Five Keys to Building Trust

Five Keys to Building Trust

Ten-year-old Jessica couldn’t wait to go out to dinner with her foster family. The restaurant was crowded and they waited twenty minutes to be seated. After Jessica ordered her favorite meal, she interrupted conversation, wouldn’t sit still and whined about being too hungry to wait until the food arrived. Everyone mostly ignored her rude behavior while her mom kindly “shushed” her a few times, telling her to be patient. When the waitress finally placed a plate in front of her, Jessica screamed, “This is gross! Yuck!” She pushed the plate across the table and it smashed into pieces when it hit the floor. “I hate you! I hate this family!” she shouted and melted into frustrated tears. Her teenage foster sister, losing patience, yelled, “Quit acting like such a baby - you ruin everything! What’s wrong with you?!”

The question isn’t about what’s wrong with Jessica. It’s about what has happened to Jessica. Complex trauma is what has happened to Jessica. At a young age, repeated neglect and abuse by her drug-addicted parents, the people who were supposed to care for her, resulted in a deep-seated feeling of being unprotected and unsafe.

Jessica has lived in a constant state of fear, and consequently, her brain has been unable to develop normally. Because she’s missed the love and nurture that all humans need in order to learn to trust, Jessica’s emotional, social and educational growth has been stunted.

When Jessica entered foster care, her brain was functioning on “high alert,” ready to respond to the next emergency or traumatic event. Her first foster family mistakenly thought she had ADHD because of her inability to focus, sit still, or absorb educational material. In reality, she suffered from what is referred to as “trauma brain.” Then when she moved to a second foster home, Jessica experienced more trauma from the unknown of a new place. Now, settling into the stability and safety of this current foster home, her brain has yet to experience a sense of “felt safety” which means new patterns of thinking and feeling cannot yet develop. Though she no longer needs to, Jessica is still living in survival mode. Progress will be slow until security and the consistency of pleasant routines create “felt safety” and her emotional responses level out allowing for learning, improved communication and gradual healing.

Her parents know this, but being on the receiving end of a wounded child repeatedly lashing out and manipulating on a daily basis, is harder than the foster care trainings implied. Their parenting “super powers” weakened, their ability to remain patient is wearing thin. Returning from the disastrous dinner out, they dropped to their knees and cried out to God – asking Him to partner with them to reach Jessica’s heart and her deepest insecurities.

In foster parenting, a calm and balanced response is the key to a child feeling safe and starting to heal. This seems impossible in the face of frequent erratic and explosive behaviors. However, as foster parents, we can invite God to empower us to be the voice of reason and, remembering the following five principles, can build trust with children who have experienced complex trauma.

Misbehavior Is Signaling a Need

When Jessica was acting babyish and rude, her misbehavior was communicating an unmet need. Jessica’s unmet need may simply have been hunger and if her mother had brought a snack for her the episode may have been avoided. Because children like Jessica lag in emotional and social development compared to their actual age, we can best respond to their current stage of maturity, not their age in years. When expectations match and grow along with a child’s level of maturity, this allows them to feel safe enough to eventually tell or indicate their needs appropriately.

“Do-Overs” Rewire the Brain

Imagine how this scenario might not have escalated if one of Jessica’s parents had immediately intervened when Jessica interrupted, allowing Jessica to try a “do-over.” Second chances create new pathways in the brain, allowing children to rewire their responses. But it takes lots of reminding, practicing, and patience. If we as parents lose patience? Consider asking for a “do-over” from our kids! This also helps to build trust.

It’s Not Personal

Even though Jessica said she hated her foster family, she was only acting out in the unhealthy ways that were familiar. Until observing and learning more acceptable responses to emotion, children of trauma can only respond in ways they know. Children from hard places are masters at exposing our weaknesses, and they quickly figure out which buttons to push and when. On the inside, they are frightened and confused about how they are acting. Our job is to teach them that all feelings are OK, but not all expression of feelings are appropriate. We teach them how to express their feelings using acceptable language and respect. They can then practice appropriate responses with a “do-over.”

Predictability Works

Jessica experienced a chaotic environment before foster care. Now, she still fights bedtime routines, sitting down for meals, and her recent more predictable life. But, predictability is exactly what she needs. She needs to know that a “yes” means yes and a “no” means no. Before dinner out, her foster parents had given much-needed reminders throughout the day and week about the upcoming schedule. However, Jessica was not properly prepped for the trip to the restaurant and the long wait for food. Change is hard for everyone, but especially for children from hard places. It’s important when making transitions to give lots of warnings. For example, when close to leaving the playground or finishing any activity, give 10, 5, and 1 minute warnings.

Children Need to Have a Voice

So much tragedy had already happened to Jessica. Her life felt out of control. She never had a voice or a say. Now, in foster care, many people have been again making decisions for her. She needs to be given some choices (limited to two or three options) whenever it’s safe to do so. She also needs an option of compromise when it is not infringing on the rules or values of the family. Jessica could help to plan meals or choose the game for family nights. She responds best when spoken to at eye level and knows someone is listening.

Building trust takes great amounts of time, patience and grace. Just as Jessica experienced missteps, so did her foster family. They both needed forgiveness for the times when they blew it. Weary foster parent, ultimately, He is the One you are teaching your children to trust. Lead the way and put your fears and frustrations in God’s hands!


Johnna Stein serves as the Director of Training at Promise686, developing new materials and teaching foster care ministry basics for Live The Promise Church Advocate Clinics. She and her husband, Frank, have been parenting bio and foster children for many years and are pondering their recent transition to an "empty nest."

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