Building Trust Starts at Birth
Remember when your parents caught you doing something wrong as a young child? Maybe you got caught with your hand in the cookie jar or hiding a scribble you made on the wall. How did you feel? Ashamed? Angry? Scared? Defiant? Sad? For parents of young children, building trust and setting patterns of understanding and communicating about feelings at an early age can create a more trusting relationship that can weather the often dramatic moments when they reach their teen years.
If parents and teachers of pre-schoolers can learn emotional intelligence practices early on, then trust can be a foundation for all interactions. Joan Sarin is a social psychologist who teaches these skills to parents privately and in the school system. A veteran EQ practitioner certified as a Six Seconds facilitator, Joan Sarin has taught emotional intelligence and character development to preschool through university students for the past 10 years. Joan is on the faculty of The Summer Institute for Educators at the Greater Good Science Center (their online magazine has an excellent section on Parenting and Family)
Joan says, “A lot of my work is related to self-compassion and the parent’s own growth. I focus on Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and take parents through an SEL course. With this approach, the parent is doing his or her own work. While they are learning the principles of social and emotional development, I help them to implement the same principles with their children. EQ has to be internalized for the parent. As they interact with the child then, the parent is learning on a deep level.”
Six Seconds interviewed Joan about ways parents and teachers can build trust from day one.
How important is it for parents to make trust a central part of parenting?
I see trust as based in safety. A healthy attachment is necessary for a healthy upbringing. It’s the basis for well-being. In fact, it’s the basis for well-being. With safety comes trust. Early childhood is a sensitive period for attachment formation.
How does emotional intelligence (EQ) figure into this? What are some of the cornerstones for parents to help foster trust and safety?
I am thinking of emotional safety here. One cornerstone would be that the child can count on the parent having a positive intent. Another key is that the child believes that their feelings will be heard, seen, validated and understood rather than discounted or invalidated. That’s one of the important aspects of trust.
Trust is connected to consistency. How does that relate to parental trust?
Consistency is really important in the whole discipline arena. The parent must be dependable. Obviously, the parent has emotions too; but overall, the child needs to be able to count on a consistent way of being dealt with. Consistency in concern, consistency in structure, and consistency in limits given – all are important.
There are parents who yell, or lose their temper and hit their children. After one of these incidents, how can the parent rebuild trust?
A parent would have to apologize – to calm down first, and then apologize authentically. It’s okay to say you blew it, and you’re sorry. And then you need to prove it by your actions. If you say you’re sorry, but your behavior doesn’t change, then you’re not building trust. That’s why it’s important for the parents to do their own emotional work.
In the big picture, that’s what parenting is really about. These children of ours know just what our triggers are. And we get exactly what we need from them to help us grow. It really helps if the parents recognize what’s going on in themselves and get a handle on their own behaviors and feelings, through their own social-emotional learning.
How does letting children experience failure build trust?
It’s so interesting; I grew up in the fifties. We went out to play and mostly, we came in for dinner. That was a typical experience for children of my generation. Now, parents feel like they have to arrange play dates and schedule everything the child does.
I started my educational training in the Montessori system, which focuses on training the child in autonomy. This is a tremendous factor in the development of trust. One of the things that fascinated me about the Montessori preschool I trained in: even with the three year-olds, they don’t help them with many tasks. First the children are taught carefully, step by step, how to do tasks. After being trained (as one example), they bring in their lunch and put it in the refrigerator.
They take their own lunch out of the fridge, put their little space out with a napkin, open up the containers, eat, put it all away, and clean it up their area on the table. They don’t help kids put their coats on; they show them an ingenious way to put it on for themselves. All those things we think a little bitty three-year old needs help with. By the time they’re eighth graders they are able to manage their own lives. It’s a philosophy of intrinsic motivation that really works.
As parents we have to start letting go and start letting go way earlier. We need to break down tasks carefully for them, and train them step by step. Then trust that they are capable. Another factor is to trust that it’s O.K. to fall and make mistakes, to struggle, to fail, those things are good. There’s not a sense of the child being bad or failing when they make mistakes – the child is in the learning process, and mistakes are normal and part of the learning curve.
It has something to do with the world seeming more complex and dangerous. As parents we have to start letting go and start letting go way earlier. There is trust of the child that it’s O.K. to fall and make mistakes, to struggle, to fail, those things are good.
A good metaphor is the story of the butterfly struggling mightily to get out of its cocoon. A person wanted to make it easier for the butterfly to get out, so they slit the cocoon, then the butterfly hadn’t built enough strength in its wings – and it died.
We need to be okay with letting our youth struggle to become strong adults. Life will give them struggles, and we want them to build their strength. We can guide them, but we must honor their struggle.
Teens: Consequential Thinking Can Be Taught
How can you keep trust even though communication is more difficult during that time?
It’s the developmental task of teens to differentiate themselves from their parents. It has to be done. This is both difficult and painful for parents to get used to. We’re so tied up in our role as guide, and disciplinarian, parent, etc. The parent’s job is to allow the child to become independent and to encourage that independence gradually through their developmental years. Ideally, that process needs to start by the age of three, as we’ve seen above. Today we’re way too protective, so a harsher break needs to happen for the developmental stage to be successful.
Research suggests that if you watch too much cable news you will believe the world is a more dangerous place than it is. That can lead you to overly restrict your teen’s behavior.
If you have properly allowed your child to develop more and more responsibility and independence, then the job of the parent is to let go. You have to trust them to do that. I love teaching this to teens. The parent’s interest is in keeping the child safe. The child’s interest is in becoming independent. The parent’s trust is built by the child showing they are making good choices and by giving respect and caring back to the parent. Then the parent gives back more trust and a positive cycle of trust is built at that stage.
Listening more might be helpful.
The more active listening you’ve done all along, the more the teen trusts the parent to listen to them and their feelings. What comes to mind are all of the mistakes I’ve made – and we all make mistakes. I came to this work as my children were entering adolescence. I was raised in a more authoritarian home, and it was a gradual process to change my pattern. My adult son who now teaches school has been honest with me. He says if I’d just listened to him more to understand, it would have helped him through some difficult problems. You can’t substitute listening carefully for anything. That’s where quality time is most critical.
Let’s shift to role of schools…That’s the third partner in this trust building environment. How can schools work with parents in partnership?
Unfortunately, schools are so focused on extrinsic motivation, the whole basis of giving rewards, that the message is, “We don’t trust you to do what’s right unless we give you a reward.” I love that Six Seconds has intrinsic motivation as one of the core competencies. It needs more attention.
How can schools help parents? In many ways, parents are leading the way for schools. The more schools get SEL and start to embed it in the DNA of their cultures, and embed those competencies that Six Seconds has, in their schools, and work with parents to do the work themselves, the better off everyone will be. That way you have the same language and it becomes normalized in their lives.
For more on parenting and emotional intelligence, see our parenting page.
Also, check out these parenting podcasts on Raising Humans: