Ask Ann:

"Earning Trust"

(Ann Houck is a licensed clinical social worker with over 25 years of experience working with at-risk children in the foster care system and in orphanages. Her childcare approach uses Trust-Based Relational Intervention, a framework for parenting children of trauma, developed at Texas Christian University.)

QUESTION: We've had a pair of siblings in our home for over 5 months. For some reason, they still act like they're in danger, often yelling and running from caregivers. How do we get them to understand that they are safe with us?

By Ann Houck • 3 min read

Ann answers:

Trust. Such a small word for such a big responsibility. Dictionary.com defines it thus:

• Reliance on the integrity, strength, ability, surety, etc., of a person or thing; confidence.
• Confident expectation of something; hope.

Through their eyes

Let us look at trust for a minute from the perspective of a child who has lost their family—

“I am separated from my mom and dad. I don’t know where they are. I don’t know why I am living in this place. I don’t know anyone here. I am so scared.”

Or worse, some children are even abused in transition to alternative care—

“There was a lot of noise the night my parents disappeared. I hid under the bed and squeezed my eyes shut. After a very long time, someone pulled me out from under the bed. I screamed, cried and tried to get away. I bit the man holding me. He yelled and hit me. I just want my mom and I am hungry. I am afraid to speak. When I screamed, trying to talk, I was hit. I won’t speak again.”

And these experiences leave our children with a sure, even unconscious belief—

I cannot trust anyone here. They might hit me. I just want my mom and dad.”

Trauma destroys trust

Whatever the reason that brought an orphaned child to us for care, we can assume they won’t trust us. And, why should they? One thing we know about children who come to orphanages, who come “from hard places” is that they have suffered some form of trauma.

In our little scenario above, it could have been a natural disaster; e.g., tornado, hurricane, fire, etc. Or, it could have been war or terrorism; e.g., Afghanistan, North Korea. Children of trauma suffer severe damage to their emotional and mental functioning. They are living in a state of fear; a very real fear of loss of life, death. They are threatened continually.

We know that this fear of death is no longer based in reality—They are here with us, safe and sound. The problem is they do not see it that way. How do we “convince” them that they are safe, protected and can trust us?

They are watching your behavior

We often find ourselves telling these children that “you can trust me; you are safe now; you do not have anything to fear.” Chances are, they have no idea what you are talking about. They are measuring your words against your behavior. They are trying to determine if they can trust you, not by your words, but by your behavior.

Establishing trust is the first and most basic job we have to do with a child in our care. It does not happen overnight; it doesn’t even happen in a predictable time frame. It may take weeks, months, years even, but we never stop working on establishing that trust. It is a big job for the caregiver. It is a very basic job.

These children need to rely on the integrity, strength, ability, surety of the caregiver. We need to be that person of integrity and strength.

Are your prepared to earn their trust?

In the last article, we talked about HALT. When we respond to a child in anger, we break trust with them. When our minds are not focused on the needs of the child, but on our own needs, we break trust with them. So, we need to be wholly available and focused on the child. HALT is perhaps a good place to start the process of establishing trust. It is a simple concept; it is not so simple to execute.

Check in with yourself periodically. What is your behavior saying to the children? Ask yourself “Am I telling this child that I am safe and therefore they are safe from harm? Can they trust me?”

We will be revisiting this idea of trust and what it means in the context of orphan care many times. Orphan care is a journey; it is not an event. We, children and caregivers, will all grow in its practice. It is a fascinating and rewarding journey.

Ann Houck

Licensed clinical social worker; volunteer social work supervisor for Oak Life interns; experience working with children of trauma in child protective services and school social work settings.

Ann Houck

Ann Houck

Licensed clinical social worker; volunteer social work supervisor for Oak Life interns; experience working with children of trauma in child protective services and school social work settings.

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