Trust is based on an expected set of behaviors or causes and effects. It is an expected set of results proven through life’s little tests. For example, if an infant knows it will be left alone and not be fed, it will come to trust and rely on exactly that behavior. It will never expect to be fed. If a child is sexually abused, it will come to trust that this behavior from the adult is normal, it will come to trust that every night when he or she goes to sleep, someone will enter his or her safety zone. That child will come to believe that every adult will do the same. It is an expected behavior.
Abusive parents “succeed” at conditioning children to expect abuse during certain situations, and to expect reward in others. These sick cycles which create a disturbing dependence on the abuser is instilled within the very being of any abused child, put in foster care or not. The fear is unexpected behavior. Will the parent lock the child away if it is too loud, or will the parent look the other way? Trust is a never-ending carnival ride for abused, neglected, abandoned children, many who end up in foster care.
Although my past experiences which led me to be placed in foster care so many years ago are far behind me, trust and fear do intrude on my adult life from time to time. This is an important concept to grasp if you work with children or adults with this kind of past. Will someone who says they will stay, go? Will someone walking behind me walk past, or will he or she hurt me? If I go to sleep early, will I leave myself more vulnerable to poor dreams or a knock at the window? While in the daylight these fears seem irrational, when they happen I can feel a physical illness. I’ve learned over the years to cope with those fears. I channeled it in different ways. However, it is a repeated cycle of fear interrupting my life, it is a post traumatic reaction. And to some foster children it can be debilitating.
While every first time mother worries about illness, or interpreting cries, the worries are far different for someone whose past involves any kind of abuse and abandonment when he or she becomes a parent. I would sit up all night imagining the worst after my beautiful mini me came into the world.
I would recreate scenes in my mind of someone trying to hurt me or my new beautiful child. I worried myself sometimes to the point of sickness. I would sit up all night watching television shows about people hurting children. I would keep her close to me all night, and truly imagine myself as some type of superhero ready to pounce on anything that could mar this perfect being.
I lived in a safe home, but in my mind, this new and strange love I felt for my daughter could be easily lost or hurt. It took me a long time before I could let go of those irrational fears. As she grew close to the age I was when I was taken from my abusive past, I found myself even more consumed with fear.
Still to this day, if triggered by a personal loss, an academic tribulation, a news story, I can sit for a long time wallowing in the imaginings of being hurt or of my daughter being hurt. It is a very scary and very real event when that happens. I realize now as an adult, that I never really felt an unconditional love or familial link truly until my daughter was born. Knowing first hand that an innocent young girl with big eyes can be easily damaged, I preoccupied myself for hours upon hours with horrible imaginings.
By imagining every scenario, by sometimes reliving in my mind my own past, I was able to go through emotions I had hidden before, I gained some type of control. Once daylight would come and I would see mini-me happy and healthy and safe, I felt healed in many ways.
Understanding this concept of trust as a set of expected behaviors truly put things in perspective for me. My daughter trusts and expects me to be there for her. We have our rituals at night, we have our routine, she trusts that when her knee is skinned, I am there. She trusts my response to her to be loving. Through life’s tests, she knows my reaction to her. She knows my discipline is safe, secure, loving and aimed at her best interest. She has never feared me, instead she has a healthy attachment to my approval ( though as she gets older I can see she questions me more:) ).
Of primal importance in a child’s life is the development of trust. When friends who work with foster children talk about the impacts of child abuse, neglect, abandonment, they usually discuss its impact on academics, emotional well-being, relationships or socialization. They then discuss how well this child conforms to regular adulthood. Sometimes the missing link I read and see is a rebuilding of trust as a set of reactions in the foster child.
If trust is indeed an expected behavior or outcome, then it is important for social workers, teachers, mentors, church leaders, foster parents to be consistent. Foster children who have lost this sense of trust need to know that they will be lovingly disciplined and loved consistently. They need to be safely motivated to love others and trust themselves. They need to re-learn what healthy attachments involve.
Understand that rebuilding that cause-and effect, is imperative to determining what that foster child will expect in adult relationships. If a child knows it will be beaten when he or she is too loud, he or she will grow up thinking that unhealthy reactions from those they love is normal. When foster children are shuffled from family to family, they have to use their former mindset, as a new idea of what behavior to expect from new caregivers. Nothing is consistent. Just as with adult relationships, prove yourself to be consistent, show someone who you will still be there when the sun is shining or when the rain falls, and trust will build.
The same is true for an abused child or foster child. They need one set of healthy reactions/causes and effects so they can go into the adult world seeking healthy people to connect to and grow to love something. Be the one set of expected results they can safely rely on and they will stand a chance.
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