The Cornerstone of Relationships is Trust

Michael J. Marlowe


Michael J. Marlowe is the Professor of Special Education at Appalachian State University, Boone, North Carolina 28607, USA



The Cornerstone of Relationships is Trust

Because of repeated encounters with dysfunctional adults in maladaptive environments children with emotional and behavioral disorders generally have serious problems with trust. As a consequence trust must be one of the first issues addressed as until children trust you to behave in a functional way, your effectiveness in using relationships as a medium of behavioral change is compromised. Adult-wary children need to experience functionality in action before they can begin to trust (Marlowe & Hayden, 2013).

As humans learn best thru modeling, one of your primary tasks as a child care worker is to model how a functional adult behaves, how a functional adult relates to others, how a functional adult handles negative situations. Many if not most of these children have not seen this before. This shows the child what to expect from a healthy relationship and eventually how to take part in a relationship in a healthy and appropriate way herself. It also gives the child a firsthand experience of what it feels like to have a functional adult care about her.

Some of the factors that differentiate a functional adult from a dysfunctional adult are these things: A functional adult behaves consistently and predictably. A functional adult knows boundaries and how to set them in a way that is fair and appropriate. A functional adult is fair, honest, and moral. A functional adult knows his strengths and weaknesses. A functional adult has realistic expectations. A functional adult knows how to deal safely and effectively with her feelings. A functional adult takes responsibility for his own actions. A functional adult knows how to be fair, firm, and friendly all at the same time. A functional adult will take care of the child and not let her get into dangerous situations. A functional adult will help the child grow into the best person the child can be.

Trust is a tricky thing because it is not something that happens on demand. It is not something you can buy. It is not something you can engineer. The most outstanding thing about trust is that it is earned. You earn it by consistence. The reason we stop trusting people is because they behave inconsistently. We trusted them to behave a certain way, and they let us down. So if you want to earn trust be reliable and consistent. Once children feel safe in predicting your behavior, they will begin to trust.

Approach the aspect of trust as a teaching prospect not as an obedience exercise. You can’t teach children to trust. You can teach them awareness in what they are looking for in trust. How you identify someone you can trust. How you recognize the components of a trustworthy person. You can teach these children how to form these kinds of relationships themselves and the components of trust, being respectful, being consistent.

To engender trust respond positively to the child in a way that regards him/her as a person. Smile. Greet the child when you see him or her. Practice all the ordinary courtesies. Also, acknowledging efforts from the child to forge a bond, by saying things like, “Thank you for letting me know that. It’s hard to talk about things like that, but it helps me understand why. I want to know what is happening in your life.”

Articulate worries you perceive the child having. Many children with behavioral disorders are not sophisticated with words. They have feelings that they don’t have a way of articulating. You are the functional adult. If you can sense what is going on, don’t assume, suggest what they may be feeling. Say, “By the way you are sitting, I sense you feel bad about that. Can I help?” or “You don’t look very happy today.”

Articulate what you can be trusted not to do. Many children from dysfunctional backgrounds have issues with adults regarding punishment, sexuality, and abandonment. Be very honest and mention parameters. Say such things as “I am a safe adult, and I do not hit children when I am angry.”or “I can be trusted not to have sex with you if you are eight.”

Another way to help a child understand trust is to show your own human side. Showing your human side engenders bonding. We bond best with people we understand and that we perceive understand us. So acknowledge your feelings in a situation. This helps the other person identify with you. Talk through how you are handling your feelings if it is appropriate.Acknowledge your physical state, particularly tiredness or stress. By acknowledging it you make it aware why people act differently in these states, but you also model how you handle it. You don’t handle it by freaking out and throwing a chair across the room. You handle it by saying,“You know I really can’t deal with this right now. Would you give me some space?” These sorts of ways help the child bond with you and help the child trust you because they can see more transparently why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Talk about your experiences as a child of the same age. Most children cannot conceptualize adults as having been children. This allows the child to see that you have really been there and are capable of empathizing with them. Talk about times you’ve done similar things. It is often deeply reassuring to children to know adults once behaved just like them and managed to go on and become good, respected, or successful people.

Reveal information about yourself. Sharing information about each other creates a bonding effect. It makes you feel closer to the person. Share pictures of your pets, places you have traveled, and so forth. This engenders trust, creating bonding behavior, and is a very easy thing to do. When sharing personal information, keep boundaries. For example, do not tell the child about your divorce. Also, share ordinary events in their lives with the children occasionally. Join them for lunch or playing playground games, for example.

Another thing to discuss in regards to trust is discipline. You must discipline the child with fairness, honesty, and compassion. This is the point where your trust will be most tested, those times when you have to stop something from happening or when you have to deal with a meltdown. To prove you are a functional and trustworthy adult you must be as fair, honest, and compassionate in these circumstances as you can manage. This means to be willing to hear both side of any argument no matter what you may already know, being open to the fact there is always more than one way to interpret a situation, and to avoid actions that demean, belittle, or humiliate wrongdoers.

In order to keep trust it is crucial to stay present when disciplining. Don’t bring up old misbehaviors or make character judgments. If you need to link a misbehavior to a chain of misbehaviors do so in a matter of fact way rather than an accusatory, demeaning manner. Try to put yourself in the child’s shoes and understand how the situation looked to her. This helps you to remain less judgmental and helps you understand the genesis of the behavior, whether it was an act of malice, a misunderstanding, a slip-up, or sheer ignorance, as each of these requires a different response.

As a child care worker you are in a position of power, and thus it is remarkably easy for children to take discipline very personally. Reassuring a child in the aftermath of discipline, especially over big events, is important. Acknowledge openly that you still genuinely like the child, that you are glad the child is in your care, and that you understand how the event happened. Reassure the child that you know she will eventually learn to control the behavior and if at all possible (while still being honest) say that while this was a slipup, overall you think the child is doing better.

And finally, the most important action in establishing trust is this: listen. To have a strong relationship with anyone you must listen. Listen listen, listen. Listen to the children when they talk to you. Stay right there in the moment and pay attention. Hear what they are saying as opposed to what you think or want them to be saying. The moment that you manage to communicate in whatever manner you find best, be it your attitude, your posture, your eye contact, your tone of voice, or your words that you are fully present and genuinely listening to them, they will begin to trust you.


Marlowe, M.J. & Hayden, T. (2013). Teaching children who are hard to reach:

Relationship-driven classroom practice. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.


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