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Can Rules Really Make a Difference?

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

At some point in your foster care journey you'll encounter a child you'll have troubling connecting with. You'll feel like you're missing something. What can you do?

Frustrated parent

While my wife and I were living in Oklahoma as foster parents at a family style group home, we encountered several children living with us that had some pretty difficult behaviors. I found myself getting frustrated and felt unsure of what I needed to do to help with the behaviors we were experiencing. I started looking for some answers and I came across an idea: kids will trust your rules before they will ever trust you. At first, that idea kind of shocked me and I thought it would never work. I mean love changes everything, right? But I decided to give it a try anyways and see what would happen. What I learned is that it was 100% true.

Let me explain what I mean with a little story about a teenager named Chelsea who was placed in our home. Like we did with every child, on Chelsea's very first day we took time and explained the rules of our house, the importance of following those rules, and what would happen if they were not followed. It was clear from the start that Chelsea wanted to do things her own way and didn't want to follow any of the rules we had. Within the first three days Chelsea decided that she was going to be disrespectful and test my wife and I's patience. Her technique was to use cuss words when she talked to us. The first time she cussed at us, I gave her a reminder about the expectation of using respectful and kind words. The second cussing episode I gave her a warning and let her know that talking that way was still not acceptable, and that if she continued to talk that way she would be given a consequence. To my dismay, Chelsea decided to test what would happen and, with a smile on her face, started cussing at us again. I let Chelsea know that her consequence was to clean up debris in yard like twigs and pine cones because those items had to be picked up in order to mow. I also told her that she had to fill up one bag and that once she was done with her consequence she would be able to join everybody else in the fun activities we had planned for the day. So, Chelsea went outside and sat there and sat there and sat there instead of working on her consequence. I thought Chelsea's plan was to try and ruin everyone else’s fun for the day. I went outside and talked with her about her lack of progress in gathering the items. Chelsea told me that she didn’t have to listen to me or do what I asked. I told her that I completely agreed with her. Chelsea seemed surprised by my response. I then told her that I also don’t have to allow her to participate in all the fun things that we had planned for that day. Chelsea looked at me and said that I couldn’t leave her out because she couldn’t left alone at the house. I told her she was right again, she couldn't be left there by herself and that my wife was staying home with her. I took all the other kids and we went to do the fun activities we had planned and didn’t let Chelsea's decision impact everyone else. The next morning, as we all ate breakfast, Chelsea heard all the fun things the other kids got to do and what she missed out on. As soon as breakfast was over I asked Chelsea to head back outside and complete her consequence of picking up one bag of yard debris. I made sure I mentioned to her all the fun things we had planned for this day and that if she wanted to join us, she had to complete her consequence. I could tell Chelsea was thinking. I assumed it was about the fun things she had missed the previous day, because she turned around, went outside, and completed her consequence in no more than 20 minutes. After she finished the chore we talked about the situation and she said, “I don’t know why I just didn’t do it in the first place.”

During this whole situation with Chelsea I had a choice. I could have said, "It’s not worth the fight", and given up the battle and just moved on, or I could have stayed focused on what I wanted to accomplish and built trust.

What is trust?

Most dictionaries define trust as relying on the character, ability and strength of someone or something. In other words, it’s your ability to have confidence in someone. The ability to trust develops during infancy. It’s when the child’s caregiver consistently meets the child’s need for food, comfort, touch and affection over and over again. The child learns they can rely on their caregiver. Think of the attachment cycle.

Attachment cycle

For me, this attachment cycle was super easy to relate to when I would think about a baby. When they're hungry, they cry. You feed them and they are content. That's easy to understand when they're a baby, but when I thought about this concept for child that was 10 or even 17 years old, it was a much harder concept to grasp. Teens also have those same types of needs. They just present them in different ways and sometimes even present them in an abnormal way because of how they learned to meet their own needs. In fact, teens need that repetition of meeting needs and consistancy, as much as babies, to develop the trust with their caregivers.

Trust is paramount for a baby, toddler, or teen's development. Trust allows a child to feel safe and secure. Trust allows a child to gain confidence and explore the world around them. Trust is even a foundation for their ability to develop healthy relationships throughout their life.

What does trust have to do with rules?

For children who’ve experience trauma, especially complex trauma, trust can be so difficult. If you think back to how trust develops, that process is often times disrupted somewhere along the way. Those who are supposed to provide for them don’t. Those who are supposed to protect and love them don’t. Those who should care for them let them down time and time again. So often they feel they can't trust anyone, especially adults.

