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Ask Maralee: Building Trust (with your words)


Dear Maralee,

I wonder if you would write about some of the practical ways you’ve built trust and helped your kids get to where they are (and continue to go). What are some resources that have most helped? What are some things your family has most benefited from? Sometimes I feel like because we adopted internationally while living internationally that we may have missed some of that useful information!


Dear Katie,

Building trust and attachment feels like the primary task of foster and adoptive parenting. We are trying to build something solid with kids who have likely already had their trust broken and their ability to attach damaged in some way. It is entirely possible to build these important bonds, but it also requires some intentionality. I have been HEAVILY influenced by the important work of Karyn Purvis on this topic through her book “The Connected Child.” In my opinion, it is the definitive work on this topic (at this point) and should be required reading for foster and adoptive parents. The last time I read it was several years ago, so what I’m saying here isn’t any kind of comprehensive summary of her work, but just what I’ve learned through what I’ve read and what we’ve experienced by creating bonds with 20+ kids over the last 14 years.

I’ve broken down this trust building process into two facets- what we say and what we do. Here are 6 ways to build trust with what we say:

Always tell the truth. How do we build trust with anybody? It starts with believing at a foundational level that this person is trust worthy, which starts with honesty. In our home we are honest about topics that I know other families may be shy about. We talk about sex, body part names, Santa Clause, drug use, all in age-appropriate but honest ways. I do not tell my kids they came from the stork or that the flu shot won’t hurt or that Santa brings their presents. I think maybe you can get away with being misleading or vague with kids who don’t have a trauma history, but if I’m trying to build a trusting relationship with my kids I am going to be intentionally, purposefully honest with them in every situation. I’m going to look for opportunities to be honest with them, especially when they’re asking uncomfortable questions. I end these conversations by saying, “You can always ask me these questions and I will always tell you the truth.” (I’ve talked in other posts about how we have those conversations in age-appropriate ways, so this is not about oversharing, just about creating a foundation of honesty.)

Pre teach. Creating trust means creating a feeling of safety for our kids. Part of the way I create that feeling of safety is by making sure my kids know what is going to happen and what the expectations are for them. This is why we have a consistent breakfast menu. This is why there’s a certain cabinet in the pantry that is open to them for snacks. This is why before we get out of the car, I give them a two minute conversational reminder about what we’re doing (at church, at Grandma’s, at Target), what the goal is, what my expectations are, any potential rewards or consequences depending on behavior. My kids do not do well with surprises, so pre teaching is just my norm. Knowing what to expect can help take them out of that “fight or flight” mode that makes trust difficult.

Address tough things head-on. For me, this started with leaving them in the church nursery. I have watched a lot of parents wait until their child wasn’t looking and then sneak off. Nope. I’m not doing that. I want my kids to know that even if it means having to face their sadness, I’m going to deal honestly with them. I give them a kiss at the nursery, tell them I love them and I’ll be back soon, then I walk away. Sometimes they cry (if they are inconsolable, of course I’ll come back and I don’t leave new foster placements or newborns in the nursery) sometimes they are fine, but I’m not going to make them think I’m likely to just disappear when they aren’t looking. This is also why I tell my kids ahead of time that we are going to the pediatrician and they will get a shot and it will hurt, but it will be fast and then there will be a reward. It might be easier to not address it until the moment, but I don’t ever want them waking up on a random Tuesday and wondering if today is the day they’re going to get a shot. I tell them the hard things so they know they can trust me and they don’t have to expend extra energy worrying that hard things are going to come at them randomly. Of course I can’t prevent that from happening, but my hope is that when the unexpected hard things come, they can come to me because they trust me. If I KNEW something hard was going to happen and chose not to tell them, that’s breaking their trust.

Be calm. Yes, this is much harder to do than it is to write, but I really like the “one down” approach. If my child is at an 8 as far as intensity/fear/worry/anger, I need to be at a 7 (or maybe a 4). When they try to ratchet things up, I need to stay calm. When they yell, I’m going to whisper. Being a person they can trust means being in control of my emotions. When they sense I am out-of-control or that they are now in control, they are going to get more terrified and find me less trustworthy. Even if I can’t control what’s happening around me, I can control myself. I need to be a peaceful presence even when I’m upset. (*I DO NOT think it’s wrong for your kids to see you angry. Jesus was angry. God gets angry. How we respond in our anger is what will determine our trustworthiness to our kids. Being angry does not have to mean being out-of-control.*)

Say the sweet things. We love our kids. It’s just. . . sometimes we forget to say it. Maybe that’s just me? I am not good with the sappy emotions, so sometimes the things I feel SO INTENSELY I just don’t say out loud, but I know my kids need to hear those things. We had an incident not too long ago where a child of mine made a BIG mistake. It had painful consequences, but also was entirely a mistake. Overwhelmed with guilt, this child yelled that we never should have adopted them. I was heartbroken, but it also provided a good opportunity for me to get down on my knees, look into those eyes and say, “Adopting you was one of the best decisions I have ever made in my whole life. I would do it again today and tomorrow and every single day for forever. I love you with my whole heart and nothing that happened here changes that even a little bit.” I cried. And I realized I needed to be saying those things more often if there’s any chance that deep in that heart there’s a thought that we regret the adoption. We don’t. I need to be communicating that regularly. For each of my kids I’m intentionally looking for out-of-the-blue times to put my hands on their cheeks, look in their eyes and tell them how glad I am I get to be their mom, how special they are, how much God loves them, and something very specific about them that makes me proud. I don’t want to wait for just the hard times or the really happy times to say these things. I want to be saying them at the boring times so they know this is how I ALWAYS feel and it isn’t dependent on their performance. I want them to know they can trust me because I am FOR them. I will fight for them and I will not give up on them.

Admit your failures. There are going to be moments we break trust with our kids and undo all that hard-earned progress. We snap at them. We don’t come home when we said we would. We aren’t giving them the full attention they need. It’s important to let our kids know it makes us sad when we see we’ve hurt them. We need to apologize when it’s appropriate. But even more than that, I think we need to admit our failures in general. We need to create a climate where our kids don’t feel unsafe about failing. When they accidentally break a glass, I remind them of the plate I broke the other week. When I lock myself out of my car, I give myself grace and remind them that it’s going to be okay and we all make mistakes. When I burn dinner, I admit my frustration and do my best to laugh about it. It isn’t just about apologizing, but about acknowledging that we are human and that mistakes are okay. I also want them to know that I understand I will make some mistakes with this whole parenting thing. Outside of the heat of the moment, we try and talk about parenting decisions and why we do what we do. Obviously I don’t let my kids in on all my adult stresses or anything that might give them anxiety, but it’s possible to let them know we aren’t perfect without making them worry that we aren’t trustworthy. I don’t want my child’s trust in me to be based on the idea that I am sinless and can control everything. That’s just not accurate and I don’t want his trust to be undermined when he realizes that. I also want him to know that when he fails (because he will) that that isn’t the end of our relationship. We move on and we can rebuild that trust.

The next post will be about how we build trust through our actions. Let me know if you have follow-up thoughts or questions!

(If you have an Ask Maralee question, feel free to email it to me through the address listed on the Contact page or through my Facebook page. I’d love to hear from you!)

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