Building trust with children
Welcome to my revamped and renewed blog! I’m excited to share some of my thoughts about parenting, early childhood education, and child development with my readers. Because my book is in the middle stages of its life, this blog will provide a pivotal space in which to learn about my research ahead of my text’s publication in a more informal manner.
As a scholar and an educator, if I had to distill my “mission statement” into one idea, I would emphasize my belief that, in order to be the best that we can be for our children, we must first build and maintain a strong foundation in the adult–child relationship. No element of child development is as significant as the parent/guardian–child relationship, while other adult–child relationships are also imperative.
This first article offers an introduction to building, maintaining, and, if necessary, repairing the adult–child relationship.
Building Relationships With Children
Everything in childhood development boils down to our relationships with children. Altogether, in such affiliations, the adult’s role is to offer an unyielding presence and support that the child can rely upon, an essential element for healthy maturation.
Often, when I talk to parents about behavioral challenges they face with their kids at home, I find that the child’s trust in the adult has deteriorated for one reason or another. The love is constant but faith is simply lacking. Frequently, despite having the best intentions at heart, parents unintentionally send messages that convey a lack of trustworthiness.
In particular, adults can undermine their credibility with children when they:
- Tell a child they are leaving in one minute and then they don’t actually do so
- Make promises in order to bribe a child into doing something but then don’t follow through in hopes that the child will forget
- Threaten to take away a privilege if the child exhibits certain behavior (after which the child acts out the prohibited behavior and yet is still allowed the revoked privilege)
- Make an absolute statement but then cave in when the child whines or begs
- Make a rule but don’t enforce or follow up on it
Losing a Child’s Trust
Children perceive such small inconsistencies and interpolate them into how they interpret their relationships with adults. Children tend to take what their parents and other grown-ups say at face value. The problem isn’t that they overtly stop trusting adults—the problem, the big problem, is subtler than this: children no longer view their parent/guardian as reliable due to this lack of consistency in their behavior, ultimately losing their respect for the adult’s authority. Children’s loss of trust toward the parent/guardian can be indicated by the following behaviors:
- Frequent testing of rules, limits, and/or boundaries
- Pushing, nagging, and badgering (because the children don’t believe that adults will follow through with promised punishments)
- Repeatedly doing things that they have been asked not to
- Attention- and validation-seeking behaviors (because children want to be sure that they are loved—when everything else is questionable, such as during the maturation process, why wouldn’t a parents’ love be equally uncertain?)
- Ignoring the parent (because the parent will give up or lose it and yell eventually—such a point is actually indicative of when the child feels that he or she has finally received the adult’s attention)
All of these symptoms look like a child exhibiting “bad” behavior. However, such actions actually mean much more—after all, if the parent just followed through on the little things that they, consciously or unconsciously, let slide, the child’s sense of trust would have grown rather than dwindled.
And with that trust would come the child’s responsiveness, sense of mutual respect, awareness of unconditional parental love, and a loss of the need to test the relationship’s integrity. Luckily, all of these developments are still possible—as the adult in the relationship, you can take charge and lead the two of you to a stronger foundation.
Rebuilding Trust With a Child
Once a child has begun exhibiting symptoms that show s/he has lost faith in an adult, it is essential to work to consciously rebuild this trust.
Some small steps can go a long way in strengthening this relationship, including:
- Saying what you mean and meaning what you say
- Not confusing choices with directives. Note the difference between questions such as “can we leave now?” or “are you ready to come to dinner?” and statements like “it’s time to go” or “it’s time to come to the dinner table.” The former suggests possibility while the latter implies concreteness.
- Follow through with everything you say and, if you can’t, explain as much. Don’t just hope that the child forgets a promise of punishment or reward.
- Pay attention to the small ways in which you let things slide. If you tell a child that they can’t play with your keys but then get distracted and hand them over, your child will notice the discrepancy. You might be surprised at how small incidents like this can inform a child’s understanding of your relationship dynamic. Try to pay attention to such details—after all, if a kid can do it, so can you!
Trust is considered one of the most meaningful aspects of all interpersonal relationships. However, this element is especially important in dynamics built between children and adults. If you notice that you have lost a child’s trust, ensure that you make every effort to rebuild it. After all, you have the upper hand as a grown-up. Plus, you have enormous influence over your combined future.
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