One of the biggest misconceptions I had as a new foster parent was that the children who came to my home would know they could trust me right away.
Now that I’m six years along in my journey, I know how completely wrong I was. When a child has been through trauma or neglect, their ability to trust is deeply affected. And if I have learned one thing in all of this, it’s this:
Trust takes time.
It can take some kids years to feel safe trusting an adult or caregiver again. But there are things we can do, things we must do, to help them heal and know that they are safe and we are trustworthy.
Keep showing up.
Consistently showing up is the #1 trust factor for our kids. When they wake up in the morning and we’re there, when they come for breakfast and it’s there, when they wet their pants and we show up with clean clothes and a warm bath, when school gets out and we’re there, when they get off the bus and we’re there with a snack, when they get in trouble and we come, reminding them that, even if we don’t like their actions we still love them, we are building trust.
When dinner shows up on the table night after night, and we try to always include some food they like (even as we are also encouraging them to try new things), we are laying bricks on the foundation of trust. When they cry out in the night and we come to comfort them, when we mess up and come to them with an apology and effort to make things right (remember Rupture and Repair?), when we show up for Parent-Teacher Conferences, when the guitar lesson ends and our vehicle is waiting out front, trust is strengthened.
Show your children that you see and hear them.
Spending time one-on-one every day with your child doing something they choose is a great way to let your child know that you see and hear them. We call this “Special Time” in our house. Reading books they choose, playing a game they pick, taking a walk, watching a “show” they put together, or just sitting and talking, asking them, “What do you think about ______?” are some of the best ways I’ve found to help my kids feel seen and heard. So are paying attention to things your kids are into and showing some interest as well: Minecraft, rap music, Barbies, and the band Mudhoney are all things I am not personally interested in, but my kids are, so I have become familiar with each of these things as a means of connecting with my kids.
Put on your “Advocate” hat.
When we go to bat for our kids, we strengthen the idea that we are trustworthy. Getting extra help for them at school, getting them lessons in things they love (music, dance, gymnastics, driver’s ed), sitting with them in the principal’s office when they got into a fight, listening to their side of the story when conflict arises, finding them a therapist they really like, advocating with teachers, social workers, attorneys, victim’s rights advocates, and other foster youth services are all ways to build trust.
Reaching out to known family members for information is another way to advocate for the emotional needs of our kids. One of my children did not have any baby pictures of himself, and when the other kids his age in our home were looking at their baby pictures, he was really bummed. I reached out to his adult biological sisters and they sent me a few really cute pictures of him as a baby. We have those in frames now, and he is thrilled. Another of my children has been asking a lot of questions about her biological mom, and when I reached out to a relative recently for information about her as a child, he was able to tell me some really neat things about what she was into, what her personality was like, and some of her personal accomplishments. When a child’s framework for understand their biological mom is that she was a drug addict who disappeared when her kids went into foster care, it’s really restorative for the kids to hear good things about her too.
Always keep your word.
This is huge. Whereas many typical kids can handle minor disappointments or changes of plans, for kids who struggle to trust, if you say you’re going to do something and then you don’t, it’s a big deal. It confirms what they have suspected—that adults cannot be trusted. I have learned to say, “The plan is…” instead of, “We will…” That way, if something comes up and we need to change, I can say, “the plan changed,” rather than saying, “We will do something” and then not doing it. I have also learned that, “I’ll do my best!” is safer than “Yes!” and that kids don’t forget a thing, so if I say I’m going to do something, they will remind me if I don’t. Case in point: yesterday, I promised my daughter she could listen to music on my iPhone before bed last night. Then we watched a movie that went long and the kids didn’t go to bed until well after 9:00 PM. She was very tired, and so was I, but just as she was drifting off to sleep, she reminded me that I had promised she could listen to my iPhone. Even though it was late, and I was “done” for the day, I let her listen to my music and stayed with her longer to keep my word. It’s that important.
Always tell the truth and do not withhold important information.
We had a recent Flourishing Foster Parent Coaching Call with guest Spring Hecht, a therapist and adult adoptee, who spoke with us about how, when, and how much to tell our foster and adopted children about the hard parts of their stories. The short answer is, all of it—in an age-appropriate way, of course.