When a child, who has a hard time trusting, moves into your home it takes much more than just loving them to form trust. As a caregiver, I think it’s easy to make trade offs hoping you can develop a connection with your child. We feel that making a connection is so important that we walk on egg shells to prevent making them mad, or we give in and allow them to break the rules. The connection we're seeking always seems just out of our grasp. That is where rules can be a bridge to develop trust. For a child who has experienced the inconsistency of adults and learned that adults can't be trusted, rules really do make a difference. Rules are arbitrary and they cannot let you down or lie to you like a person. They are what they are, rules! Your child will learn to trust the rules before they learn to trust you and your ability to follow the rules allows them to see you're a person who is consistent and trustworthy.

How can I build trust?

As you begin this trust building journey it is incredibly important that you cloth yourself in compassion and patience. While you're setting the rules and consistently enforcing them, it must be done with compassion and patience. Don't just look and things through your eyes, but the eyes of the child. Remember that trauma impacts how they respond. Never forget the end goal of your rules and behavior in inforcing them is to form trust and connection with your child.

Here are the two keys I found helpful when beginning to build trust.

  1. Make expectations clear - Your rules should be easy to understand. Only have rules that are necessary. Stay away from having long lists of rules or ones that are hard to enforce. Also make sure the rule matches the child’s developmental level, not just their chronological age. Talk to the children in your home about the rules as early on as possible so they have a chance to start to learning and understanding them. Make sure and post them somewhere visible so they can be readily seen and referred to when needed. If you have kids who can’t read yet, but are still able to understand and follow rules, draw pictures to help them learn and understand them.

  2. Be consistent- Consistency is simply doing something in the same way over and over again. If you give a rule then you have to enforce the rule so your kids know what to expect. If there is a rule that is broken you have to enforce the consequence each and every time. This is so hard. Sometimes it requires caregivers to sacrifice things they want to do to enable them to enforce a consequence. Sometimes this means you have to change your schedule or leave someone behind. Sometimes it makes you feel like you’re such a mean person. This was one area my wife and I had to learn to adapt to the most. She wanted them to be a part of what we were doing. She would ask if what they did was that big of a deal and if we really need to make them miss a fun activity. I would tell her that we have to be consistent every single time. Our kids have to learn how to trust that we mean what we say. Even saying that out load sounds and feels really mean, doesn’t it? The reality is that rules can be a bridge to develop trust. Kids will trust your rules before they will trust you. So instead of skipping on the consequence, add into more quality connection time into your schedule to counter act the consequences you gave.

This method will not be a quick fix for anything. This takes time. You will think you are finally starting to build trust, then something will happen, and you’re all of a sudden back at the start again. They will eventually see the person behind the rules and you’ll start to genuinely connecting with them.

When does trust begin to form?

There's not really a list of specific things you'll see when your child has started trusting you. It might just be that your child begins to open up and show you who they really are. They may start to reveal things about themselves that they normally want to protect. If they aren't able to trust you, they wouldn't have an interest in letting you see inside these areas of their lives that they normally keep hidden. Sometimes a child will share things about themselves that may shock you just to test your response, or they may act out to see if you'll reject them. Even on a more basic level, your child may just begin to show affection when they were unable to before. They may also start to genuinely ask for help with tasks, or emotions and hurts that they're dealing with. As you walk through this journey with each child you care for you'll gain an understanding into their lives and you'll learn how to recognize when each child begins to show that trust with you.

Don’t forget, now that they've begin to trust you, you have a great responsibility to keep building that trust. Continue striving toward being engaged and consistent. It will matter in the small things. The day to day things. Even when the child acts like they don’t want anything to do with you, you still keep building trust. When there are times of boundary testing, stay consistent. When they enter into different developmental milestones (potty training, starting school, puberty, etc.) that bring new challenges, stayed engaged. The trust they're forming with you will carry with them through life in their future relationships and will help them on their journey to healing.

A Final Thought

Ideas like this are not “one sizes fits all.” I also understand that my experience will not be your experience. What might work with one child will be completely useless with another. Each child is wonderfully made and has unique characteristics that make them who they are. As a caregiver we have to have more than just one tool in our tool box to help guide our children through many difficult situations and there are many different techniques you can use with the children you care for. My encouragement to you is to build your toolbox.

Leave a comment and share your experience if you've had trouble connecting with a child and what you did to make a difference.

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