Trust Takes Time

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.

Be patient!

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.

What are some things you would add to this? How have you cultivated trust with your foster or adopted child?

Photo by Purnomo Capunk on Unsplash

The Power of Showing Up

Two years ago was a real turning point for me as a parent. As I have already shared, it is important for foster parents to deal with their baggage and figure out what makes them tick so they can be supportive and emotionally stable for their children. Two years ago was when I got serious about my self care plan, and it was when I started developing positive parenting tools that really work.

Two years ago was also when I started thinking in terms of being a Fully Present Parent. In fact, I have thought for some time now that, if I were to write a book for foster parents, it would be about being a Fully Present Parent. Being “fully present” to my kids has directed pretty much everything I’ve endeavored to do these past two years, because I realized that one of the things my kids need most is me—my attention, my compassion, my support, my example, and, well, my presence.

Well as it turns out, I probably will not be writing my book after all, because the Dynamic Duo of Daniel J. Siegel, MD and Tina Payne Bryson, PhD, have already written it (and it’s way better than anything I would have come up with). The book is called The Power of Showing Up, and it is now part of my (growing) list of Must-Reads.

According to Siegel and Bryson, “Showing up means bringing your whole being—your attention and awareness—when you’re with your child.” Phone down, computer closed, fully present. “When we show up, we are mentally and emotionally present for our child in that moment.” The authors describe what showing up looks like as helping kids feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure (they call these the Four S’s). When we accomplish these things for our kids consistently (if not perfectly), we help them develop “secure attachment,” which is the goal of parenting.

After a fantastic opening chapter, which serves as an introduction and will sound very familiar to fans of these authors’ existing body of work (including The Whole Brain Child), the remainder of the book explores in depth what each of the Four S’s look like and, perhaps more importantly, why some parents are less inclined to be fully present parents. The authors address the importance of understanding our own past and identifying how some might want/need to parent differently than how they were parented. “History is not destiny,” they write. “Our past can be understood so that it doesn’t dictate our present and our future.”

One of the things I found surprisingly helpful in this book was the series of drawings depicting interactions between parents and children. Like holding up a mirror to my own parenting style, I saw myself in those scenarios and recognized my own tendencies toward disconnection, judgment, and commanding/demanding postures when I’m frustrated with my kids. Just in the past week, I have reflected on several interactions with my children that I recognized in the pages of this book. It is with a heavy heart that I see how I missed opportunities to “show up” for my kids—to help them feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure.

I can do better.

And with the help of this book, I think I will do better.

Another thing I really appreciate about this book’s approach is that the parents are still the parents. Whether one is a natural parent, an adoptive parent, or a foster parent, we must create and enforce rules. Showing up as a parent is not passive or permissive parenting. For example, “soothing” should never be confused with “coddling.” The authors reiterate that they “are big believers in setting clear, firm boundaries for children and even having high expectations for them, particularly when it comes to being respectful of themselves and others.”

Appealing to a growing body of scientific research in the area of child psychology and brain development, the authors make a strong case for the benefits of a secure attachment. These include higher self-esteem, better emotional regulation, greater academic success, better coping skills in times of stress, better relationships, and other competencies. As I often say, when it comes to parenting, “More is caught than taught,” and that includes modeling respect, empathy, compassion, and what it looks like to be fully present. If we want our kids to exercise good screen habits, for example, we have to model good screen habits. If we want our kids to show kindness toward others, we have to show kindness to them. If we want our kids to have healthy emotional regulation, it starts with us modeling healthy emotional regulation.

This book belongs on the shelf (or bedside table) in every foster home. We often face the reality that we are caring for children who come with a complicated history. They usually lack secure attachment, and because of that, they struggle with self-esteem, emotional regulation, social interactions, and trust. Many times, we don’t know where to start. We see the challenges they face (and the challenging behaviors we face!) and feel at a loss for where to begin to address their issues.

What our kids need, we are assured by these authors, is not perfect parents who do everything right. Instead, what they need are caregivers who show up (and keep showing up). “To give your kids the best chance for healthy and optimal development, all you have to do is help them feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure.” This takes time, of course, but if we stay the course and continue to show up for them, we will give our foster and adopted children the best possible chance at developing a secure attachment and enjoying the benefits thereof.