Our kids are relying on us to help them know their stories. As they grow in awareness of their life, and the circumstances of their adoption, they will naturally be curious and want to know everything they can. We are the gatekeepers of that information, and we have to give it all to them: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Our kids need to know they can trust us to not hold anything back from them and to tell them everything we know of their story, at least by the time they are heading into puberty (if not sooner!)
If a social worker is on the phone and your child asks a question about it, stop what you’re doing and explain what the phone call was about. Keep your child in the loop about his or her case (again, in an age-appropriate way), and if you don’t know something, tell them the truth—don’t make something up. “I don’t know how long you’ll be here, but we’re going to do all we can to make sure your time with us is good!” “I don’t know why your mom didn’t show up for today’s visit, sweetie. I wonder where she is too.” “I don’t know why your adoption is taking so long to finalize! It’s frustrating for me too—we can’t wait to make this official! But we have turned everything in and done all we have to do, so now we have to wait for the social workers and attorneys and judge. Then we will have a party!!” These are all things I have said to my kids at one time or another.
Try “Time In” Rather Than “Time Out”
Time Out is a well-known replacement for spanking in the parenting world. Back in the day, a kid would act out, get a swat, and move on. But when parents wanted to stop spanking their kids, they came up with Time Out. The idea is, of course, that the child is given time to think and consider their actions in a place that’s boring.
The problem is that, for kids with a history of neglect and trauma, Time Out breaks the already fragile bond of connection you’re trying to build. It also send a child who struggles to regulate themselves off to figure things out on their own, which is impossible for them.
Karyn Purvis does a fantastic job in this video of explaining the difference and why our kids need Time In more than Time Out:
I have used this approach with my kids from time to time and it is much more effective than Time Out. Bringing a beanbag chair and some books into the kitchen while I’m cooking dinner so the offending child can be with me but away from conflict has been really helpful.
That said, there are times when it is necessary to remove one child from the others. Because I have several kids, I occasionally have to remove one who is being truly unsafe or destructive to the others. In that case, the child is separated in their room or another part of the house, but either my husband or I go to them and sit with them and discuss what’s happening, rather than sending them away with no subsequent time of connecting or reflecting. The point is to communicate support and regulation and connecting.
This is a hard one sometimes, but hear me out. When a child struggles with trust, he may ask the same questions over and over again, even after you have answered them repeatedly, which can get exhausting. He may obsess over when the next meal is being served or what will be on the menu, even when you’ve assured him over and over that there is plenty of food in the house. He may hover close by when you’re on the phone, wondering if whomever is on the other end of that call is initiating a placement change. He may act out in ways that are really, really frustrating because he is so insecure and doesn’t know what to do with his feelings and wants more than anything to maintain a connection with you—even if that connection is you yelling at him to go back to his room. Stay with him! Remember that trust takes time. It can take some kids years to really know they can trust you. Don’t give up on them!
Take ownership of your mistakes and make it right.
All of the above is great, but what happens when we fail? Because darlin’—we will most certainly fail at all of this from time to time. What then?
I have found that taking ownership of my mistakes—going to my child, acknowledging when I have messed up, apologizing, recognizing the hurt I caused, and doing what I can to make it right has been a phenomenal step in building trust. Many of our kids have not seen a parent take ownership for their mistakes. Many of our kids have never experienced a parent apologizing for the wrong they’ve done. To experience that from us can be pretty radical, and an important step in building trust. (Not to mention that it is fundamental to teaching our kids how to handle it when they mess up After all, when it comes to parenting or any other form of leadership or instruction, more is caught than taught!)
Trust Takes Time
These are just some of the ways I’ve noticed help build trust between my children and me over the years. And did you hear that part? Over the years. Because when I say, “Trust takes time,” I mean lots of time. Years.
I do not do any of these things perfectly. Not by a long shot! But these are things I try to keep in mind as I stumble through the days of parenting children who bring a history of trauma, neglect, abuse, and broken attachments to the table.