The concept of trust is a complicated one. It can take years to build, moments to shatter, and the presence or absence of it strongly affects a person’s happiness in life. To trust more is to worry less, and to worry less usually means to be less anxious and less coiled into a knot.
Parents have a significant role in how their children develop trust. We have the opportunity to really start our children off with a full trust tank. (We don’t need to feel pressure about doing this “wrong,” as long as there is a continual uphill growth, the odd blip in trust development can be tolerated.)
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Trust is generally defined as a positive belief in the good within people and the world. When we think of trust, words like “integrity” or “character” come to mind—we expect a person or thing to be reliable, truthful, and have the ability to do what it claims to do.
How trust develops as a child grows is based on a concept called positive core beliefs. I explain more about those and their opposing negative beliefs in this post. Positive core beliefs are the set of phrases we tell ourselves based on how we interpret other people’s actions and how the world works. Those interpretations are influenced the most by how adults interact with us early in life.
In order to foster the development of the positive core beliefs that grow trust, keep these eight actions in mind:
Listening is different than hearing—listening is an action. To listen to a child means to recognize their words, but more importantly to seek to really understand his or her underlying message. For example, when a child says “I hate you, Mommy!” she isn’t saying “I hate you,” she is more likely saying something like, “I am mad that you are making me go to daycare instead of spending the day with you.”
We can show children we are listening by paraphrasing their words back to them, staying focused on feeling words. “Are you telling me that you are angry we have to be apart? You know what, I’m feeling sad to be away with you. You, too?” (pause) “When I see you after circle time, let’s figure out a way to miss each other less during the day.” (attachment bridge)
The positive core belief growing here is (PCB): My parent hears me. Speaking up is important.
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Attuning is taking listening even deeper; it is anticipating your child’s needs based on verbal and nonverbal cues. It is knowing that a melting-down child, for example, really needs to sleep so instead of unleashing punishments for lashing out, your focus in on calming your child, and figuring out a way to get him or her horizontal.
PCB: My needs are important. My parent gets me.
People learn a lot about a person’s intention by focusing on their eyes. When speaking to a child, get down and gently look into his or her eyes. Let your child see what sincerity looks like.
PCB: Connecting is important and safe.
Children will automatically verbally or nonverbally ask for help, as long as they believe (trust) those pleas will be answered. In order to grow trust and continue your child’s openness, requests for help need to be answered to the best of your ability.
Also respond to emotional statements with validation and support. When a child says, “I’m scared,” use words to show your child you will help keep her safe—“I can see why you’d be afraid of the dark. Let’s figure out a way to help you with that.”
Avoid using invalidation like this, “Oh, monsters aren’t real. You’re being afraid for no reason.” That might inadvertently grow a negative core belief like: My feelings are wrong (which they aren’t).
PCB: Speaking up works—people will help me. Feelings are normal and not too scary. When I am overwhelmed, I can ask for help.
Follow through with what you tell your child you will be doing. Part of keeping promises is to not use them to reduce your guilt or instead of saying “no.” Promise what is reasonable and within your ability to (restfully) complete. Be reliable.
PCB: Keeping your word is important. My parents will do what they say.
Get in the habit of not using white lies with your children. This helps children match verbal and nonverbal communication, reducing confusion. It also helps little ones understand what positive moral ethics are.
PCB: Being truthful is important. People need to believe us.
You might be wondering how this affects trust—it actually does quite a bit. When a child can trust things happen in a certain order, the brain can relax, staying out of fight-or-flight mode.
Routines and consistency also help reduce conflict, as the child will get to futility quicker. For example, when pushing for “ten more minutes” a child is likely to give up whining if she knows you are going to calmly say, “It would be fun to have ten more minutes but that will put us in the late zone. When this song is over, it is time for us to put our boots on.” (I used a schedule cue, when/ then and transition signal in this instruction.)
Consistency also reduces “crazy making:” when a person expects a certain response, (s)he can grow a sense of fairness in it. When we feel we are being treated fairly, we can let our guard down.
The setting and holding of boundaries grows a slightly different type of trust: a strong belief that a parent will uphold safety and integrity. Children might get upset when you set a boundary like No hitting, but as that child grows, realizing you are also stopping him from being hit by others, he will appreciate this firm line.
PCB: I can relax: I know what is coming. My parent is keeping me safe.
Parents (myself included!) will make mistakes. Being open about our shortcomings, fears, and struggles helps our children trust that doing so is safe to do. Volunteering information to your child teaches him/ her how to do the same. As you do this, talk about how to volunteer information to people beyond your family in a way that is safe: how to not over share, increasing your risk for predatory behaviour of others.
PCB: Sharing my feelings is a safe thing to do. Mistakes are okay--we don't have to try to be perfect.
If you have grown up without a strong trust foundation, you are certainly not alone. I know it can be very hard to demonstrate trust to your children when you have a hard time believing it yourself. If you realize gaining more trust is a personal goal of yours, I encourage you to seek out the help of a mental health professional in your neighbourhood.
I continually post free parenting information on my Facebook page, which I invite you to read (and chime in on). If you are looking for resources to dig more deeply into this topic, I will be suggesting some there shortly, so be sure to come visit!