module are intended to
bring worker safety issues to the forefront in local Head Start programs.
While some safety precautions require action at the program level, there are a
number of self-protective measures staff can implement on their own. These
Program Measures Aimed at Staff Safety
Worker safety requires more than self-protective measures; to
make worker safety a reality, local Head Start programs must adopt additional
measures. Program measures aimed at staff safety include:
Help from supervisors and co-workers to deal with feelings
stirred by a dangerous situation is an essential program component.
Concern must be shown for staff who experience the pain and trauma
of an assault or intimidating threat. Ways that management can
show sensitivity to the needs of staff include providing available
information on medical and therapeutic resources available to help
staff recover from the trauma, arranging for a buddy to accompany a
victimized worker on field visits, and establishing program
provisions that give a victimized worker immediate access to a
trained trauma counselor.