5 Top Tips for Building Trust with Children
Childhood is a time of discovery, growth and wonder. However, being a new person in this world isn’t always easy!
Children, with their limited experience of life, are often navigating a number of relationships with adults in their lives. From their parents, aunties and uncles, teachers, teaching assistants, lunch time supervisors, the school nurse, the childminder… the list goes on!
Think about that for a minute. When you were a child who were the adults in your life that you could really trust? The ones that you could rely on to listen to you. The ones who took you seriously when you were hurt, upset or feeling unwell.
Trust is such an important thing in a child’s life. The more adults that children can truly trust, the safer a child will feel growing up in this world of uncertainty. The experiences that children have with close adults creates a road map for how they navigate relationships in the future. If adults are experienced as kind, helpful and accepting, children develop a sense that the world is a safe place. They feel that they can get their needs met and they aren’t afraid to ask! For children to have this experience, we need to ask ourselves – am I behaving like a trustworthy adult?
Here are 5 top tips for helping children develop a trusting relationship with you as a safe adult:
Consistency is key for developing trust in a relationship with a child. This includes following through on promises, rewards and on consequences for behaviour. This is the most important thing for developing trust because as soon as you break a promise, or don’t follow through on something that you’ve said you would do, the trust in the relationship is compromised. When the child experiences a number of let downs they start to test boundaries in the relationship on a larger scale through more challenging behaviour. The best way to nip this in the bud is to do what you say you will do, and don’t make promises that you can’t keep. This way children know exactly where they stand. It works with consequences too, if you set a boundary that a child then crosses you should follow through on the consequence that you have communicated to the child. Where there are limits, there is safety in relationships.
As humans, we are creatures of habit. We like patterns and routines because they help us to feel safe. This same principle works in relationships too! When children can predict how we are going to respond to them they feel safe. If you’re response to a child’s behaviour is permissive one day, and harsh the next, the child is likely to feel unsafe and unsure where they stand. To build up trust, act in a way that is consistent and predictable so that the child can easily navigate themselves around their relationship with you. Over time, children learn your patterns of response and this helps them to feel safe. When the child can predict your response, they can make good choices about how to behave and the trust in the relationship is built.
Sometimes we can underestimate how much a child knows or understands. Sometimes we underestimate what is really important to them, because to us it seems small and insignificant. If you have promised something to a child and for a genuine reason you have to cancel or change the plan, communicate this to them clearly. Start with ‘I know that you’ve really been looking forward to our trip to the park’, or ‘I can see that you’re disappointed we can’t do it today’. By acknowledging the child’s feeling, you are showing them that you understand their point of view.
Don’t be afraid to apologise to a child if you are wrong. We are all human and we don’t always get it right! By apologising to children when we have made an error, it teaches them that it’s OK to be human. Even adults get it wrong sometimes. This is great role modelling for children because it shows them the importance of putting things right and repairing relationships. A good example of when we can apologise to children is when we, as adults, have lost our temper with them. We can go back to the child and say ‘I’m really sorry that I shouted earlier. What I should have done was explain that it’s not OK for you to hit your brother. I lost my temper, and I am sorry for shouting at you’. Not only does this role model the repair of relationships, but it also shows the child how to reflect on their own behaviour and how to think about how they would have liked to have done things differently. The repairing of relationships is what makes them stronger, so the more we can apologise and repair when things go wrong, the safer and more trusting the child will feel towards you as an adult.
Children have a sixth sense for detecting inauthenticity! They are incredibly attuned to adult’s facial expressions, tone of voice and actions and can spot when there is a misalignment. If you really want a child to trust you, you should present to them your most authentic self. This doesn’t mean being too open with children about your feelings as that might be inappropriate, but it does mean communicating with them in an honest manner and being sincere.
As adults, it is our job to create a world in which children are made to feel safe in their relationships, and this all starts with trust. If we can be the best adults that we can for the children in our lives, then we are providing them the best start in life. It’s the small things that count ?
About the Author
Sophia Giblin is a Play Therapist, Play Therapy supervisor and founder of Clear Sky Children’s Charity, a UK organisation which employs a number of Play and Creative Arts Therapists to support children in schools. She is currently undertaking her MA in Practice Based Play Therapy and has a special interest in how the parent-child relationship can promote optimum wellbeing for children.
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