Building a Relationship of Trust Between You and Your Children
Trust is the foundation in your relationship with your children.
Most parents would agree that trust is the foundation to a connected relationship with their children. Trust comes in many forms, and it can be hard to understand how to build trust without having a clear definition of what it is. Trust is the feeling in a relationship of knowing, without fear, that our well-being is being attended to. Trust is a skill—a practice of faith in the world, the people in our lives, and even in ourselves.
It is a powerful thing, and the best way to foster our children's trust in us as their parents is to model it by trusting them. I think all parents want to trust their kids, but sometimes our kids seem to make it so difficult to trust them. They make choices we wish they didn’t; they sometimes lie, sneak things like sweets, or even sneak out at night to go to a party!
Here are some tips on sticking to the path of building trusting relationships with our kids through the ages, stages, and even difficult parenting moments.
Give your children reason to trust you by being responsive
Respond to your childrens' needs at all ages. If your child knows you will be responsive, they will come to trust your relationship and not feel the need to act out to have their needs met. The play between children expressing needs in their own ways and parents being able to decode their expression to meet their needs is the foundation for your kids to trust and rely that you are on the same team and want to see them happy and successful.
Building trust in infancy
Infancy is the first stage when the foundation of trust truly begins to develop. Babies communicate their needs mostly by crying. It can be hard to figure out what a baby's cry is trying to communicate. It is often a process of elimination: hungry? Wet/soiled diaper? Needing to be held? Too hot or cold? Tired? Too stimulated? Not enough stimulation?
Respond to baby's cries as best as you can. Even if you can't figure out what your baby is needing, holding and supporting your baby while they cry is still establishing trust because they are learning that they do not have to cope with this big world on their own. They learn to trust that their parents love and support them.
Don't leave your baby to "cry it out". This sends the message to your baby that when they need something, even reassurance, they cannot count on their parent to be there for them. That is a scary thing for such a tiny human to come to terms with. Even if they stop crying, the need is still unmet. They have only stopped crying from exhaustion or because they have lost hope that their needs will be responded to.
Your toddler's "no" phase is really another trust building stage!
"The terrible twos" is known for its tantrums and for the "no" phase. This can be difficult for the best parents to navigate. It can be so helpful to remember that our priority as parents is to foster a relationship of trust and use even difficult parenting moments as an opportunity to build on that.
Building trust in toddlerhood
Toddlerhood is a hard time for most parents because it is when children begin to develop a will of their own. They know what they want and they know what they don't want and it can often be so unreasonable and inconvenient. While it's true we parents usually know better than our kids and we want to make sure life goes smoothly, learning is rarely smooth and often done best with lots of room for mistakes.
While toddler tantrums and "no's" can be so inconvenient, they are a wonderful opportunity to build trust. When your toddler has a tantrum because they didn't get the toy they wanted at the store or they don't want to take a bath, it is perfectly healthy to hold boundaries. It is possible to hold boundaries in a way that nourishes trust by empathizing with your child and giving them space to have their feelings. So often, parents feel overwhelmed when their children have an explosion of feelings and want to stop the outpour, so they punish with time-outs or spankings. Punishments send the message to our kids that they cannot trust us with their true feelings. When we are able to stay calm and offer empathy and support, our children feel heard and that builds... you guessed it: TRUST!
Dos and don'ts to building trust through the ages and stages
Ages and Stages
Dos of building trust
Don'ts of building trust
infancy 0-13 months
Respond to child's cries
Don't leave child to "cry it out"
Leave space for child's feelings and offer empathy and support for tantrums
Don't punish or shame chid for struggling with big feelings
Preschool years 3-6 years
Offer choics to children. Continue to respond to their needs and offer empathy, connection and support
Don't have too high expectations for your child. When we hold expectations too high, we leave too much space for dissapointment which can lead children to doubt themselve and the security of the parent-child relationship
Schoolage 6-12 years
Be eager to listen, brainstorm and compromise as you give your child the space and trust to build their independance.
Don't take it personally when your child gives you "attitude". Often times, kids this age are craving independance as much as they are connection with their parents. A little connection and reassurance can go a long way.
Continue all of the above and be ready to listen to and guide your kids without judgment as they learn through making disisions and mistakes.
Don't be surprised when your teenager acts like a teenager and not like an adult. Show your kids you trust the process and timing of their growth and development.
Toddlers can handle our trust
Ignoring behavior is no better for trust than punishing is!
Many parents think that if they ignore a child's behavior, the child will not be motivated to repeat the behavior. This is true. It is also problematic. It is problematic because behavior is communication. When we ignore the communication, children lose hope that their family truly cares about them... which can result in even more outbursts and other problematic behavior down the road.
Preschoolers still have a long way to go!
It was around this age I first noticed my children lying and sneaking, especially sweets. Sometimes they would hurt one of their siblings and run and hide or lie to me about what happened. In the beginning, I saw these behaviors as a betrayal of my trust and I sought to punish them to ensure they wouldn't continue to be dishonest. The problem with this outlook is that it disregards the child's experience.... the fact is that they are most likely lying, sneaking, or hiding because they don't feel that they can completely trust us!
Looking at it through this lens helps to see these moments as an opportunity to build trust as opposed to allowing it to be a downward spiral of broken trust. The next time you catch your preschooler sneaking sweets or lying about how the lamp got broken, reassure them that you trust that they are doing what they feel is right. That you know they love you and are lying because they don't want to disappoint you. Give them space, honor their feelings and their experience and be open to collaboration. "You were so angry with your brother that you hit him. You lied to me about it because you were afraid of me being angry with you. I'm not angry. I love you. And I love your brother. I trust that you were doing your best. It can be hard to know what to do when we are angry. Can we think of some ideas together and practice for next time?"
It can also be helpful to remember that kids at this age still lack a lot of language skills, emotional regulation, and impulse control. It is harder for them to learn when they are afraid of being in trouble. Staying calm with them in difficult moments builds trust because they are able to deeply feel our unconditional love and support. We are also able to demonstrate our trust in their good intentions which allows them to begin to recognize the goodness in themselves and gives them a lens to see the intentions behind the behavior of other people... for example their siblings. Relationships of foundational trust for ALL!!!!
Playing with our kids builds trust. When we have fun with them, they trust that we enjoy them and want to be around them.
Building trust with our big kids and beyond
As our kids get older, they want to have more and more autonomy. They want to pursue their interests and make their own decisions. This can be scary for parents because there is just so much that could go wrong!
If you have built a strong foundation of trust from the beginning, then your kids know they can count on you, that you are on their side, they have had lots of practice with problem solving and are probably going to be able to make a lot of choices securely on their own. It will be easier to continue supporting, empathizing, responding, listening and problem solving if you have this foundation.
Many families do not have this foundation. It isn't too late to start! It is, however, not always easy and smooth to start later on... but it is possible! When we first start to prioritize trust in our relationship after years of parents demonstrating other parenting priorities, kids will do a lot of testing. Try to remember, they aren't pushing boundaries, they are testing the love and trust. It can be quite intense, but if you stick with it, the dust will settle over time and you will see a transformation in your relationship with your kids.
A few tips to get you started:
- Remember that your kids are always doing their best in every situation with the tools they have. The best way to gain our kids trust is to give it... especially in difficult moments.
- Remember that behavior is communication. If you can't figure out what is going on, talk to your kids and be ready to listen and not lecture.
- Validation and empathy are your best friends when building a relationship of trust with your older kids. Their experience is just as valid as any other persons'... even if we don't understand their experience.