Image: Used by permission via Creative Commons Zero

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.” [Disclaimer Credit: Michael Hyatt]

Undivided Attention

One of the things I’ve noticed since becoming the parent of more than one child is how I constantly feel like I’m letting someone down when it comes to giving them enough attention. As the old saying goes, “The squeaky wheel gets the grease,” and I have found that to be very true as a foster parent. The one with the most issues gets the most attention—which means that kids who are doing well, who are not struggling, can begin to feel like they are being (inadvertently) ignored.

If one of my children requires more attention—say, therapist appointments, teacher meetings, general behavioral interventions—it means I’m not giving as much attention to another child (or my spouse). We have three children of our own, and we often provide foster care for one or two additional little ones, which means that my attention is always, always divided. But there’s hope!

When we first became foster parents, we received some professional parenting help, and the woman who coached me in those first few weeks and months gave me a lot of invaluable advice, including the following: never underestimate the power of one minute of undivided attention. When a child is acting out, pulling on my shirt, interrupting me, calling to me from the other room, or doing something else to express his or her need for attention, I try to follow my coach’s advice, and when I do, it almost always proves to be effective.

What she said was, kneel down to eye level with the child and look right into their eyes. Adopt a cheerful tone of voice and say, “OK, you have my full attention! What can I do for you?” Stay there for about one minute, then say something positive like, “That is so interesting! Thank you for sharing!” then go back to your tasks. More often than not, that is enough to fill the child’s emotional cup and buy you the time you need to finish cooking dinner/paying bills/doing homework with another child/whatever.

I have had times when one minute did not seem to cut it, so instead of moving on, I say something like this: “I want to give you all of my attention right now, but I need to finish cooking dinner/paying bills/helping brother with his homework. How about if you let me finish this, and when I’m done, I’ll sit down and play with you?” It is so empowering for a child when you give them the opportunity to be part of the decision, knowing that you will be coming back with your full attention soon. I have seen this work beautifully with my four-year-old, as well as with other foster children we have had in our home. (Of course, it only works if you follow through on your word and actually sit down and play with that child when you’re finished with your task!)

But one minute of full attention is not enough in the long run. Another key to this is devoting longer periods of time to each child, one-on-one. Don’t get me wrong: this can be challenging, especially when you have three, four, five or more kids in your home! But I have found that, if you get creative, you can find ways to make it happen—and still get your housework or email done! Some ways I’ve done it include:

  • taking all of the kids to the YMCA and putting all but one in the nursery or kids’ gym, then taking them to the pool one at a time for thirty minutes or so
  • having a sitter come and stay with most of the kids so I can take one out for ice cream or to a playground
  • taking an extra long time with each child at bedtime once a week, snuggling on the couch and reading extra books, extra chapters, or just talking about their day
  • taking one child grocery shopping with me and letting him or her help, according to their abilities
  • taking advantage of nap time to give the non-napping child my full attention (yes, it’s hard to do that when you have a long laundry list of things to do!)

And it’s not just the kids who need our undivided attention—parents need it too! That’s why it’s so important that parents carve out time to be alone together without distractions. My husband and I have found that taking walks, going out to dinner, or just going for a cup of coffee at our favorite coffee shop have been key to staying connected and healthy in our marriage, especially during stressful times of parenting!

These times of undivided attention—whether in one-minute increments, fifteen minutes at bedtime, or thirty minutes in the pool or kicking around a soccer ball—are a vital part of the bonding and attaching process that every child needs in order to feel safe, secure, and emotionally rooted. For a child who has had disrupted attachment or has experienced neglect, these intentional times of connecting are even more integral to your bonding process—and their long-term emotional health.

It might seem impossible to give each of your children some undivided attention—we often feel like there are already not enough hours in the week! But trust me, it’s possible—and it’s pretty life-changing when you take the time to make it happen.

How about you? Are you intentional about spending one-on-one time with each of your kids and your spouse? How do you do it? Have you found it to be effective in maintaining a healthy relationship with everyone?

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