Trust. It’s a simple five letter word. It’s meaning is clear and employed the world over. There is no grey when it comes to trust. It’s as black and white as words come.
Then why is it such a tough word for children impacted by developmental trauma to comprehend?
All relationships begin with trust. Think about your first. As a tiny helpless being, you were reliant on an adult person to meet your needs. Instinctively this person (most likely your mother) anticipated your needs and you let her. During this ‘serve-and-return’ process, trust was 100% in play. And at what cost to you? Absolutely nothing. It was given freely. And you received it freely, knowing instinctively that you were protected and safe.
This first relationship provides us with the blueprint for all future connections. Some may be tortuous, while others will be effortless. But trust is always at the core. Lose that and it is game over. When trust ends, so does the relationship. And, its likely all future relationships with be tainted.
“Trust is like paper. When it’s crumbled, it can never be perfect again.”
So just for a moment, imagine [in the context of trauma] where children haven’t experienced serve-and-return exchanges or secure attachment? The world would look different – unpredictable and dangerous. Which is why we need to think about our child’s life experiences and understand the kaleidoscope that they look through.
Author, Peter Benson, said relationships are the very oxygen of human development. What air did our children breathe in? What did they exhale? Many of us are fortunate to have grown up breathing air that was pure. But this is not the case for our children, who were ‘marinated’ in toxic stress before birth and exposed to ‘shark-infested waters’ in the succeeding years. It is better to be feared, than being fearful. It is better to attack, than be attacked.
Accordingly, when a caregiver offers connection, this is the scariest thing of all. Why? Because the cost is unqualified. Because vulnerability equals annihilation.
Bessel van de Kolk tells us that the parent-child relationship is the most powerful mental health intervention known to human kind. Child Psychologist, Karen Treisman, takes this notion a step further stating that a trust-based connection reverberates through all our other relationships: with our body, our mind, our behaviour, and society.
Treisman says our children need to know relationships are worth investing in. Children impacted by early trauma need to be held in safe hands, thinking minds (reflective not reactive), and regulating bodies (containing, calm and present). Without this, everything else exists on fragile ground.
Think for a moment: If a flower doesn’t bloom, you change the environment where it grows. Our children need environments where they can thrive, not survive. Where they can have secure bases. Safe havens.
So how do we do this? By building trust and connection.
When the pain of old hurts gets triggered, caregivers need to respond by being the safe place: that means no longer rolling the eye balls and saying, “Here we go again,” but rather, “You are not alone in this.” This shift allows us to move out of a defensive stance and into a comforting stance of “I’m so sorry this is hard for you right now. What can I do to help?” Diane Poole Heller suggests watching and subtly mirroring body language. In situations of high emotion, she says nonverbals can often help more than words.
Triggering moments, when handled with care, become the foundation of rebuilding trust. They are not moments to be feared and avoided, but rather moments to be valued for the closeness they can bring. The relationship not only becomes a safe place to find relief but also a protection against the stress that trauma can bring.
And in case you’re wondering, the word trust is used in the sense of ‘confidence’ and ‘reliance’. The dictionary defines it as:
- to believe that someone is good and honest and will not harm you, or that something is safe and reliable.
- to have confidence in something, or to believe in someone.
- to hope and expect that something is true.
(c) Fel Stewart, 2019